Today I wanted to talk a little bit about getting to college, so if you are a high school student preparing for this absolutely crazy application/SAT’s/Admission Essays period I hope this may be of some help to you. The key is to start early and have some kind of idea before you start, hence why I’m posting this now. I’ve been getting tons and tons of questions about studying for the SAT and ACT, tips for writing the best essay, what classes to take beforehand, grades, etc., so I’ll just go over each one one by one. (See some helpful links below!)
The obvious thing about receiving grades in high school is that they need to be good. The not-so-obvious is that they are not the most important aspect of your career. Although most university look at your academic GPA, the new “holistic review” idea is also considering how challenging and diverse your courses were, what you have going on in the extracurriculars are and some personal circumstances if you mentioned those in your essay. I know someone whose parents were getting a divorce in the middle of her junior year. The poor girl was affected so much that her grades fell way below average. Next year, however, she was able to bring them back up and explain in her personal essay what had happened. So unless you are applying to the top Ivy League type schools, you do not have to have a perfect GPA.
I cannot begin telling you how many people began taking their SAT’s in the fall of their senior year and were freaking out about not getting them back in time. So please start studying for these early! I was lucky enough to take a prep course through Princeton Review (expensive, but worth it! My cumulative score increased by 400 points!), which started in the beginning of my junior year. Once I took it and did as well as I could on the test, I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. However, my trouble was that I couldn’t decide which test to study for – ACT or SAT. ACT is a more of a knowledge-based test, where you are actually tested on what you already know. The SAT doesn’t really go too deep into the material, and essentially everything depends on your attention span and how many practice tests you’ve taken. I took both tests (it doesn’t hurt to try them both!) several times and simply submitted my best scores to the university. It worked out fine and I got the scores I wanted!
Nowadays most colleges pay so much attention to extracurriculars that it almost feels like they’re more important than grades. These include school clubs, sports, leadership, hobbies, volunteering, jobs, internships, family duties, etc. Basically, whatever you’re doing outside of school counts as an extracurricular activity. It’s important to stick to few things for a longer period of time than trying out this and that for a month or two. I feel like I had a pretty good set of out-of-school things going on, such as volunteering at the Red Cross for a few years, working at a child care facility, being a secretary/treasurer and member of French Honor Society as well as a member of the National Honor Society, and taking a whole bunch of other classes that weren’t associated with school. I feel like anything you can show a passion and dedication to would work fabulously – universities want people who will stick around for some time and work hard.
Short answer: take them. Long answer: take as many as you can, but don’t overload yourself with craziness. Over my high school career, I took 5 AP classes: US History, French, English, Statistics and another French class. It was tough, but manageable as long as I didn’t procrastinate. What ended up happening is I entered college with 20 credits, which would have cost me some $17,000…! Not only that, but I was also more prepared for university work load than I would have been if I took all the regular high school classes. AP and Honors classes require a lot more work and are a bit harder, I agree, but they are so worth it. I only wish I took more of them in school!
Oh, this is the worst part. How do you actually promote yourself? How do you tell colleges, “Pick me, pick me!!!” without sounding arrogant, pathetic or desperate? Personal essays require a lot of work. It’s not something you can sit down, write and submit in one evening. Make sure to find someone to read over your essay. Actually, as many people as possible. Be honest and write from your heart – do not try to guess what the admissions people are looking for. You don’t have to think of something heroic you’ve done or make something up to make them feel bad – just write what’s on your mind and use a lot of descriptions.
By the way, my college essay was ridiculously cheesy. I wrote about my German friend coming to my house in Russia and how my friends tried to speak English to her and how it all totally changed my life. Wow, it sounds dorky even now. But I think it was the way I wrote it and conveyed my feelings about the situation that really worked. I got some help from my parents, English teachers, even family friends, and hearing their opinions was invaluable. This is where I would like to direct you guys to my good friend Jacqueline from Nitty-Gritty English, who talks about writing tips for reluctant writers. If you get stuck on your essay (or any essay for that matter!), go take a look at her blog – there will definitely be something that can help you.
Last but not least, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to talk to your counselor and advisers about choosing and applying to a university. They are the best people that can tell you about studying there, all of opportunities you’ll get, living conditions, etc. They can even help you with your admissions process, getting through that essay or maybe some unique application problem you’re having. Go and talk to any adviser. If not to ask questions, but to talk to her/him and introduce yourself.
Nitty Gritty English – Tips for Reluctant Writers
Unigo – Find College matches, scholarships and career advice
Zinch – My personal favorite. Used this one through and through back in the day!
Niche – See what fellow students say about colleges, their grades and admissions experiences. Loved it!
Parchment.com – Calculate your chances of getting into college! Used it!
The College Board – Your scoop on AP Tests
Princeton Review – SAT/ACT Prep
College Rankings: Good, Bad or Ugly? – Be smart about those college rankings.
Scholarships and Financial Aid – My collection of websites for scholarship searches