How to get into college: 6 tips from a college admissions expert

Marc Feder
March 3, 2021

Getting into college is definitely a journey and arguably one of the most difficult things you’ll experience during high school. How can you overcome this insurmountable task? Not to worry, we've got you covered! 

Here’s what you will learn in this article:

  1. How do colleges evaluate applicants? 
  2. What can I do to increase my chances of getting into college?
  3. Why to submit a test score even if a college is test optional
  4. How to think about extracurricular activities
  5. The importance of the college essay
  6. How to avoid the ranking game

Don’t like to read? Watch the video instead!

Introducing our expert

At Everydae, we understand the importance of credibility and valuable information, which is why we interview the most reliable college admissions experts. For insight gathered in this article, we are extremely fortunate to have spoken with Judi Robinovitz from Score at the Top!

Hey look, it's Judi!

Judi is a Certified Educational Planner with more than 30 years of experience in education. Specializing in educational counseling, she is the author of numerous books, articles, and software on test preparation and college planning. Judi has been a featured speaker at national educational conferences and schools. To keep pace with current educational trends, Robinovitz continually travels across America to assess colleges, boarding schools, and therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness programs.

As an active member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and the Secondary School Admission Test Board, Judi is part of a professional network of admission directors, educators, psychologists and other educational consultants. She is also a member of the National Learning Disabilities Association and the Orton Dyslexia Society.

She studied at Harvard University, Rutgers University, and the University of Connecticut. She holds graduate and undergraduate degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science, both with highest honors. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Ok, let's dive in! 

How do colleges evaluate applicants?

Each college has a pool of applicants that includes thousands of students worldwide. How do they differentiate you from others?

The college application evaluation process is reliant on many factors. First, know that you are not evaluated in a vacuum. You are compared to your peers. For example, your GPA matters much less than your GPA compared to the rest of your class. The admission officers are not only looking at what you offer, but also why you deserve the spot over someone else.

Here's a quick breakdown of how a college admissions committee will evaluate each applicant:

  1. The sequence of courses that you've taken. Are you continuing to challenge yourself? Is there a logical path toward a potential major/career decision?
  2. Academic rigor. Do the courses you're taking (Honors, AP, IB) and your SAT or ACT score indicate that you can comfortably handle the workload in college? 
  3. Extracurricular activities. Do you demonstrate initiative, or show a deep dedication or passion for a particular interest, or are you just trying to pad your resume? 
  4. Character. This is all about how you present yourself? For example, while your extracurriculars paint the picture of what you like to do, your essay will be how you convey who you are.

Something that a lot of students overlook is the counselor evaluation. Your Guidance Counselor will play a large role in vouching for your efforts and your ability to successfully complete high level courses.

Now you may be wondering what level of course you should be taking. The answer to this is dependent on what field you want to pursue. A career in biomedicine, for example, should be complemented with courses such as AP biology.

As Judi explains:

“Depending upon the level of school you're looking at, making sure that, for instance, if you're applying for any competitive stem program (Computer Science, Engineering, Math, Biology) basically that you've had your sciences all the way through the AP level.”

Remember, because most Guidance Counselors are overworked and have to oversee too many students, don't expect them to go out of their way to get to know you. Take the initiative to create a relationship with your counselor so that they can write a genuinely positive letter of recommendation for you when the time comes.

What can I do to increase my chances of getting into college?

This is perhaps the most asked question. We have some tips!

First and foremost, as Judi says,

"It starts with knowing this as early as 8th or 9th grade, that it is not your GPA that colleges are looking at."

Differentiating yourself from others is what’s going to make you stand out. And that doesn't mean having a higher GPA. Saying that you should try your best at everything is definitely general advice, so we’ll try to break things down further.

Starting with standardized tests, colleges understand that the pandemic has made test taking a challenge. Many colleges have switched to test optional so not having a score is not a deal breaker. Colleges understand!

What’s more important is extracurriculars and the rigor of your courses. Are you participating in clubs for long periods of time and displaying some sort of passion? Do you take classes that connect with the field you want to pursue and challenge you to perform at your best? These are things you want to focus on.

Judi explains what college looks for: 

“They are doing a more granular evaluation of your transcript and are looking for the sequence of courses that you've taken, academic rigor, how challenging your curriculum has been.”

Ultimately, the best way to increase your chances of getting into college is to be yourself! It may sound silly, but this is critical. If you are being evaluated in comparison to other students, the best way to stand out is to pursue your personal interests as deeply as possible instead of trying to replicate what "successful" students have done in the past.

We all have a unique story to tell. What's yours? 

Why to submit an SAT or ACT score even if a school is test optional.

