Have you been wearing your mom’s USC sweatshirt since you were a little girl? Been cheering “Roll Tide!” and dreaming of studying in the SEC for years? Or always imagined yourself rubbing shoulders with the other Ivy Leaguers at Dartmouth or Yale? Many of us grow up with our sights set on attending a particular “dream” school. And when the day draws closer, it comes time to turn those hopes into practical strategies for receiving that coveted letter of acceptance. To help you, here are 12 tips for how to get into your dream college.
It’s no secret that good grades and high test scores are of utmost importance when trying to win over college admissions committees. To help with this, take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in your strongest subjects. The benefits of AP courses are far-reaching. They introduce you to college-level work, boost your GPA, and (at some schools) even count toward college credit. If there is a subject area that you struggle with, seek a tutor. Finally, find a local program or school that offers SAT and ACT courses designed to help you prepare for these tests.
Grades aren’t the only thing that colleges care about when considering your application, however. Schools want to know that you are a unique individual who is more than just her GPA or SAT score. When preparing your application, it is important that you paint a picture for the admissions committee of this authentic self. Remember that colleges want talented musicians for their marching bands, awe-inspiring athletes for their sports teams, and forward-thinking minds for their science labs. And they want to advertise to the rest of the world the many accolades of the students in whom they are investing. So, in your application, be sure to explain how you will benefit your dream school just as must as how your dream school will benefit you.
One of the best ways to show that you are a unique individual (and not just a number) is by getting involved in extracurricular activities. These can be any number of activities either inside or outside of school. Why do colleges care about extracurricular activities? Your involvement in extracurriculars demonstrates that, beyond your intelligence, you are curious, motivated, responsible, and well-rounded. Colleges also want students who will contribute to the life of the university beyond the classroom. And knowing about your extracurricular activities before college will help admissions committees envision how you will help contribute to the broader campus life during college—from joining clubs and helping plan events to starting new volunteer organizations. In all, by showcasing the activities that you have been involved with in the past, you prove to your dream college that you have walked the walk and are not just talking the talk.
When writing your college admissions essays, don’t just draft an “information dump” that lists out your many achievements. Rather, craft a narrative that hooks your reader and pulls them in to the story of your life. Ask yourself: Why am I a compelling character? What has been the most intriguing part of my life so far? And why is my dream school the best next step in my life story? This, ultimately, is what you are trying to convince your reader of in your admissions essays. The task will be far easier if you have practice reading, writing, and thinking about stories.
In an increasingly visual and digital age, we often find that formats outside of the written word better represent us. With this understanding in mind, many colleges have moved to accepting college essays in alternative formats to the traditional essay—such as video or audio documents. Sometimes these are accepted as supplemental application materials, while other times they are accepted in place of a written essay altogether. If it sounds like working within one of these mediums might be more your speed, check to see if your dream school accepts these forms of college essays. And then get to work! This kind of creativity can really help an application rise to the top of the stack.
Colleges want a student body that represents as much of the globe as possible. So, if your dream school is far from home, be sure to mention in your application how your unique cultural background and experiences can contribute to the richness and diversity of their institution. Colleges are also working to increase access to first-generation and low-income students. So, if you fit either of these categories, be sure to demonstrate your determination and grit by explaining your many achievements in spite of these challenges. Remember, too, the many scholarships that exist, including those for first-generation and low-income students. To get an idea of some of these opportunities, check out this directory from scholarships.com.
Another simple—yet effective—way to stand out from the crowd is to apply early to your dream school. According to a 2018 study by U.S. News and World Report, some U.S. colleges receive as many as 84,068 applications. With so many applications piling in every fall season, it’s smart to make an early impression. For more information on early application (which usually happens in early November), check out this post from the College Board.
Make connections with teachers and other mentors from different walks of your life, such as clubs and religious organizations. College applications often require letters of recommendation. You can ask adults with whom you’ve developed meaningful relationships over the years to speak to your best qualities in such letters. When asking for a letter of recommendation, it’s always best to ask your letter writers early so that they have plenty of time to complete their letters, to give them a copy of your resume as a reference, and to ask at least more than one individual than required as a backup in case someone doesn’t get their letter in on time.
Demonstrate genuine interest in your dream school by planning a campus visit, a campus tour, or even arranging an interview with someone from the admissions staff. While on campus, ask to be put in touch with current students and alumni to discuss their experiences. Make additional contacts with professors in your expected major. During these communications, share your knowledge of the school—a bit of its history, their sports teams and mascot, etc. This is your dream school after all, right?
See if your dream school offers any “bridge” programs that you might be interested in. These are programs that offer high school students the opportunity to study—and often to live—for a brief time on a college campus. They are a fun way to delve deeply into your favorite subjects alongside other students who care about the same things that you do, and they are often taught by top scholars in their respective fields. A few examples of such programs are The Writers Village program at Sarah Lawrence College (for creative writers) and the Research in Science & Engineering (RISE) program at Boston University. Having attended such a program at your dream school as a high school student will really show the admissions committee your interest and commitment to their institution.
Instead of setting your sights on just one “dream” school, shift your perspective so as to consider a trio or handful of “dream” schools. With so many wonderful schools out there, is any one of them truly perfect? While one college may be on the top of your list because of its stunning architecture and proximity to the city, another may be on the top of your list because of its top-tier study abroad program. The point is that every school has its unique strengths. And let’s face it: college admissions are competitive. So, if you open your mind to viewing a number of schools as “dream” schools, you might be less disappointed if you do happen to receive a rejection or two, and even more excited when those acceptances come in.
Speaking of the competitive nature of college admissions, it’s an important reminder to stay positive and believe in yourself throughout the application process. Eric Hoover of The New York Times reminds us of the many factors admissions committees must consider when weighing applications and urges us to not get overly upset if we do receive a rejection. He writes, “When colleges choose applicants, they’re juggling competing goals, like increasing diversity and bringing in more revenue. Admissions officers aren’t looking for students who fit just one description— say, those who’ve earned all A’s or won the most awards. So don’t take rejection personally.” Ultimately, since you can’t know all the factors that will go into your dream school’s decision to accept your application, it benefits you to stay calm, believe in yourself, and simply do your best.
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