Too often, students don’t strategize for college applications until their junior year of high school, when confronted with standardized tests. In this scathingly competitive admissions climate, however, it’s imperative that prospective undergraduates begin planning ahead of time.
With acceptance rates sinking each year, applying to a top-tier school can be daunting. Fortunately, there are ways to position yourself to maximize your chance of admission to the school of your dreams—if you start early.
Excel Academically with as Rigorous a Course Load as Possible
For an admissions officer, past academic performance is the primary indicator of future success in undergraduate. Applicants without sufficiently advanced coursework on their transcript, or unimpressive grades—a weighted GPA below 3.8 for top schools—will quickly be dismissed.
Schools want to see students excel academically at the highest level, but rigor is not a replacement for performance. A better grade in a less demanding class is better than a lower grade in a more demanding class. For instance, it’s better to show an “A” in a standard Physics class than a “C” in its accelerated counterpart. Optics are important, and while credit is due to the students who push themselves, the value of a transcript with wall-to-wall A’s should not be underestimated.
Genuinely Engage in Extracurricular Activities
Top-tier universities seek applicants who excel beyond the classroom, and who will contribute meaningfully to the university community. Just as the old adage recommends quality over quantity, the operative word here is excel. Superficial involvement in a range of extracurriculars—club involvement at the membership level, monthly community service initiatives, JV sports—is better than nothing, but intense and intentional commitment to a handful of activities is the best way for you to distinguish yourself.
You don’t have to start a non-profit or become an influencer, but you do need to show initiative. Whether it’s starting a food pantry at your school, completing a capstone project in a subject of interest, or writing articles for a local paper, schools want to see you use your time to foster personal growth and improve your community, however you want to define it. If you can’t think of anything original, or fear you’re short on outstanding talent, focus on getting involved.
So much of life is about showing up. If you find something you care about, reliably and substantially engage, and take on greater responsibility over time. Admissions officers will appreciate your efforts.
Cultivate Authentic Relationships with Teachers and Mentors
It’s crucial to establish real relationships with teachers, both because these relationships are intrinsically valuable, and because teachers are more willing and able to write outstanding letters of recommendation for students they know and care about.
Much like your engagement in extracurriculars, these relationships should be genuine in nature. Allow them to grow organically out of a shared interest in the teacher’s subject area, and in an organization or activity close to their heart that you could help them champion. Seek them out for extra help or ask them for guidance in other areas of life. If your interest in their advice is authentic, that’s a good sign.
The vast majority of teachers want to be a resource for their students, and work hard to help them reach their potential. As such, don’t be afraid to share with them your hopes and dreams for the future, and then be ready to follow through when they offer actionable suggestions. Cultivated relationships can last a lifetime—in the near term, they can be instrumental in offering your teacher the material and incentive they need to write a stellar recommendation, one that could be pivotal to admissions decisions.
Stand out with Outstanding Test Scores
With the recent hullabaloo around standardized testing, let’s be clear—test scores still matter.
Competition is fierce, and even though many colleges are now test-optional, the vast majority of applicants admitted to Ivy+ schools are submitting exceptional scores. Fortunately, these tests are beatable.
Intentional test prep starting sophomore year or earlier will help you to optimize your scores, hopefully crossing over that 1500 combined SAT (or 35 ACT equivalent) threshold preferred by top schools. Build your vocabulary and memorize formulas that you know how to use. Focus on practice problems and take timed practice tests in an environment that approximates that of the test facility itself.
As a final note of warning, if you’re applying to a test-optional institution, look at the score data for accepted students. If your score is significantly lower than the mean, reporting will likely hinder your chances of being admitted. Do your best, and then strategize accordingly.
Craft a Compelling Personal Statement
Your college essay, inclusive of your personal statement and any supplements required by a particular school, is your best opportunity to convince the admissions board to admit you. It is the time for you to compile all of the raw material in your application into a single narrative: the story of you.
The college essay is both introspective and aspirational, challenging candidates to take stock of all they have accomplished and to set goals for the future. When crafting these essays, aim for depth and not breadth. Consider major milestones or turning points in your life and examine them under the microscope. Take your observations and weave them into a narrative packed with visceral, revelatory detail.
Admissions officers have to read a lot of essays, most of which are uninspired or poorly written. If your essay achieves the opposite, it will be a breath of fresh air for decision makers. By taking the time to write essays that showcase your authentic self, you invite admissions officers to connect with you on a personal level, one that offers them insight into your character, aptitude, and resilience.
Ultimately, by starting the college process early and implementing the essential strategies we’ve reviewed here, you can indeed position yourself as a standout candidate for top-tier universities.
The author, Christopher Hathaway founded Advantage Ivy Tutoring (AIT) in 2019 after spending eight years working as an independent schoolteacher, administrator, admissions file reader, and alumni interviewer for Yale University.