Getting into Your Dream College

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Let me be one of the first to say "welcome to the college admissions process!" While there is a lot of hard work ahead, discovering the right college and having your student be accepted can be both challenging and frustrating, yet exciting and incredibly rewarding in the short and very long-term. 

Your mission involves two main things: finding the school that students love and then getting that college to love them back.  

How? Careful planning, deep research, performance. Well, actually, this is where the rubber meets the road, involving a number of steps as you embark on your college admission journey, so let's kick things off.

The Foundation 

Like all things life, this process actually starts at a young age, and in a grade level long before your student has even begun thinking about what a dream college looks like in their mind. 

It's at this time where they learn to love to read. To visit museums and attend cultural events. To realize the value in giving of themselves in order to benefit others.

Through this foundational period, they begin to acquire leadership skills; to develop good study habits and routines.

As a parent, you naturally encourage them to not be afraid to try new things, and develop interesting hobbies no matter how unusual.

High School 

Then, just when things are beginning to take shape, high school begins. Now, it becomes clear that the better students do, the more opportunities and choices there will be for them when the time comes.

While the college search won’t officially begin until a couple years later, it's at this time during freshman year that they begin the process of making themselves attractive to institutions. 

In high school, it's these factors that stand out as the more important in gaining admission to the school of students' dreams:

Get good grades

GPA! An unweighted 4.0 GPA at many high schools means all A’s. And while that might seem like a lofty goal, consider this: 

"The Class of 2025 had an average high school GPA of 3.96 on a 4.0 scale. Over three quarters of students admitted to Stanford had a perfect 4.0 unweighted GPA."

No matter your target school, it just goes to show that GPA is a real factor, especially when talking about admission to some of the world's most prestigious universities. 

Demonstrate academic rigor

To demonstrate course rigor, students are encouraged to take honors courses as soon as they can (in a year or two, they can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses). As for how many, it really depends, but the max amount would probably revolve around as many as you think your student can do well in.

Some schools offer an International Baccalaureate (IB)  program, and so colleges like to see AP and IB courses, with IB courses specifically assisting students in thinking "critically and globally."

Taking courses from your local community college is also an option, with some opting for online college courses through platforms like edX or Coursera, possibly during the summer. Social justice themes are popular.

If your high school doesn’t have many AP courses, you might want to consider finding somewhere your student can take one online and self-study for an exam.

Participate in leadership activities

This isn't something you've never heard before, so let it sink in as a reminder: Colleges want to see depth of commitment, but while there is a belief that they want to have well-rounded students, that usually begins with a well-rounded freshman class.

They diverse and multi-talented—such a class might have a rodeo champion from Montana and a fencing champion from Connecticut. It is said that colleges like to see debating champions. Also note that many elite colleges require some sort of volunteering.

Simply logging hours with a school club or even outside organization might not be enough, so be sure to check things out. Some colleges are really looking for leadership and initiative in high school volunteer activities.

For instance, a student who brings a Red Cross club into their high school and heads up blood drives can impress college admissions committees.

If there is a club you’d like to see at school, start one (we have talked about both high school robotics club and coding club activities). Bring in speakers and mentors. It can be an interest club, such as ethnic cooking, photography, or astronomy. It can be an academic club, such as a Spanish club.

Make the most of summer

Summer provides a great break, but it's also a time to make up some ground if you’re really serious about attending a top college or "dream" university. Computer coding camps, debate institutes, and sports clinics are all available but require students to sacrifice a bit of free time in order to help build their portfolio on the way to applying to competitive institutions of higher learning.

This is also a good point to stop and take a reality check. "Dream" school doesn't equate to the absolute best college out there for many students. Meaning, there are plenty who find their version of a dream school at a less competitive institution and go on to lucrative and fulfilling careers. It's not uncommon. 

