Seven Critical Mistakes to Avoid in High School if Your Goal is Admission to Top-Ranked Colleges

Everyone seems to know that admission to top colleges is more competitive than ever. It is simply a matter of numbers. More applications means a smaller percentage of acceptances. Furthermore, the rules are constantly changing. Now, first-generation counts more than legacy. In most cases, standardized tests are still optional, and everyone claims to have the winning formula for writing the perfect Common App essay. But in this maelstrom of misinformation comes a simple set of rules to help students avoid the missteps that can never be erased, and to maximize opportunities that can never be taken away. Here are the seven critical mistakes to avoid in high school if your goal is admission to top ranked colleges.

  1. Starting in 9th grade, avoid taking CP-level classes, if possible. Insist on being placed in high-level classes such as honors or AP, if they are available. One of the five most important factors in college admission is academic rigor. This means that top colleges expect students to challenge themselves by taking the most challenging courses from those offered at their school. Even getting straight As in CP-level courses it’s not enough to draw admiration from admissions officers at elite colleges.
  2. Avoid building a nonsensical list of random activities. Don’t sign up for activities simply to fill spaces on the Common Application or other applications. Some parents insist on having their sons and daughters take tennis lessons, or violin lessons, or art lessons because they feel that having a well-rounded list of activities will enhance their position among applicants to top-level colleges. In reality, your activity list should be well thought out, intelligently designed, and methodically enacted. Each activity should build upon the others and strengthen the student’s narrative. Each one should be justifiable, purposeful, and useful.
  3. Just because many colleges are test-optional does not mean that you should not take tests. In fact, take advantage of this period of time by submitting tests if the scores will help you and holding back on test scores if they will not help you. Standardized tests are still considered to be validators of academic ability. In fact, they are still among the five most important factors in college admission.
  4. Don’t miss the opportunity to nurture strong recommendations in 11th grade. As you begin junior year, don’t forget that you will be asking two (or three) of your teachers for college recommendations. A good recommendation will not help you. A great recommendation may move the needle a little bit. A stellar recommendation can make all the difference in the world as your application is discussed among elite college admission committees who trust the word of teachers as if it were gospel.
  5. Don’t wait until 12th grade to create your college list. This will only result in lost opportunities that may be hard to recover from. It is always helpful to look forward as far as possible, so having specific colleges in mind can help guide your decision-making along the way. Also, approximately 50% of top colleges in America consider demonstrated interest as an admission factor. You can only show interest in a college if you have identified it as a college you are interested in. There are many ways that you can show demonstrated interest including college visits, virtual visits, website visits, and visits to social media platforms.
  6. Do not apply to colleges without first doing research. You should go down a rabbit hole or two, either following the research of a particular professor or identifying details of a particular major. Check other resources such as Unigo or Reddit to find out what students are saying about the college. Based on this research, get a general idea of how well you will fit in and state this information in both your interviews and your essays.
  7. Don’t apply to too many safety schools. Your college list should have far more reaches than safeties. After all, how many safeties do you need? A college list should always be aspirational and intelligent. It should consider factors other than rankings—factors such as the strength of specific programs, the size of classes, the general atmosphere, the flexibility to take classes at nearby colleges, access to professors, availability of research, geographic location, financial aid policies, student life, and record of career or graduate school placement.

High school can be a breeding ground for college success or a quagmire of disappointment. To avoid pitfalls and maximize opportunities, you must look ahead as far down the road as possible, all the way to the next big bend in the road, the place you will spend arguably the most important years of your life. Decisions you make in high school, good and bad, will impact the opportunities you have once your high school colors have been cast aside in favor of a new set of colors you will wear for the next four years.