by Alok Bhardwaj
There are four components to your college application: your classes and grades, your standardized test scores, your extracurricular activities, and your college essays. There’s a little but not much mystery in the college admissions process—if you’ve got these four components in your application, you will be admitted to at least some of the most competitive colleges (MCCs) in the country. Let’s see how each component impinges on your chances for admission and how to excel in each area.
The most competitive colleges (MCCs) will expect you to have taken the most challenging courses offered by your school and to have received high grades in those classes. You don’t need to take five AP classes a year, but you should take an AP course when it's available instead of the regular course.
By high marks, we mean almost straight “A”s. You can get an occasional “B” or even “C” and still get admission to the most competitive colleges--but the vast majority of your grades must be “A”s for the MCCs. Taking mostly less challenging courses at your high school will severely dampen your chances for admission to an MCC even if you have straight "A"s in all of them. The occasional lower grade and easier course is fine, but if you consistently take easier courses, you'll hinder your chances for admission to an MCC.
You may find yourself with a trade-off at some point between taking an easier course and getting a higher grade. We'd recommend not worrying too much in these circumstances about college admissions, but rather picking the option that fits best with your schedule and goals. If you're particularly worried about BC calculus and you've got two other AP courses, AB Calculus is probably a good bet. If you had no other AP courses, then you probably would want to challenge yourself with BC calculus even though you expect it to be a lot of work.
To summarize, neither your grades in themselves nor the difficulty of your coursework in itself will affect your college admissions chances. The two of them in conjunction, however, will be the first thing that admissions officers will consider. This is your first hurdle. Consistently low grades or less challenging coursework will likely nix your chances for admission to the MCCs.
The best path for course/grade optimization is the "middle path.” Try to take as challenging courses as you can but not when your grade in the course(s) will be a "B-" or lower. Don't take extremely challenging courses and end up with a "C" average; but also don't take extremely easy courses and end up with an easy "A" average.
Your SAT or ACT scores for the MCCs are much like your classes and grades: a hurdle you must clear to be a competitive candidate. For the top MCCs, the ten or so most competitive colleges in the country, your goal should be 700 or higher on each section of the SAT I and on each SAT Subject test that you take. 700 is really a hurdle; it doesn't matter very much if you’re a lot higher than 700. Getting 750 on all your subject tests or even 800 is not going to improve your admission chances for the MCCs very much beyond having scored 700s.
Most MCCs require two SAT Subject Tests. We recommend taking as many SAT Subject tests as you can (even more than two) in which you're confident you'll score 700 or better. Taking say five different Subject Tests and getting over 700 on each one is impressive. We don't recommend, though, that anyone take more than 2 SAT Subject Tests on any single test date. Taking three on a single day is too taxing we’ve found.
The ACT is a great option for students who don't like taking standardized tests as many colleges will accept the ACT test in lieu of the SAT I and SAT Subject Tests. For students who are having trouble with the SAT tests, we recommend trying the ACT test as well. Even though it's very similar to the SAT, take it and see if you do better since you've got nothing to lose.
For MCCs other than the top ten, you don't have to score 700+ on each section of the SAT test. Check what the average test scores are for the colleges you're interested in and try your best to be a bit higher than the average scores. If you're a little lower than average, don't worry, just make sure your essays and activities are great.
Eighty percent of applicants to the MCCs will have excellent grades in difficult courses and high standardized test scores, but no more than twenty percent of the applicants can be accepted. Most of the decision-making thus happens here in components three and four: extracurricular activities and essays. You have to distinguish yourself in your extracurricular activities or your essays or better yet in both.
Go deep, not wide. Don't join ten or fifteen clubs (you're young, explore, but don't list all ten of them on your college application). Try to have two or three activities in high school in which you're deeply involved. If there isn't any group or activity at your school that you're interested in, join some activity outside of your school: be active in other ways or start a new group or club.
Be creative and follow your heart. There are many ways to be productive (or at least what a college admissions officer will perceive as productive) while pursuing those things you love. Whatever you do, though, be dedicated and committed. If you're interested in poetry, start a poetry recitation club or a collaborative surrealist poetry-writing group. If you love cinema, start a cinema blog but be sure to write about films other than the weekly box office hits—you have to be serious about cinema which is more than Tom Cruise and Indiana Jones.
Here are two examples of exceptional students we've worked with who were admitted to MCCs. One young girl did research in a doctor’s lab and authored a paper which was published in a medical journal. She was also a committed dancer. Another student was a poet, a drummer in a band, and co-founded a club to provide new services to students while raising money for non-profit organizations. One key thing to notice is that they had only a few activities and for each activity they have a clearly demonstrated commitment and achievement.
If you've participated in many activities or changed your activities in high school, that's fine but present only the best three or four activities. You need to come off in your college application as a productive, serious person...neither someone who’s superficially a member of a dozen clubs nor someone who sits around watching sitcoms and playing Xbox all day.
For MCCs, superb essays can clinch your admission if you’re reasonably competent in the first three components. Vice versa, if you're really strong in components one through three but write poor essays or send in an essay with spelling or grammatical errors, you’ll likely find yourself getting a rejection.
The first thing to keep in mind is to make your essays have no spelling or grammatical mistakes. Secondly, make sure they're coherent, well-written and organized essays. You need to show at a minimum that you can write an essay that has an introduction, a conclusion, and body paragraphs that each express some point. That's a minimum. Ideally, you should aim to have a unique, well-written essay that eloquently expresses some aspect of who are and your experience and outlook. What may be interesting to you may not be interesting to a college admissions committee so getting help from someone familiar with high school essays and writing is crucial. Seek out English or other teachers you trust to give you feedback.
When you get these four components together, you're golden. There's no other secret to college admissions. Good luck. Study hard. Challenge yourself. Be active. Be creative. Do remember that which college you go to doesn't determine who you are or what you do in life so don't get stressed, keep a good conscience and do your best.