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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."
He recommends staying in touch with the admissions office and making clear that you'll attend if you're accepted, then sending in new grades and honors and even visiting again.
7. Be true to yourself: All through his time at High Tech High International in San Diego, classmates and teachers kept telling Nathan Roberts that he should aim for the Ivy League. So he put Harvard and Yale University on his list, even though he sensed he'd be happier at a smaller liberal arts school.
After visiting Carleton College, Roberts realized it was the ideal place for him, with its excellent neuroscience program, small classes, personalized attention from professors, and focus on providing need-based financial aid. "I knew I could get just as good of an education there as anywhere else," says Roberts, who was wait-listed at Harvard and Yale University but withdrew once he visited Carleton, where he's now thriving as a junior.
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As for Kira Gressman, she spent the week after getting her rejections moping around and feeling sorry for herself. She then took another look at her only option—the University of Colorado–Boulder honors program, where she's now in her second year—and realized that it was actually a great match.
She saw that there would be "lots of opportunities for me to succeed and to make a contribution to the world at Boulder." And that, she says, is "what I really want from my college experience."
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