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21 Suggestions for Students Planning to Apply to Top Colleges

The college admission process does not begin in twelfth grade; it begins in ninth grade or even earlier. Yet, according to a NACAC survey, most school counselors spend more than 80% of their time on non-college related activities. Even if your school has a dedicated college counseling staff, chances are that each counselor has a caseload of hundreds of students. In fact, the average caseload for each counselor in the US is roughly 500 students each. As a result, school college counselors spend an average of only 15 minutes per year, 45 minutes over the course of three years, with each student in grades 10 through 12.

How much guidance can a school counselor possibly give a student in 45 minutes? Perhaps they can demonstrate how to use Naviance, how to set up a Common Application account, how to ask their teachers for college recommendations, and how to fill out the FAFSA and CSS forms. Maybe they can provide a little bit of guidance on writing essays. Perhaps your school has a college information night and a college fair. But these activities fall far short of what students need to ace the college application process. In all, there are approximately 30 factors that contribute to successful college applications. There is simply no way that school counselors can provide sufficient information about all of these activities in the limited time that they can dedicate to each student.

But don't blame your school counselor. Instead, it is up to each and every student and family to take ownership over the college admission process. Don't wait for your college counselor to contact you and don't expect that your school’s counseling office will help your family to take full advantage of all opportunities. Matriculation to college is one of the most important activities families will ever undertake. Yet, most families spend less time preparing for college admission than they do planning a family vacation.

By the time most students reach twelfth grade, so many opportunities are already lost. Of course, even as a rising twelfth grader, there are things you can do to maximize your opportunities. However, the earlier you start, the more attractive you can make your application to competitive colleges.

Here are 21 Suggestions for High Schoolers Applying to Top Colleges

1. Be a specialist, not a generalist. Identify one characteristic that makes you an attractive college candidate and choose activities that support that characteristic.

2. Create a multiyear test-taking and test-preparation plan and stick to the plan.

3. Visit college websites and learn as much as possible. Request information.

4. Visit a number of colleges, and register with the admission office as a visitor.

5. Tailor your school activities to liberal arts, science, business, or a career-related field such as medicine or law.

6. Let teachers get to know you as well to earn great recommendations.

7. Take time to create detailed and effective bragsheets for your recommenders.

8. Ask to meet with your college counselor. Prepare for the meetings.

9. Set up your common application account early. Fill out static details (family, etc.)

10. Choose summer and extracurricular activities wisely and appropriately.

11. Internships and research should have tangible outcomes (papers, posters, presentations, publications).

12. Improve your writing skills. Publish if possible.

13. Choose honors or AP courses whenever possible.

14. Maintain high grades. Use tutors if necessary.

15. Prove that you are a person who takes full advantage of all opportunities you are given.

16. Create a résumé.

17. Stick with activities over a number of years.

18. Prove your leadership ability by being elected or by starting organizations.

19. Create a talent video and/or start a visual or performing arts portfolio.

20. Practice for your interviews.

21. Be likable, admirable, and authentic through essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews.