How to Get Into College

Posted by Brenda Ronan on Jan 13, 2020 4:36:00 PM

If you are a high school student that is planning on going to college, chances are someone (probably a parent) has been asking about what your plan is – where do you want to go? Have you been studying for your SATs? 


Our goal in this article is to offer advice on how you can take the required steps for college admission and do them better; we want to offer tips and tricks to help you reach your full potential and stretch into your top-choice college.

Some of what it takes may seem like common sense (like getting good grades), but some of the things you can do to increase your chances of getting admitted to your top choice are not quite so obvious (like carefully crafting a robust, four-year high school class schedule).

*colleges/universities: While we don’t deny connotative differences between a College and University, we are going to use them interchangeably in this article as students aspiring to either one may be reading.


Choosing High School Coursework for Better College Acceptance Rates

Extracurricular Activities to Get Into College

ACT and SAT Prep Classes

How to Research and Choose Colleges to Apply To

Tips for the Application Process

Writing a Standout College Application Essay

Choosing High School Coursework for Better College Acceptance


There is a common misconception that getting into college is predicated on only the most recent years of your resume – this can lead to a lack of planning and focus throughout some students’ Freshman and Sophomore years. In reality, most colleges are going to want to see a complete effort throughout your high school experience, or at least a marked upward trajectory throughout your high school career. Here are a few things that you can focus on while in high school to help increase your chances of landing a spot at a top university. 

Choose your High School Classes wisely – for ALL FOUR years!

Choosing classes is something you should focus on throughout high school, not just your Junior and Senior year. Best practice would be creating a plan before your freshman year to make sure you are optimizing your time. This doesn’t mean your plan can’t change, but starting with some structure will help you put together the best schedule possible for you. If you are well past your Freshman year, don’t panic; you can’t change the past, but you can start to look at the remainder of your time in high school and see how you can create a schedule that will give you some broad experience but also include classes that will test and showcase your ability, especially in your favorite fields. You can lean on guidance counselors and mentors to help you create a great, bespoke blueprint for success. 

Considerations while designing a schedule

Everyone knows college admissions are predicated heavily on standardized test scores and grades, but the rigor and schedule of your classes will also be taken into consideration. Someone taking the bare-minimum of lower-level classes with a 4.0 is certainly not as impressive as someone who excelled with a great GPA while taking Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

Curating a good schedule is going to be different for each student; more is not always better. If you are so overloaded with schoolwork your grades are slipping, that is not going to be helpful. Many colleges will use a cumulative GPA, so getting behind in your Freshman or Sophomore year will mean playing catchup for the rest of your time in high school. Also, many colleges require you to submit grades for your Senior year, so avoid the Senior Slide!

As previously mentioned, AP, Honors and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes are very good indicators to an admissions officer. Depending on your school, they may also be weighted, which means that if you score well, they may actually bring up your GPA. They demonstrate that you weren’t afraid of tough classes – getting good scores on the AP test is also very important - most top colleges only approve of an AP score of 5 (out of 5) on these tests.

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Life Outside of the Classroom


While colleges want to see that you can handle a full school schedule, they also expect you to have interests outside of school as well. They want to see that you have enriching experiences that can help you thrive at college and be an asset to their student body.

Extracurricular Activities

Outside of your high school courses, you are going to want to build up some good life experiences, too. Extracurricular activities, such as athletics, drama clubs, National Honor Society and tech clubs can be helpful. Volunteer or paid positions in your field of interest can be incredibly beneficial as well. For example, if you are interested in studying medicine, you could volunteer at a free health clinic on the weekends. Leadership roles in your extracurriculars are also important. Do your best to find things that you are truly passionate about; not only will you enjoy it more and get more out of that situation, but that authenticity will show through on your application.

During the school year, you want to make sure you find the right balance. You don’t want to be involved in every single thing you can find, for many reasons. Colleges will assume your time and interests are finite; they want students that maximize their time by getting the most out of it, not necessarily just packing it full to pad a resume. You also need to make sure you aren’t taking on so many responsibilities that you are letting your grades slip, burning out or neglecting your social life. 

Summer Activities

One of the best ways to showcase this is to utilize your summers wisely. Many of the same options exist for you during the summer, but you should have a bit more time and energy to pursue. Find what moves you and get involved volunteering, interning or working. You can also use this time to hone up some of your skills that may need a bit of work, as well as pursing the things you really love. 

Pre-College Programs

Pre-College summer programs can be a great way to not only bolster your resume and gain experience but to also get exposure to college life. This can be especially helpful if there is a summer program offered at one of your top choice schools. Pre-College programs can give you the latitude to fill in gaps in your education history, work on any areas that need improvement or even help you work towards mastery in your favorite subject.

