The 4 Pillars of College Application Season
College admissions are undoubtedly stressful for us all. Whether you’re a freshman with college as a thought in the back of your mind or you’re a junior/senior currently working on your essays, college is something that will haunt many of us until we finish applying and receive our acceptances. It’s clear college admissions are an extremely important time in our lives and so in this article, you will learn about the 4 main pillars - GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and essays - for getting into the college of your choice, and how you can use those pillars to increase your chances of acceptance to your dream school.
Firstly, let’s discuss GPAs. GPAs are one of the most important (if not most important) factors in getting into your dream college. Your grade point average shows the rigor of your high school classes as well as how well you performed in them. For those who may not know, GPA’s are calculated as such: your grade point average (GPA) is the sum of all your course grades throughout your high school career divided by the total number of credits. Most high schools (and colleges) report grades on a 4.0 scale, awarding a 4.0 for an A grade, 3.0 for a B grade, and so on. For example, if you were to get an A in 5 of your classes and a B in 2 of them in a certain school year, your GPA for that year might be (4.0 + 4.0 + 4.0 + 4.0 + 4.0 + 3.0 + 3.0) / 7 = 3.71. But, this is all relative as most schools have what are known as weighted classes (usually AP’s or honors), which are worth more GPA wise and will boost your grade point average more than regular classes. GPAs for weighted classes might look like this: awarding 5.0 for A, 4.0 for B, and so on. So, the key to getting the highest GPA is taking all weighted classes and getting A’s in all of those classes, right? No, not necessarily. The classes we choose are extremely important and have a huge impact on our ability to get into our dream schools, so it is for us to select courses that challenge us and show to colleges that we are up for the task of working and studying hard. But, it is not smart to become blindsided by this and sign up for 6 AP classes when you know you will not be able to handle them. In fact, you’ll be stressed out, your grades will suffer as a result, and you will not have enough time to dedicate towards extracurricular activities and relaxation. So, the key to getting a good GPA is doing what is right for you! Don’t take certain classes just to pad your transcript or because your friends are taking them, but take a mix of challenging (weighted or AP) classes - to challenge yourself and boost your grade point average - and normal classes - to promote learning and have a solid transcript once you graduate. This will show colleges that you are open to new challenges, but will also keep you from being constantly stressed and burnt out.
Now let’s discuss test scores, specifically standardized testing such as the ACT and SAT. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges in the US opted to go test-optional or even test blind, sparking the debate as to whether this should be a permanent feature or not. Though debates have raged on, this is not a topic that will be resolved in the near future. So, it will still be important for those who may be applying for college in the next few years to study for and do well on standardized tests to boost their chances for getting into their dream school. So how can they prepare? Practice. The ACT, SAT, and tests like them all follow a pattern. Year after year. Test date after test date. Knowing the in and outs of the test will do miracles in helping you succeed. So here’s what you can do. First, take a practice test to see where you stand at the moment. After that, if you’re preparing during the school year, dedicate 1 hour each day towards test prep. Monday through Friday, work through as many practice problems as you can in that 1 hour and on Saturday, take a practice. Repeat this process as long as you’d like and when you reach a level where you’re confident in every section of the test, you can skip the practice problems and focus solely on taking practice tests every couple of days. The process is similar if you’re preparing during the summer, but you can ramp up your practice to accommodate for the extra time you may have. Make sure to go over your mistakes - every single mistake - on your practice tests. Otherwise, there is quite simply no point in spending so much time on practice tests if you decide not to look at what you did wrong and work on those mistakes. Overall, there are two main keys to being successful in standardized testing: practice and correcting mistakes. Practice over and over again, and look over every single mistake while learning what you did wrong and what you can do right next time.
Let’s now turn to extracurriculars, one of the most confusing aspects of college applications. The numbers are pretty straightforward: you either have a high GPA or not, you did well on the ACT or SAT or not. But how can we judge our extracurriculars? Many students judge their extracurriculars in terms of quantity. Quantity over quality, right? No! We need to look at extracurriculars in terms of quality over quantity. Colleges would much rather prefer a student who does 3 or 4 solid extracurricular activities, attaining leadership positions and awards while furthering their community through those set 3 or 4, rather than one who does just about every club at school but doesn’t do much or dedicate much time to each. Colleges understand that students cannot be a part of every club their school offers and still be a productive member of each and so it’s foolish for us to put that pressure on ourselves. So, when choosing what extracurriculars you want to be a part of, here are a few tips. Firstly, do extracurriculars related to your intended area of study. If you want to study business in college, consider joining clubs such as FBLA or DECA. If you are interested in medicine consider joining Science Bowl or HOSA. Joining clubs related to your intended area of study and dedicating extra hours towards those topics shows colleges that you are passionate about these subjects and that passion will translate well into their campus. But, we have to keep in mind that this is relative because most students are not fully decided on what they want to study/pursue in college. That is completely okay! In that case, and really even if you know what you want to study in college, make sure to do extracurriculars that you are passionate about. The activities that you are truly passionate about are the ones you will excel in, and so whatever those activities may be, really put your best efforts into them - attaining leadership positions, earning awards, helping your community, etc. Colleges overall look at the quality of your work and the characteristics you show through that work (determination, persistence, consistency, etc.). So, the bottom line is: don’t think you need to become president of every club your school offers, but just focus on a handful of activities you’re passionate about and preferably relate to your intended area of study if you have one!
Finally, let’s discuss essays, the aspect of college admissions that we tend to ignore until the month leading up to submissions. The bottom line for college essays is getting you as a person across in writing. Yes, this may be a daunting task, but it’s also one of the only ways college admissions officials will be able to get to know you as a person. Grades, test scores, and what club you’re the president of will not inform college admissions officers on what your personal characteristics are or what kind of person you may be. So, the essay is your chance to show them the best side of you. Many people tend to think that you need a traumatic, life-changing incident to get into top schools, but really that’s not the case. An example we can look towards to prove this is the case of Brittany Stinson. Brittany became world famous in 2016 after her college essay on her childhood trips to Costco - yes, Costco - got her accepted into 5 Ivy League schools. What that essay, which is publicly available, showed us was that students don’t need to exhibit a traumatic event in their college apps to gain admissions into their dream schools. Brittany simply wrote about her childhood trips to Costco, but more importantly, she wrote about her characteristics, mindset, and personality and how those were exhibited through her visits to Costco. The bottom line is that college essays need to get you as a person across to admissions officers and you don’t need a dramatic experience to do so.
No matter what is written in this article or any others like it, college admissions season will bring in loads of stress to seniors. But, you need to keep this cliche advice in mind: the college you get into does not define you, your worth, or your intelligence. Whatever happens next spring, know that life is what you make it. Your career will still flourish, you will be happy, and life will go on, even if you don’t get into the college of your choice. It’s all about working hard. Best of luck to all of the seniors around the world applying later this year, and here’s to the future!