College Admissions Checklist

Guidelines for Keeping on Track During the Application Process

As students navigate through high school, the path towards college can often seem daunting. Between grades, extracurricular activities, test scores, applications, essays and all the other rigors of college admissions, many students can become frustrated with the experience, or just don't know where to begin.

Preparation for college should begin in the first year of high school, if not sooner. It seems far off, but the process has often begun before you even know it. Don't let that scare you. It's a big decision, one that will change your life, but there is plenty of time to figure everything out . . . and lots of people along the way to help, including your parents, teachers, academic counselors, maybe even some older siblings and friends. It is important to seek out as much advice and guidance as you can. That way you won't feel like you're navigating this path alone.

Here are a number of guidelines that can help you ensure you're doing all you can to get into one of your top-choice schools.


Many colleges and universities don't look at grades from the 9th grade, only considering sophomore, junior and senior years. Even if this is the case, you should use the 9th grade to figure out what kind of student you want to be. This includes improving study habits, participating in class discussions, sharpening your writing and test-taking skills, and exploring elective classes.

Don't just go for the easy classes. College admissions officers look at more than just your GPA. They will evaluate the difficulty of the classes you take and judge your grades accordingly. An A in Classical Guitar or Woodshop will probably have less value than a B+ in an Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) class. Many advanced classes can also be transferred as college credit. A student who scores a 4 or 5 on an AP exam will not only be able to apply those course credits to college, but he or she can include that score in their college application.

Keep at it! Many students work hard for two or three years and when senior year comes, they expect to coast to the finish line. This is a mistake! While the admissions process happens in the middle of your senior year, admissions officers will often examine your current class schedule. A sudden drop-off in motivation during your senior year could be the difference between getting into your top-choice school or being passed up by someone else who didn't slack off. In some cases, if a student's senior grades do take a precipitous drop, some schools will reverse admission.

Remember, grades are important, but not the only thing. Preparing for college causes many students undergo enormous stress with every single test and every single grade. You should always strive to do your best, but remember that a sub-par grade here or there will not destroy your college prospects. Admissions officers are looking at the overall picture, trying to determine if you are a well-rounded and motivated person. Working through and overcoming life's disappointments, even it's failures, is a part of that.

Extracurricular Activites

Throughout high school, students should pursue a diverse array of activities outside the classroom. Admissions officers look at a student's overall activity in order to judge the character, motivation and potential of an applicant. Grades alone can't tell that story. Test scores alone can't tell that story. What activities the student chooses to participate in, and how they handle a non-centralized workload, paint a clearer picture of how that student will perform in the college environment.

Students should seek out activities that suit their interests and enhance their high school experience. This can include athletics, academic clubs, music, dance, theater, volunteering or community service. These activities often provide leadership opportunities or creative outlets that don't exist in the classroom. They also demonstrate that the student is capable of organizing his or her workload and managing a busy schedule.

Many high school students load up too many extracurricular activities and become overwhelmed by their schedule. This might be because you have so many passions, or because you feel the need to “pad your resume” for college admissions. In either case, it is important to find the right balance. Admissions officers are looking to see that a student can build a reasonable schedule and succeed at it. If too many extracurriculars are causing grades to suffer, they will most likely determine that this student would have a hard time managing the independence that comes with college life.

Entrance Exams

The SAT and ACT are challenging exams and students should have a plan for studying and knowing what to expect. The single best thing you can do is to take the PSAT. The test won't be considered in college admissions, but it can help prepare you for the real thing. Students who have taken the PSAT tend to be more motivated to study and less stressed about what to expect in the actual exams. Additionally, students who score exceptionally high on the PSAT are eligible for a National Merit Scholarship, and many colleges and universities award scholarships to National Merit Scholars. Perhaps most importantly, the PSAT gives you a gauge of how well you might do on the SAT or ACT. If you don't score well on the PSAT, you will have time to study and improve your performance.

The SAT or ACT needs to be taken by the fall of your senior year, but most high school students take their exams in the spring of junior year. This allows you to take the test again if you didn't score as well as expected. Admissions will only consider your highest test score.

In addition to taking the PSAT, you should plan on dedicating a certain amount of SAT/ACT study time each week. Many students form study groups and take unofficial prep exams. There are also numerous books and websites dedicated to entrance exams, the most well-known of which is Kaplan.

Visiting Schools

Visiting prospective colleges has become a ritual of sorts. While you can learn a lot about a school online or through word-of-mouth, there is no substitute to visiting the campus and seeing it for yourself. Especially if you are living away from home, feeling comfortable on campus is an important part of succeeding in college.

Most students (and their families) have some idea of whether or not they want to attend college in- or out-of-state. If you're staying close to home, scoping out your school is much easier. You might even be familiar with it already and know some students and alumni. If you decide to leave the nest head off to a distant school, then you might want to visit first. It can be the difference between four happy years or a permanent trip back home next summer.

Take advantage of the tour that every college and university offers visiting students. Soak up all the information you can about their academic programs and campus life. While you're there on the ground it will be easier to get a lay of the land, envision what your college life might be like, and figure out housing, transportation and general cost-of-living.

The Application Process

The application process can seem scary, and there is a lot that goes into it, but students who are prepared and take it step-by-step usually do just fine. The first step is maintaining communication with your high school guidance counselor. A few visits a year is usually all that is necessary to ensure that your academics are on the right track. As you start to consider what you'd like to study or which school you'd like to attend, your counselor can provide valuable information and advice, including pointing you to other resources that will help you reach a decision.

Once you know which schools you are interested in, look at each one's application so you know what is required. These can be found on the Admissions page of the school's website. Many schools use the Common Application, but they all will have additional short-answer and essay questions.

The essays are perhaps the most important part of the application. It is vital that you don't procrastinate your essay until the application is due. Once you have read the essay questions for a particular school, take some time (weeks, maybe even months) to reflect on the topic or theme. Part of what makes these essay questions challenging is that they are usually vague. A student who has thought about their answers in the context of their daily lives will be much more able to focus on specifics and articulate their ideas.

The essay should also be professional and polished. By the time you are submitting your application, you should have written several drafts and received feedback from parents, teachers, counselors, etc. The essay not only illustrates what you want out of college and/or life, but it is a demonstration that you are capable of writing and thinking critically on a college level. Achieving that level of quality takes time and practice.

You will also need one or more letters of recommendation. These can be from a teacher, counselor or other mentor (the application will usually have some sort of specification). If a student has really participated in class discussion (something that isn't necessarily reflected in a grade), the letter of recommendation is an opportunity to highlight that. The same goes for any student's involvement in extracurricular activities, which often can't be quantified on paper.

Finally, the sooner you can submit your application, the better. Most colleges and universities are flooded with submissions towards the end of the application period. Sending in your application early is one of the best advantages you can give yourself. But make sure not to rush. It is important that the application is thorough and professional, which is why it is so important to start early!

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