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ACT and SAT Prep Classes 

While the overall decision of whether or not to join an SAT Prep class will be up to each student (and maybe their parents), many students find there are distinct benefits. For example, they are incredibly focused – this means students can typically learn more in less time. They are also much better at helping to simulate practice exams – for many students, the stress of taking the test is the issue – not the knowledge that is required. A good instructor will know the exam, and how to resonate with students, incredibly well – this is especially important for high-performers, where any extra tip or trick could help land that dream score.

How to Research and Choose Colleges to Apply To


Choosing a College

Some students have known where they wanted to attend college since they were little. Others have had no preconceived notions and are open to somewhere they feel led. Most students, however, are somewhere in the middle. There may be some schools they are interested in, but they haven’t decided exactly which schools would be their top choice. 


There are a few strategies to follow when you are deciding which schools to apply to. The first one is pretty easy; you want to do plenty of research – this can be from the comfort of your home on your laptop while you wear pajamas. The internet is an endless source of info – use it productively. Another way to be productive from your computer is to use social media wisely; if there is a school you are interested in and you have contact with students at that school, for example, reach out. They will likely be able to provide great insight based on their actual experiences at the school. College fairs can expose you to many options, but may not offer as much info as scheduling a college visit and meeting with school representatives.

Throughout your research you are going to:

  • Make a pros and cons list
  • Meet with school reps
  • College visits
  • Consider a few of your top choices, as well as a safety school (see more about this topic in the Application Tips section)

Considerations when selecting a college

It is helpful to make a pros and cons list and toss around different rankings or preferences. You will want to consider a few of your top choices, understanding at least one of them may be a ‘stretch’ school, but do not get lax about choosing a safety school that you believe would also be a good fit for you.

There are a lot of factors to think about when deciding on the perfect college or university for you. Here are a few considerations:

  • Is it the right size? This can pertain to commute, class size, and overall size of the student body. Some students are comfortable in a smaller setting, while some want the excitement of a huge, bustling campus that feels more like a self-contained city. 
  • What is the academic reputation of this college/university? 
  • What resources and facilities would be available to me at this school for my major/career aspirations?
  • Do they offer the majors I am interested in? If so, does this seem like a major this institution prioritizes and takes pride in?
  • What kind of clubs and activities are available?
  • Location – this is something you can’t change, so you likely want to get it right. You want to think not only about how far it is located from friends and family but where it is situated – do you prefer an urban or more rural setting?
  • How is the Alumni Network?
  • Is there a robust Career Services center?

Deciding on a College Major

Should I know my major before I choose a school?

This question can depend on the college, as some colleges do require you to choose a major during the application process. Most colleges, however, do offer the choice of ‘Undecided.’ Aside from any college-specific circumstances, you don’t necessarily have to know your major before getting to college.

However, it is good to know your interests and strengths and most students will at least have an idea of what major may interest them. Students applying to top colleges, for example, will typically have to demonstrate excellence and passion in their field to be admitted in the first place. 

It can also have a huge impact on which schools you are interested in. Not all colleges may have the majors you are interested in, for example. Or, certain colleges may have a much better focus on certain departments, have better job placement outcomes or other factors that have the potential to play a huge role in your post-collegiate life.

Tips for Choosing a College Major

    • Get real-world experience in the areas you are interested in – seeing the day-to-day careers in that field can go a long way in showing you whether that is the right major for you. Many students opt to use their summers as a way to explore their options, especially through a Pre-College Program.
    • Try a broad set of classes – being exposed to a variety of disciplines can help you find a new field you love or even help you select a career or major by process of elimination.
    • Understand the life you envision for yourself and apply this to college majors. Make sure your field of choice and potential careers, match with your priorities in life. 
    • Make fact-based decisions – choosing a major can be emotional and stressful. However, it is important to go in with eyes wide open and make decisions based on facts, as well as feelings. This doesn’t, for example, have to mean sacrificing a passion just because job prospects are low – it just means that you need to have realistic expectations of what to expect once you graduate.
    • Don’t Choose a college major just to choose one – many high school students (and college Freshmen and Sophomores) feel a lot of pressure to choose their major. However, don’t let the pressure force you into a choice you aren’t comfortable with.

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Tips for the Application Process:

chop-summer-campTips for the actual application: alright, so you have gained some great experiences, received good grades, scored well on your standardized tests and have an idea of which schools you think would suit you best. You have been working up to this point, but now comes the critical part: you need to actually submit applications to your schools of choice.

The College Application Process

Once you have narrowed down the number of schools you want to apply to, it's important to stay organized! You need to know the deadlines for each of the schools and the required materials. If you are applying to several schools you may want to keep a spreadsheet of the schools along with deadlines and required materials for each. You will want to give your references plenty of time before the deadline to write a recommendation. You will also want to make sure you are able to take the SATs or ACTs and give yourself enough time to take them again if you feel you need to increase your score. 

Early Decision is also an important aspect to consider if you have a top school that you want to attend, have done your research on the school, and are certain you can afford it regardless of scholarships or financial aid. Remember you can only apply to one school using Early Decision and if you are accepted, you are agreeing to go to that school. Some schools that offer this as an option see these types of applicants as showing a lot of enthusiasm for the school and can make a good impression on admission counselors. Some schools even have high acceptance rates for these types of applications. 