If an elite college or university is your student's dream school, also note that many are way more competitive than they were just a few years ago. For instance, Princeton admits fewer than 4 percent of its applicants, compared to 8.5 percent a decade ago. Dartmouth went from 10.5% percent acceptance for the class of 2020 to 6.2 percent for the class of 2026.

Anyway, back to summer—having a summer job could be plus for college applications. Of course, it's probably better to have a job with significant responsibility compared to the alternative. 

Increase test scores

As you probably already know, colleges accept either SAT or ACT scores. A perfect SAT score is 1600. A perfect ACT score is 36. And make no mistake: most colleges still want to see a score, regardless of having a “test-optional” policy. One way to think about it is that all other things being equal, a student with a mediocre score might get selected over a student not reporting a score.

So, feel free to have students take the test multiple times. I mean, the only way to really answer whether or not the SAT is hard is to take it. You can improve a lot. There are apps for daily SAT practice, and test prep services are worth the resources.

By late junior year and early senior year, GPA is mostly baked in. Meaning, it’s hard to move the needle much. Thus, the SAT or ACT may be the one factor that can be used to influence much at this point in high school. If your student doesn't see much improvement with one test, try the other. Figuring out which test is best is a good exercise given students might see significantly more success with one test than the other.

Regarding the number of schools to apply to, the Common App makes it relatively easy to apply to many schools. (The platform places a limit of 20 colleges.) Many schools don’t require supplemental essays resulting in no extra work to apply to such a school (just an extra application fee.)

One last note on those test scores—should you report? Maybe with certain schools, maybe not with others. It’s easy to look up the median range (25th percentile to 75th percentile) of scores for a particular school. If you are in the upper half of the median, the answer is more of a "yes." If you are anywhere in the lower end of the median range, the answer still might be probably.

Other factors

With all of the above, there are plenty of things colleges look for.

The essay is a big one and can serve as tie breaker or something that makes or breaks. So, consider hiring an essay coach if performance here is a concern. 

Counselor and teacher recommendations play a similar role.  Every once in a while, an essay will really stand out or a recommendation will be particularly glowing. A hook like being a recruited athlete or having alumni parents can help.

Demonstrated interest is also a factor at many colleges. Show enthusiasm for the school. Visit its website. Get on university email lists and answer all emails from the school promptly. Follow its social media accounts. Apply early. Visit in person, if you can.

The College Search

Success in all of these aspects of college admissions can position your student well for acceptance into their dream school. 

Now it’s time for the college search, which should officially begin by late in a junior year. By then your student will have an SAT or ACT score, and an idea of what their GPA, classes, and extracurriculars will be.

Spend time diving deep into the academic program your students is most interested in and the geographics of where they want to go, as in the type of college campus. Large city? Small town? Northeast? South? West Coast?

College Vine is a helpful site for determining the chances students have of getting accepted to each school. It accepts inputs for many of the factors listed here. Of course, the algorithm isn’t perfect, but it’ll give you an idea. One goal is to have a few reach (less than 25%) schools, a few target (25%-75%) schools, and a few safety (over 75%) schools.

Narrow the list

In the end, how do you find the right college for your student? There’s never a guarantee of it. The best you can do is research and visit. Keep narrowing down that list.

And while the time to start the process will kick off officially at some point, research can begin at any time. Unigo and Niche are two good college research sites. (They both have student reviews.)

College visits should take place around the time students start the college application process; junior year or late in the junior year/early in the senior year, and a final round of visits should occur in April of the senior year, after students have been accepted but before they have to commit.

Encourage students to do all they can to mimic life of a college student: sit in on classes. Eat in the dining hall. Talk to random students. Check out the events advertised on bulletin boards. Visit the town. Enjoy the time. Think of it as family vacation time: take plenty of pictures, because visits will start to blend together.

Find that school that you love, and get them to love you back.

A photo of Ryan

Ryan has been in EdTech and with iD Tech for 13 years—building experience, expertise, and knowledge in all things coding, game development, college prep, STEM, and more. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn

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