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.
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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.
"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."
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.
[Learn how to pay for college.]
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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