Students are always wondering whether their scores are “good enough”. We’ll help you solve these dilemmas.

Test optional does not mean test blind. It’s really important to note the distinction. "Test optional" means that the college will still consider your score, and therefore it can improve your chances of getting accepted. It can also help you earn scholarship money. "Test blind" means the school will not even consider your score. Many colleges have gone test optional during the pandemic, but not too many are test blind, which means that submitting a strong SAT or ACT score can still help you.

In best case scenarios, submitting your test scores may be the tipping point that grants you an acceptance. The main reason why there is a standardized test is because it provides colleges a prediction of your performance at their college. In combination with your academic success, it can really paint a more accurate depiction of who you are. How do you get high scores? You do real practice tests, which Everydae can help you with! 

How to think about extracurricular activities.

How do you know which activities will help you stand out? What’s best for you?

When it comes to extracurricular activities, there is a slight difference from academics. While it is true that you want to display that you are well-rounded academically, this is not the case for extracurricular activities.

Rather than having a few hours of involvement here and there, colleges are looking for long time commitments. This does not mean being involved in something for all your life. It could simply translate to activities that you began in high school.

The reason for this is because it displays your perseverance and ability to commit to something you enjoy. We always encourage students to pick up activities early so that they have opportunities to contribute later. Long involvement allows for more unique opportunities for you to differentiate yourself from others. 

The importance of the college essay.

How can a great essay affect your chances?

The college essay is the perfect opportunity to show schools that you are not just a statistic.

Taking a step back, colleges don’t know anything about you. When you apply, all they have is your application. The essay provides colleges another opportunity to communicate with you on a personal level. As Judi says,

"It is one of the things in addition to your resume that's truly your voice. It's not hardcore numbers, it's not data, it's who you are as a person. And giving insight into your character, your values, the things that are important to you, things that don't show up in other parts of your application."

A big issue that students face is that they don’t believe they have anything “interesting” to write about. Students often argue that their life was bland and simple. This is not true. Something that you find simple and insignificant may be mind-blowing to the admissions office. Think less about what you've done and more about why you've done it. It is all a matter of how you write your narrative and the perspective that you take. 

How to avoid the ranking game

Class rank is something that can take a toll on a student’s mindset. How do you avoid it? Does it even matter?

Ranking systems in high school vary. Some account for only your GPA, other include your AP/IB credits. In many cases, students may opt for easy courses in order to increase their GPA and rank.

Colleges, however, will pick up on this. It is obvious to the admissions office when you take courses that are not as academically rigorous as others. High school is the time when you should be challenging yourself and discovering where you have strengths and weaknesses. We encourage you to take high-level courses such as APs and IB courses because it communicates to the admissions office that you took the step outside of your comfort zone. This is a positive indicator, even if you don't get A's. Avoiding the challenge all together ins most harmful.

As Judi puts it:

“Colleges understand when kids are playing that rank game and don't reward it the way kids think they're going to be rewarded….[Avoiding challenging courses] may be saying that you're not the type of student who can work well under intense academic pressure with lots of competition from your peers. And many kids can't work well under those conditions.”

How to get into college: FAQs

Q: Does submitting a bad AP/IB exam score hurt my chances of getting into college?

The short answer is yes. Unlike the SAT/ACT scores, not all scores should be submitted. Lower scores like 0, 1, or 2 on AP exams are not really going to help your application process. However, anything that is a 3 or above should be submitted. Colleges will know if you don’t submit a score and will assume that you got a 0, 1, or 2. High scores can definitely serve as support to your academic grades.

Q: Is the college essay a five paragraph essay?

No, it is not. A five paragraph essay is effective if you are writing something that is analytical. An example would be a history essay or something in the social science realm. However, the personal statements that you send to college are more like a dialogue. It’s essentially a conversation that you are having with the college about yourself. It is creative writing, something that a lot of students are not familiar with. In short, the essay does not need a definite structure. Just remember to take your time and show who you are through your writing.

Q: How can I avoid messing up?

If this is referring to academics, then we have some tips! Many schools have policies that allow students to take classes and drop them without the drop appearing on the transcript. Take advantage of these time periods and get a true sense of whether a specific class is too challenging or easy. If this question is referring to the application and essay, put aside plenty of time for revisions. Time will allow for the creation of unique ideas that will highlight who you are. Don’t set the essay off for the night before the application deadline!

Q: Should I take both the SAT and ACT?

There are two different tests because each student is different. The SAT and ACT provide students with different skills to have a level playing ground to show their academic abilities. It is encouraged that students try both tests as one is more likely to be a match than the other. A simple practice test can be found online.

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