Ten Tips for a Successful College Search (Part 1, Tips 1-5)


Ten Tips for a Successful College Search (Part 1, Tips 1-5)

Advice for high school students

Scott Herrmann-Keeling
College Counselor
Mary Institute & St. Louis Country Day School


Your successful college search is built piece by piece over your entire time in high school. The classes you take, the grades you earn, and what you do with your hours outside the classroom will all be considered by admission officers looking to build communities that fit their own campus cultures. Use the following tips, starting right from grade 9, to help your college search go smoothly:

1) When choosing high school classes, focus on improving strengths, shoring up weaknesses, and exploring interests. 

Admission officers from selective colleges will say you should take the most challenging classes you can comfortably manage. They want you to have balance in your life. If all you’re doing is studying, you’re not comfortably managing your courses. Recognize also that the decisions you make send messages to admission officers. Asking me if it’s OK to drop course X isn’t telling the whole story. What will you do with the time created by dropping X? If you take course Y instead, that sends one message. If you want to hang with your friends who all have X period free, that sends a different message. Look over the course options at your high school. Talk to friends and teachers who know something about classes that look interesting to you. How much work is involved? Is it work you want to be doing? Will it help you further your goals?

2) When choosing extracurricular activities, focus on exploring interests, having fun, and improving skills.

Take advantage of the balance you’ve created by choosing your courses wisely and use some time to do something (or things). What do you care about: Kids? Animals? Robots? Writing? Sports? Music? Earning money? If you find something you like, stick with it, get better, and consider ways to take on leadership roles. If it doesn’t turn out to be what you thought it was, find something new. I often get asked, “Should I be doing more community service?” My answer is, “only if you want to.” If you’re doing something merely because you think you should be, or because it will “add value” to your college application, then it is not likely to help you. What will matter most to the admission officers who read your application are the things that matter most to you.

3) When taking standardized tests, focus on the ones that will yield the highest scores. 

Standardized testing is one area everyone in the process – high schools, colleges, parents, and students – can agree on: higher scores are better. Distinguishing as early as you can between the SAT and the ACT and determining which test makes the most sense for you can help you focus your limited time on achieving your best outcome. Colleges don’t care which test you take. In fact, there are over 850 colleges and universities that don’t require testing at all and that number grows nearly every week. So if testing isn’t your thing, that’s OK. Find schools that allow you to display your many other strengths.

4) When choosing teachers to write letters of recommendation, focus on relationships rather than grades.

Some of the best letters of recommendation are written by teachers on behalf of students who struggled in their class. Students who seek extra help are likely to develop deeper relationships with teachers than those who merely show up to class and turn in assignments. Admission officers want to know what kind of student you are, yes, but they also want to know what kind of person you are. Choose teachers who can speak to both. And spend time getting to know your teachers so that when you ask, they have something to say.

5) When writing your essay, choose a topic that allows you to speak in your own voice about something that matters to you.

When I worked in an admission office, students often asked me what I wanted to read about in an essay. My answer was always, “I want to read about what you want to write about.” The essay is your story, no one else’s. In some cases it might be your only chance to speak directly to the people making a decision about your candidacy. These people want to get to know you. So pick a topic that matters to you and write in your own style. Seek help from people you trust and who know you well but don’t let them hijack your essay. Before you send it, make sure it says what you want it to say. 

Click here to read Part 2, tips 6-10!

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