All You Need to Know About: Getting Into College

Image credit: University of Rochester

Image credit: University of Rochester

Aastha Singh, Writer

It’s no secret that college admissions are highly competitive processes, weeding out a large batch of students until the best remain. For “top-tier” schools, such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and MIT, the bar is even higher. With applicant amounts soaring and admission rates plummeting, it’s harder than ever to snag a spot in many universities and colleges.


To aid those that hope to study further after high school, here’s a quick overview of the basics of creating a strong college application:



One of the two things high-ranking universities look first at is an applicant’s grades. This means that you should try your hardest throughout all four years of high school. Doing homework, participating in class, studying for tests, and asking teachers for extra help are all great ways to do this. If you get a few bad grades, it won’t badly mess up your chances of getting in, but try to keep your grades as high as possible. This requires a lot of hard work, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.


In addition to grades, colleges look to see if you have taken some of the rigorous courses that your high school has to offer. They look for students that work hard, succeed under pressure, and seek out challenges. Try to challenge yourself by taking courses that may be a bit out of your comfort level, even if none of your friends are doing it. If an opportunity ever opens up for you to go higher than you currently are, seize it if you can.


Standardized Tests

The other thing that high-ranking universities look at first are standardized tests grades. The two standardized tests that colleges care about are the ACT (American College Test) and the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test). There are a few key differences between the ACT and SAT. The first is the grading scale; the ACT is out of 36 and the SAT is out of 1600. The second is the content. While both tests have sections for reading, math, English, and an essay, the SAT has a section for grammar while the ACT has a section for critical thinking. The best way to discover which test is right for you is to take a full length practice test of each, and then decide which one you like better.


Whichever test you choose, prepare well so that when test time comes around, you get the best score you can get. A perfect score isn’t necessary, but do the best you can. The best way to ensure you’ll do well on the test of your choosing is to study. There are a plethora of resources on the internet that are designed to prepare high schoolers for the SAT and ACT. Some great ones are PrepScholar and Khan Academy.


Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are a big deciding factors between applicants. Many students make the mistake of doing as many things as they can during high school in an effort to appear “well-rounded”. This, however, will actually do more harm than good. Admissions officers will see right through this and reject you. Instead of doing everything at a sub-par level, try and focus on a few core things you have a genuine interest in and stick with them.


When you participate in any extracurricular activities, try to seek out leadership positions and try to stick with them all four years. They help develop important skills, such as leadership, time management, disciplinary, and teamwork skills, all of which colleges value.


If you like STEM fields, participate in extracurricular activities related to science and research. Carnegie Mellon University has many STEM programs for high schoolers, such as Project Ignite. While there may not be many STEM related clubs at Obama (other than math league), starting one is always a great idea. If you like humanities, participate in extracurricular activities related to expression and the arts. You can join the school musical or start some art clubs. If you like politics-related fields, participate in politically centered clubs. Obama is full of these, the main ones being Youth and Government, the debate team, and the newspaper club. If none of these satisfy your interests, you may want to start a new club. Having at least one sport that you played throughout high school is always a great idea as well. In addition to keeping you healthy and happy, it really develops the qualities and skills mentioned above.



When applying to colleges, you need letters of recommendation to show universities what kind of student you are. This is where making connections and being a good person and student really become critical. The educators and staff that give these letters can accurately portray what kind of student you’ll be and give a reliable and unbiased opinion of your personality, academic strengths, and moral character.


When choosing people to recommend you, try and choose teachers and staff you’ve interacted with the most. Make genuine connections with adults you like during high school. Teachers aren’t the only people that write recommendation letters; principals, counselors, clerical staff, and janitorial staff can all write letters as well. Not every adult has to be your best friend, but try to have meaningful interactions with some. Remember, they are here to help you succeed.


With all this being said, don’t be fake. Don’t make relationships or be kind solely for having good recommendations. If you do something kind, do it because you want to, not because you hope someone is watching. If you forge a relationship with a teacher, do it because you honestly want to, not so that you can squeeze a letter out of them in senior year. If you are genuinely a good student and good person, excellent recommendations will follow.  



While it may not seem like much, having an ideal application can be a big factor in college admissions. This encompasses everything mentioned above, as well as a personal essay, short answers, and application type.


When applying to colleges you’re interested in, try to apply Early Decision or Early Action. This shows that you’re dedicated and actually want to attend. Be careful which ones you choose, though. Early Decision is binding, so if you are accepted, you must to go that school. Early Action is not binding, so if you are accepted, you do not have to attend that school. Aim to apply Early Decision to your first choice, and Early Action to your next few choices. Keep in mind that some schools, including several “top-tier” ones, have policies that restrict you to just one Early Decision or Early Action application.


When writing personal statements and entrance essays, try to write them about your passions and interests. It’s one of the only places you get to showcase who you really are in your application. Make it personal and fun, but not unprofessional. Show who you are, but don’t be silly or foolish.


While college may not be for everyone, it can be a great career booster and general opportunity to learn for those who choose to attend. The selection process may be lengthy and competitive, but by following these steps, you’ll be on your way to creating a fantastic application.