Guys - I'm sort of freaking out; never mind that Liv is turning two in a couple of weeks, but my little sister just started her junior year of high school this week. I was already a teenager by the time my sister was born so I played a huge part in raising her, and nothing is making me feel older right now than the fact that we're having talks about college. In an effort to make my mild freak out at least help some of you who are pre-pre-med (ie high school!) or considering college, I wanted to do a post today on applying to college.
Most students don't do the actual applying to college until the fall or winter of their senior year, but the planning and work towards that application happens well before that! Here are a few pointers to help guide you throughout the process. I will of course throw in the disclaimer that I applied to college a long time ago, so it's always a good idea to get the most up-to-date information from school websites you're interested in and your high school guidance counselor. I'll also add in, though, that sometimes your guidance counselor may not be the most reliable person to listen to, and you should always get opinions and help from as many mentors as you can! I highly recommend this book and am having my sister buy it - it's about as comprehensive as it gets when it comes to applying to college.
What do you want from college?
The first (and maybe most difficult) thing to ask yourself is what do you want out of college? Do you think you'll pursue nursing or engineering and get a job right out of college? Do you already plan on getting a masters or PhD in art history and working for a museum? Do you want to go to medical school or law school? Depending on what you eventually might want to do, the type of school you choose to attend can vary. If you're planning to work straight out of college, the name of the university and its alumna network really matter. The connections you make through your school will be the connections that land you your job. This usually means aiming for the biggest name school you can get into. Depending on how local you want to stay, it doesn't have to be a typical big name like Stanford or Yale, it could simply be whatever the "best" school is in your area and where many people in your field graduated from. It's helpful to ask your guidance counselor or even the career development office at schools you're interested in for a list of alumna if you don't have an idea already. If you are planning on continuing higher education and applying to graduate school after college, your undergraduate school still obviously matters, but much more weight will be placed on what you did in undergrad. I won't say that students coming from well-known universities don't have an advantage when it comes to applying to graduate schools, but students coming from state schools and other less well-known colleges can still be just as successful when it comes to getting acceptances. Unfortunately what so much of this comes down to is what you can actually afford - but I always say save the financial matters for when you actually get accepted to schools and then have to choose which one to go to. Never assume a school is out of your reach financially because of its price tag - many of the most expensive private schools also offer some of the best financial aid and scholarships.
Tiering your schools: "Safety, target, and reach"
Once you have a better idea of what you want from college (and hopefully that doesn't just include career goals, but also meeting new people, exploring different cultures and backgrounds, figuring out who you are, etc) you can start coming up with a rough list of schools you want to apply to. First think of any limits you want to set for yourself - it's definitely a better idea not to set too many limits, but for many students they do choose to limit themselves geographically. I only applied to colleges in New England and knew I didn't want to be farther than a 2 hour drive away from home - that was a huge priority for me, but I also live in an area where a 2 hour radius didn't limit my options too drastically. Once you know your limits, you can start making your tiered list of schools. Check out the admissions websites or guide books that provide information on the average accepted applicant - what were their GPA and scores like, did they all participate in extracurriculars, and if so what? Knowing this information allows you to get a rough idea of where you fall for that school's typical accepted applicant - maybe your qualifications are better than the average, this would be a safety school for you. Maybe you fit the average applicant perfectly - in this case this would be a target school. Or maybe you fall a little short from the average applicant - this would be a reach school. Some students don't like adding too many reach schools to their list, but I think especially if you have any unique circumstances or story, you truly never know how a school will interpret your accomplishments and you're better off trying your luck and not selling yourself short.
Becoming a competitive applicant
GPA: GPA is probably what most students worry about and the number that high school students usually feel define them the most. It goes without saying that a higher GPA makes you a more competitive applicant, but there are also a few things to keep in mind. For one, unlike in college where the course difficulty can never really be assumed by an outsider (ie, no one outside of college will know that BIO 263 is 100x harder than BIO 279), in high school the courses are seen as a little more standardized, at least when it comes down AP vs non-AP courses. Colleges like students that challenge themselves, so a student with a 3.8 but all "easy" courses may not look as impressive as the student with a 3.65 and a handful of AP courses. Now, this isn't to say that you should take on more than you can handle, but you should also be looking to challenge yourself. If you came from a high school like mine, you may not have many options for AP courses, which does somewhat put you at a disadvantage, but hopefully your guidance counselor or a teacher who writes you a letter of recommendation can share that information with your schools. The second thing to remember about GPA is that the trend matters. Upward trend is the trend schools want to see. I almost failed freshman year because I wasn't taking school seriously. Because of my grades that year I would never have been able to bring my cumulative GPA up to something fantastic even if I did get straight 4.0s for the next three years. And I didn't get straight 4.0s, but I certainly did better and better each year, and was getting 4.0s by junior year.
SAT score: This I know least about because it has changed so much since I took it. I'd reference the books on this one. Safe to say you want to score as high as possible, but there are many schools that no longer even require the SAT for admission (Smith - my college - being one of them). They recognize the bias and difference in opportunities many students face and how standardized tests like it may not be the best indicators of success.
Extracurriculars: Anyone (or almost anyone) can get great grades when all they have to do is coursework. But if you're also playing sports and writing for the newspaper, you're showing schools that you can balance and have interests outside of your coursework, interests that you could potentially continue in college (and therefore contribute to their university)! Now, keep an open mind when it comes to extracurriculars - it literally means what you do outside of the curriculum. Because of my responsibilities at home (ie, taking care of my sister and other things at home), I never played sports. I actually never participated in anything that required regular time commitments outside of normal school hours. But I was active in the National Honor Society (and eventually was president), our acapella choir, and I can't remember much else. You don't have to do it all, but you should have at least one extracurricular that you can show you were really involved in for a decent chunk of time and show commitment and some worthwhile contribution.
Personal: Don't underestimate whatever your personal story is. We all have a story, some stories affect what we're able to do in high school and our perceived "success" a little more than others. Use your personal statement as a place to touch on some of that - don't make it a sob story or a place for excuses, but just bringing it to attention at all will allow for any circumstances to be discussed later if you're invited for an interview (or will at least provide some background for your numbers to be interpreted with).
I hope this helps for getting a start on thinking about college! Later I can maybe do a post on college visits and interviews which will happen senior year! Let me know what else you guys want me to discuss (if anything), this definitely isn't my area of "expertise" anymore but I still remember being there!