"So many families say, 'I'm going to have this many APs, is that enough?' but that's not the right question, because there is no magic number," says Greg Roberts, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. "You need to ask ... things like: Where are my strengths? Where are my interests? ... What are the top students taking? Which AP classes are more challenging, and which are not?"
Admissions officers will glean the answers from the "profile" of your high school that your counselor submits with your application, which outlines curriculum offerings, demographics, and grade distribution.
3. Don't apply too broadly: Grace Oberhofer decided to apply to an even dozen colleges. "I wanted to have options," says the 2011 graduate of Tacoma School of the Arts in Washington. She got them: Though wait-listed by first choice Harvard University, she was accepted at Tulane University, Oberlin College, Brandeis, Duke University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Tufts, where she is a sophomore this fall.
But she was taken aback by all the time and effort it took to present herself to each and write all those essays while "making sure my schoolwork was going well and still trying to hang out with my friends on weekends." Indeed, a recent study by the College Board showed that the vast majority of students report that the more colleges they apply to, the more stressful the experience is. Perhaps because of that pressure, overapplying can actually hurt your chances.
"It's tough to put together a personal, genuine application that shows commitment to a particular school when you're applying to 20 different places," says Jeff Pilchiek, the director of guidance at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas. "It's much better to be an exceptional applicant at six schools than an average applicant at 12 or 20."
4. There's room for error, with an explanation: You don't need a perfect record to get into the school of your dreams. You must, however, provide an explanation for any significant blip. "Seventeen-year-olds ... haven't seen the world yet or perfected who they will become, so it's natural to see some students who have some flaws in their applications ... It lends an authenticity to their candidacy," says Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College in California. But, he adds, you shouldn't just "hope we don't notice you goofed up!"
The personal essay, your teacher recommendations, or an interview can be used to clarify a discrepancy in grades or behavior. For instance, write about how that B in AP chemistry resulted from a valiant battle to bring up an early D, which helped you grow as a scholar. "Don't let a reader make the wrong assumptions," says Allen, "because that is typically not going to work in [your] favor."
[Get expert tips for writing your college application essay.]
5. Don't just be a joiner: Top colleges are increasingly after well-rounded student bodies of individual specialists: the football player, the poet, the mathematician. So "it's better to be involved in fewer activities wholeheartedly over time, rather than 9 or 10 superficially," and make an impact, IvyWise's Cohen says.
One math whiz she counseled founded a microfinance club at her high school and then raised more than $100,000 to fund projects in Third World countries; another spent three years researching his school's light bulbs, water flow, and air systems, then developed a sustainability plan that saved more than $6 million.
6. Work the wait list: High schoolers aren't the only ones who have to deal with unpredictability. Because colleges now have such a tough time figuring out how many accepted students will actually show up on the first day of classes, many are being more strategic these days about using the wait list, taking a number of students from it in order to improve their stats.
"Don't regard that letter as a polite denial," advises author Peter Van Buskirk, former admissions dean at Franklin and Marshall College. Many enrollment officers, he explains, "are saying if they have to admit four to five students in regular decision to enroll one, maybe [they] ought to take more students from the wait list, where they only have to admit maybe four to get three."