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Writing an application that shines starts as early as your freshman year.

Focusing on school, getting good grades, and prepping for admissions tests are all key to getting into college. But if you’ve got your eyes set on a specific school that’s very selective, you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure your application stands 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.

Freshman year admission tips

It might seem early to be thinking about college, but even if you don’t have a school picked out yet, it’s a good idea to start working on your résumé.

  • Choose extracurriculars. Schools are looking for well-rounded students, not just high test scores. Explore your interests by joining sports teams and debate and drama 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’ll show a dynamic range of talents and passions.
  • Get involved in your community. Joining a service organization or activist movement demonstrates both passion and compassion, and can even lead to scholarships. It shows more global thinking and an interest in things outside your immediate world, and can help develop skills that will serve you well throughout life.

Sophomore and junior year admission tips

Working hard and challenging yourself in and out of the classroom will set you up for a great senior year and an impressive résumé.

  • Challenge yourself academically. Getting As is great, but taking tougher classes and balancing a demanding course load as well as extracurriculars shows intellectual curiosity as well as an ability to manage your time and juggle responsibilities.
  • Get more involved in your extracurriculars. Hopefully by now you’ve found groups, organizations, and service projects that you care deeply about. Invest in them! Build relationships with mentors and peers, take leadership positions if they’re available to you, and continue to get more involved. Strong relationships with advisors and organization leaders to clubs and teams will help those people see your strengths and abilities. This will be advantageous if you ask them for recommendation letters when you apply to college.

Senior year admission tips

  • Be a leader. Once you’re a senior, you’ll likely be eligible for leadership positions in your school, clubs, teams, and more. Whether you serve as captain of the debate team or mentor younger students through a program at your school, taking this initiative is a great way to boost your résumé and show dedication and character.
  • Score a great letter of recommendation. It’s important to ask the right person to get a letter that is personal and can help you shine. A teacher who can speak to both your academic and interpersonal strengths is a great choice. Think about the classes in which 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 the recommender with your résumé and a “brag sheet” of your accomplishments from which they can draw.
  • Write a stellar essay. This is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you truly are. So write from the heart, and think hard about a unique topic. An unconventional hobby, talent, or life experience can help set you apart. And while the essay section is certainly a time that you can play up your accomplishments, don’t be afraid to write about a time you struggled or even failed. Showing how you overcame difficulties can demonstrate resilience and help you stand out. And of course, make sure you answer the specific questions that are asked and proofread (twice, at least!) for grammar, spelling, and style.

Getting into college is a competitive process, but taking the time to develop your interests both academic and extracurricular, and submit applications that reflect that well-roundedness, can help you gain an edge.

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