There is no avoiding it. You will, before graduation, spend at least a dozen exciting hours filling in bubbles while taking a battery of standardized tests that have names that sound like they were created in a bowl of alphabet soup. These tests will include the PSAT, APs or IBs, SAT or ACT and SAT Subject Tests. Colleges use standardized tests as an additional measure of your academic promise and as a way to compare students from across the country whose high schools have different ways of grading.
Your most immediate concern is probably the PSAT, which you can take in your sophomore or junior year. It is a practice test designed to prepare you for the SAT, so in a sense, you don't have to stress too much about this one. However, the score from your junior year PSAT will be used to determine if you qualify for scholarships and special programs including National Merit Scholarships, which aside from the honor, come with a cash prize. So, it is worth taking the PSAT seriously and putting in some study time as if it were the SAT.
Even though grades are an important factor in admissions, colleges want to know that you do more than study. They seek students who will not only do well in classes but who will also contribute to the college community through extracurricular programs. Show that you are this kind of student by getting involved during high school. Activities include clubs and organizations, sports, student government and volunteer work.
There is no magic combination of tasks or projects that will guarantee acceptance. Our advice may seem like common sense, but it is true: Get involved in programs and events that you enjoy. If you like writing, think about the newspaper or Quill and Scroll. Don't think that there are certain activities in which you must participate to gain admission. Instead, invest your time in activities that interest you.
If your school does not offer interesting activities, then you have two options: a) start your own club or organization, or b) look outside your school. Starting your own organization will take work finding an advisor, getting it officially recognized by your school and marketing it to potential members. However, it is very fulfilling to start an organization based on your interests and to leave a legacy at your high school. Admissions officers will also appreciate your initiative. Your second option is to find an activity in the community. There is a group dedicated to almost every interest imaginable and with a little bit of searching, you should be able to find one or two that fit your passions.
Being a leader in extracurricular programs is not a requirement for getting admitted to college, but there is no question that it helps. There is nothing more impressive to admissions officers than students who take initiative. This demonstrates that you are not just a member in name but that you make concrete contributions. In fact, more important than the particular activity in which you choose to be involved is the quality of your participation, meaning how much you contribute as a member and leader.
Run for office in clubs or school government. Try to be the captain of your sports team. Volunteer to head a project for your service organization. Start a group or club of your own. This will demonstrate your leadership skills as well as your ability to take initiative. Remember too that to be a leader, you don't have to hold an official elected position. You can take charge of a special project or organize an event. It takes just as much leadership to put together a successful canned food drive as it does to run a student council meeting. Both types of leadership are highly prized by colleges.
Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.
By: Gen & Kelly Tanabe
The only how-to book which shows all students how to get into the school of their dreams. Based on the experiences of dozens of successful students and authored by two graduates of Harvard, this book shows you how to ace the application, essay, interview, and standardized tests.