If you are a high school student who would like to apply to some of the country’s top colleges, there are some extra things that you will need to do to stand out from the pack.
There are roughly 4,000 colleges in the US, and there is certainly a “right” place for every type of student. While counselors will always encourage you to expand your search beyond names you may already know, if you are looking at colleges with famous names then there are some things that you should know. If you don’t have a nice “hook” (like legacy, athlete, donor, non-Asian minority status, parents on faculty, Trustee relative, ability to pay full tuition, etc) then you’ll likely have to work twice as hard to get your foot in the door.
Your numbers will need to look something like this: SAT scores at 750+ across the board or a 32+ on the ACT, 3 subject tests at 750+, as many AP tests as possible with 5’s, and a GPA of at least a 3.8. And you should be aware that these numbers are not amazing: in this game, they are the baseline. All of your competition will have them, so as proud as you and your parents have every right to be about these fantastic numbers, you must all know that the game is not won here, but is instead only beginning.
Without a hook, and with these baseline scores, your task now becomes to stand out from all of those amazing test takers. Here’s where it gets fun, and I hope you’re reading this as a freshman or sophomore, because some of these things take years to do. Schools are looking for academic people who will go out into the world and do good for humanity. This can mean that you help others or that you further our collective knowledge in academia as an alum of that college.
Participate in class: The importance of doing this and doing it well cannot be overstated. Top colleges want intellectually curious kids, curious thinkers who love a discussion or a dilemma. So, if a top college is your aim then you should be trying to participate in class nearly every day, but *not too much* and never hog the air time. No one likes an air hog, kids or teachers. Don’t talk to hear your own voice; contribute meaningfully and try to take the discussion to another level. Stay on topic and encourage others to participate, too. Participating in class needs to be something you do from freshman year on so that it is part of who you are. This will increase your learning and come across when faculty discuss you.
Be a leader: Top colleges are in the business of turning out world leaders, movers and shakers who are going to solve the earth’s big problems and help us all. I have come to believe, though it makes me a bit sad, that quiet and timid people, no matter how brilliant they are, typically have a tough time conveying in an interview or through a rec letter that they will one day go on to bring fame to their alma mater. Try to lead in some way during high school. For top schools, meaningful leadership is a given.
Read on your own: Preferably a lot, and while you can read across genres, you would probably want to have an area that you most loved, so that you sort of stood out in that area. Create a reading plan for yourself across the four years of high school, and be sure to read on all school breaks. If you really want to get serious, have an adult who works or teaches in the subject help you create a reading list. The majority of these will need to be books not read in your high school.
Have a clear passion: When you love something, it really shows. Your passion for it lights up a room when you talk about it, and you have that real enthusiasm and knowledge that no one can fake. It’s contagious! Academics gravitate toward other academics, and colleges are in the business of recruiting future faculty and authors, so if you have a passion, you are ahead in the game.
Be a person of impeccable character: This means that you are honest, to the core. You never lie, cheat, or steal, and, as much as possible, you refrain from gossip. You would never bully and if you saw someone else bullying, you would certainly stand up to them. You would never get a disciplinary infraction. You work hard, and you always do your own work, and only your own work. You don’t allow kids to cheat off of you, and you are the person the teacher tells the sub to ask when she has questions. Stand your ground and be proud to have excellent character. Kids might tease you at first, but everyone respects the kid who stands for something. Teachers and counselors will notice and colleges will, too.
Use your summers wisely: Attend camps and workshops and programs that boost your knowledge in some areas you’d like to explore. Internships are great and part-time jobs, too. If you work, just make sure you are learning on your own, usually by reading. Get that library card!
Next week keep an eye out for How To Get Into Top Universities: Part 2, which will go into further detail (yes, it’s possible) about what you can do if a top name college is your goal.