Kira Gressman happened to be at NASA in Houston, conducting an experiment with other students on a new plant growth chamber that she'd helped develop, when she got word that her top-choice college, Brown University, didn't want her. Nor did Amherst College or Tufts University, and she'd been wait-listed by Brandeis University. Gressman, a senior at Lakewood High School in Colorado, was crushed (though she did get into the University of Colorado–Boulder).
She'd pulled many an all-nighter working toward her 3.6 unweighted GPA in the International Baccalaureate program and an ACT score of 33, while also playing French horn in the all-state honor band and mellophone in the marching band, and volunteering with a teen suicide-prevention organization and a nonprofit that helps rescue child soldiers in Uganda.
"I felt like I had done everything I possibly could to get into a great school, and none of it helped me in the end," she says. "What else are these schools looking for?"
It's not always easy to tell, in the increasingly cutthroat world of college admissions. The 2011-2012 round brought rising numbers of applications and lower admission rates at a broad range of schools, from the most selective to traditional "safety" schools that are no longer such a sure thing.
Some of the blame can be placed on the spread of the Common Application and the ease of applying to multiple schools. But applicants also just keep getting more accomplished. For example, of the 26,664 students who applied to Princeton University for fall 2012, fully 10,225 had a 4.0 GPA, and 13,945 scored at least a 2100 on the SAT.
[See the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings.]
Much of what goes into the hard choices college admissions officers have to make is beyond students' control, such as whether institutions are prioritizing matters like diversity, legacy applicants, or athletic recruiting in a given year. So it's crucial to know all about everything you can control and learn how to "position yourself throughout the process," says Eileen Feikens, director of college guidance at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey.
To that end, U.S. News asked guidance counselors, private counselors, and the people making the admissions decisions for tips on navigating the madness:
1. Get an early start and finish strong: Colleges want to see that you've focused from the start on getting the best possible education your high school has to offer. "You really need a four-year plan," says Katherine Cohen, whose IvyWise admissions consulting company begins working with some families as early as the end of the student's eighth-grade year. "High school shouldn't just happen to you. You need to proactively make the most of your time there."
If you want to take calculus in your senior year, which many selective colleges like to see, you generally have to start with geometry as a freshman in order to end up in pre-calculus when you're a junior. Many schools now look for at least four years of a foreign language, says Cohen, and expect advanced classes in areas of strength, not coasting, in both 11th and 12th grade.
If it took you a while to get on track, consider making up lost ground in summer school or by doubling up on math, science, or foreign languages in your junior and senior years. "We like to see candidates who turn things around," says Kevin Dyerly, director of admission at Whitman College.
[Learn how to hone your academic angle.]
2. Challenge yourself responsibly: While grades remain the single biggest factor in admissions decisions, strength of curriculum is an ever-closer second. In the National Association for College Admission Counseling's most recent "State of College Admission" survey, 66 percent of staffers said they assign considerable weight to degree of challenge. Thank the evidence piling up that high schoolers who take more demanding classes are more likely to succeed in college.
So planning your course load becomes a balancing act. You want to take the most rigorous courses you're eligible for and are interested in—without sacrificing your health or social life.