7 Secrets to Getting into the College of Your Dreams
By Matt Musico
Is there a college you’ve been dreaming about attending? Are you feeling overwhelmed about giving yourself the best opportunity to get accepted by that college? These questions aren’t mutually exclusive, and you’re not alone. The following seven tips are intended to help you improve your chances of turning your dream into reality.
1. Control What’s in Your Control
“So, what’s most important to colleges for admissions?”
That, or some variation of the above question is what I’m asked most frequently by parents and students. My answer is always the same. In my previous work as an admissions counselor, every time I reviewed an application, the first thing I looked at was the transcript.
Why? Well, if an applicant wanted to be a student on our campus, the best way to get a handle on his or her academic prowess was to find out what kind of student he or she had been the past three-plus years of high school.
It can feel like there are lots of things out of your control in the admissions process. That’s why it’s important to control what you can: the classes you take, the grades you earn, and the test scores you get. Colleges will eventually have the final say on your admission status, but you’re in control of what they get to review in your file.
This includes planning, preparing, and doing your best on ACTs or SATs, always staying on top of your schoolwork, and finding ways to challenge yourself within your high school curriculum – all the way through senior year.
2. Show Genuine Interest
The Common Application has made it easier than ever to send an application to 10 different colleges in a relatively short period of time. To combat that, some colleges look at demonstrated interest, which is a fancy term that means they’ll determine how interested you really are in them, or if you’re just applying because you can.
There are many ways to demonstrate interest in a natural way, both before and after you apply. Some include reading emails they send you, visiting the admissions counselor at a college fair or when they visit your high school, visiting campus (in-person or virtually), doing an admissions interview (if it’s offered), and following a college on social media.
However, there are two easy ways to demonstrate interest that haven’t been mentioned yet, and they go together: putting a lot of thought into your application and submitting it early.
3. Apply Early and Put Your Best Foot Forward
Completing your application isn’t just something that needs to get crossed off your to-do list – every bit of it is important to admissions counselors in making decisions, so treat it that way.
Some colleges offer Early Decision or Early Action (which are very different), forcing you to get things done earlier because the deadlines are in November and December. But even if a college you’re applying to only offers Regular Decision with a deadline in January or February, don’t wait until the day before the deadline to submit it.
Every July, I tell my students that the goal is to submit applications 3-4 weeks before the deadline. It shows a college you’re organized and serious about them because you’re prioritizing an application to their school. It also allows time for your school counselor and teachers to send transcripts and letters of recommendation before the deadline.
Even with that goal, it’s better to do it right than to do it rushed. Don’t submit anything until you’re completely satisfied and proud of it. To get a head start and eventually apply early, do a lot of application work (including your college essay) during the summer before senior year. It may help relieve some stress if you walk into the first day of school with a finished college essay in your back pocket.
4. Listen To What You Really Want
It’s easy to get caught up in social comparisons, and the college admissions process is part of that. Your dream college may not be well known or have the most Instagram followers. There are many people invested in your college selection experience: counselors, parents, grandparents, guardians, friends, and significant others. It’s important to consider the different perspectives of people who are helping you along your college path. However, listening too much to others’ opinions could lead to the trap of following someone else’s dream, not yours.
There are too many students out there who define a “good” or “dream” school on someone else’s terms. You’re the one that will be spending at least four years of your life on the campus you choose, so it’s important that you’re happy and excited about the decision.
5. Make a General Decision About Majors
I recently talked about how choosing a major (or majors) that you’re interested can help you find your best-fit college. But after talking about different paths and doing a lot of research, many students still have no idea.
And as I’ve said before, that’s OK! Even for those who think they know what they want, it’s impossible to be sure of what you’d like to do for the next 20-40 years of your life. There’s nothing wrong with going into freshman year of college completely undecided.
There’s one question that can help even the most undecided of students narrow down projected majors a little bit, though, and it’s “Are you a science person or a non-science person?” Those are two very distinct tracks to take in college, regardless of what the specific major ends up being. Deciding whether you’d like to pursue a STEM-related career or not can be a huge help in narrowing down your college list.
6. Have More Than One Dream (School)
I’ve heard the term “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” for most of my lifetime. That advice fits perfectly here. It’s human nature to have one place you gravitate to more than others. Unfortunately, this gets dangerous when your dream school ends up being the only one you like on your final college list.
When I’m helping my students build a list, our goal is to have a bunch of colleges they’re excited about. Whether it’s the top school on your list or the last safety, ask yourself, “If this was the only school I got accepted to, would I be happy and excited to attend?”
If the answer isn’t yes, do more research. Your list should be balanced from a selectivity standpoint and have lots of colleges you love.
7. Don’t Be a Joiner
It’s common to get into a “cover-letter mentality” when filling out the Activities section on the Common Application. Is this the place to highlight all the wonderful things you’ve done outside the classroom? Yes, but you need to be doing these things because you want to – not because it’ll look good on your application.
That’s what a “joiner” is. There isn’t a legitimate reason for doing a particular activity because they only did it to check off a box in their minds. It’s so important to remember that the quality of the commitment is more important than the quantity of the activities.
You’ll have to give an estimate on how many hours per week and how many weeks per year you’re involved in a particular activity. So, someone who spends every waking moment on the tennis court may be just as impressive to a college as someone who is invested in six, seven, or eight activities.
Students have different amounts of time outside of the classroom to get involved, depending on their personal and other non-academic interests. How you decide to divvy up that time is important. Make sure you’re doing things you enjoy. It’ll be easier and more fun to talk to admissions counselors about it, and you’ll be presenting your most authentic self in your application.
These aren’t actually “secrets” after all. They’re reminders for what you should be thinking about and prioritizing as a high school upperclassman. Use these tips as a roadmap to help make the college application experience as enjoyable as it can be.
Matt Musico, a current college counselor at Collegewise, is a freelance writer for CollegeData. He has worked in higher education for the better part of a decade. Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half has involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to CollegeData, 1st Financial Bank USA or any other person or entity. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this article are hereby expressly disclaimed.