It’s a good idea to start thinking about the college application process as early as your freshman year of high school. Good grades and strong test scores are obviously important, but if you’ve got your eye on a selective school, you’ll want to do everything you can to help your application stand out. Wherever you are in your high school journey, there are steps you can take to ace those apps—and hopefully get into your dream school. Here’s your year-by-year guide.
How to get into college
1. Freshman and sophomore year admission tips
It might seem early to be thinking about college, but there are things you can do as early as your first year of high school to start paving the way.
- Choose extracurriculars: Schools are looking for well-rounded students, not just high test scores. Explore your interests by joining sports teams and student clubs, or taking art or music classes. If you can combine at least two categories—say, joining the swim team and playing in the school orchestra—it can show a range of talents and passions.
- Get involved in your community: Joining a service organization or activist movement can help you make a positive impact on your community or the world at large. That kind of empathy and teamwork might even lead to scholarships for college.
2. Junior year admission tips
Working hard in and out of the classroom can set you up for a great senior year—and an impressive résumé.
- Challenge yourself academically: Earning As is great, but taking tougher classes and balancing a demanding course load shows intellectual curiosity—and the ability to manage your time and juggle responsibilities. Honors and AP® classes might be worth considering.
- Step up your extracurriculars: Hopefully you’ve found groups, organizations, and service projects that resonate with you. Be sure to build relationships with mentors and peers, take leadership positions, and continue to get more involved. Doing so can help sharpen your skills and show colleges that you’ve got a lot to offer.
- Connect with teachers and advisors: Taking a more active role in class and on campus can help you stand out to teachers and advisors. Some may even become mentors who provide valuable guidance and recommendation letters for college.
- Use summer break to prepare for college: The summer before senior year is a great time to prepare for the ACT® and SAT® exams, take college tours, and learn about financial aid options. You can also find a summer job that might look good on college applications.
3. Senior year admission tips
You’re in the homestretch now. Here are some tips for maximizing your senior year of high school.
- Be a leader: Whether you serve as captain of the debate team or mentor younger students through a program at your school, taking initiative is a great way to boost your résumé and show dedication and character.
- Stay focused on academics: Most colleges will require you to submit your final transcripts after graduation, so continue to focus on your academics. Falling behind could affect college admissions.
- Score a great letter of recommendation: It’s important to ask the right person so that you get a personalized recommendation letter that helps you shine. A teacher who can speak to both your academic and interpersonal strengths is a great choice. Think about classes where you’re especially engaged—those teachers should have great things to say about you. When you ask for a letter, it may help to provide your résumé or a “brag sheet” of your accomplishments.
- Write a stellar essay: This is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you truly are. Write from the heart and choose an interesting topic. An unconventional hobby, talent, or life experience might set you apart. While the essay section can help you play up your accomplishments, don’t be afraid to write about a time you struggled or even failed. Showing how you’ve overcome difficulties can demonstrate resilience. Just make sure to answer the specific questions that are asked and proofread for grammar, spelling, and style.
Getting into college is a competitive process, but there are ways to gain an edge throughout high school. Investing in your academics, committing to extracurricular activities, being a leader on campus, and writing a strong application essay can go a long way. It comes down to showing colleges that you’re a well-rounded student who has a lot to offer.