How to ask someone for a letter of recommendation

Pretty much all college applications require the applicant to provide letters of recommendation or contacts that can serve as a reference. At first, this might seem straightforward. However, there are a few tips to make sure this goes smoothly and puts you in the best position to get into your top-choice school. The process of asking someone to write a letter of recommendation or act as a reference begins long before you are submitting your application.

Building a rapport, through genuine interactions and cultivated relationships is very important. This will allow people in positions of authority to get to know exactly what makes you tick, what your strengths are and why you should be admitted to a great college. Once you build these deep relationships, the actual task of asking for a recommendation shouldn’t be too hard – most teachers, mentors, etc, are more than happy to write a recommendation for those people they truly believe in. This is also where it is important to take a step back and make sure you are choosing the right references; it is often a teacher, coach or mentor, but anyone that can accurately paint a good portrait of your abilities can work well. However, and this should go without saying, make sure you ask politely without making any assumptions. Definitely be sure to send thank you notes to those that write recommendations for you. 

How Many Colleges Should I Apply to?

You have narrowed down your list of colleges you're interested in and now you're tasked with putting the pedal to the metal and actually applying. With the competitive admissions trend booming, should students go application crazy? The question on every college bound student’s mind is: how many colleges should I apply to?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question because it really depends on your personal situation or preferences. The standard suggested number students should apply to colleges is between 6-8 schools. The thought behind this is you will sort out the schools you are interested in and categorize them into safeties, target, and reaches.

“Safety” colleges
This term refers to universities where you well beyond meet the requirements and there would be little chance of rejection. Applying to a safety school does not have to be because of academic safety but also financial safety. Students should apply to one to two safety schools.

“Target” colleges
This term refers to universities where you meet the necessarily requirements and have a decent chance of gaining admission. This is also a university where a student's feels they will be fulfilled socially and academically, even if it is not their first choice. Students should apply to two to four target schools.

“Reach” colleges
This term refers to universities where they are less likely to accept you. This may be because of your qualifications may fall slightly short of what they are looking for, or competition is extremely limited for incoming freshman. Students should apply to one to two reach schools.

Although it is important to have safety schools, be mindful in the schools you choose. Do not apply to any schools you could not see yourself actually attending. It will be a waste of your time and application fee.

While there is no limit to the number of schools you can apply to, keep in mind the time and money that it takes to apply to each college. Ultimately the decision is up to you and what you feel most comfortable with after evaluating your list of colleges you are interested in.

Writing a Standout College Admission Essay

The essay is one of the tools colleges use to get beyond your resume and accomplishments – they can look at your transcript, test scores and lists of extracurriculars to get a good idea of what you have done – but that doesn’t tell them who you are.

The essay is your chance to give them a glimpse of what you bring to the table. All the accomplishments in the world can ring hollow to an admissions officer if they don’t believe in your character or you as a person.

Basic Essay Writing Tips

Nailing your essay is incredibly important for getting accepted into a great school. Most of the conventional wisdom holds true, but there are definitely some caveats to make sure your essay stands out.

  • This should be pretty obvious, but bears repeating – you need to be maniacal about your mechanics. This includes your spelling, grammar, diction and especially your tone. Proofread like a myopic English teacher. Don’t be afraid to bring in counselors, mentors or parents to give you another set of eyes.
  • Tone: There are a lot of ways that you can use your personal writing style and creativity to design and write your essay. Allowing yourself to use your voice and let your personality shine through is absolutely okay, just be sure your overall tone still comes across as contemplative and mature.

Choosing your Essay Topic

Most applications, like the Common Application, offer a range of essays from which you can choose. They are often left pretty open-ended to allow you the latitude to go in the direction you see fit. While you want to make sure you choose the best essay to convey your strengths and character, it is important to remember that storytelling can make or break your essay. Make sure you choose an essay and focus on a topic you are confident will capture the reader.

College Admission Essay Takeaways

  • As you are putting together your application and writing your essay, keep in mind the goal of college admissions: they want to facilitate growth and learning to help their alumni achieve amazing things. The purpose of your application should be to demonstrate your potential and make it clear that with their help, you will make an impact on not only your field of study but the world.
  • Juli Bennet is not only an expert at Back to Basics Learning but also a mother who has guided her three children through the college application process. She reminds us that “colleges today want kids that are real, who have real ideas and thoughts of their own. Don’t be afraid to be authentic.”

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About JKCP Summer Programs

Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs offers summer camps and programs to students ages 4 – 18 on prestigious college campuses. From cooking to science and business to medicine, we have over 20 programs. Summer should be about doing something you love, meeting people from all over the world, preparing for college or your future career or experiencing something new. At Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs, we make summer better by creating experiences people love.

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Topics: College Admissions

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