Getting a jump on your college prep is a key way to grab the advantage in a field that's more competitive than ever. The average number of applications per college went up 60 percent between 2002 and 2011, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
And the latest round proved the most cutthroat yet at many schools. A wide range of institutions, from Binghamton University—SUNY to Yale University, have seen applications climb this past season and acceptance rates drop.
The stiff competition can be blamed in part on the popularity of the Common Application, which makes it easier for students to cast a wide net. To stand out in the crowd and get picked, try the following suggestions from college admissions experts.
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1. Plan way ahead: Start plotting your academic route early, even before high school.
In order to take calculus senior year – a plus if you're aiming at selective colleges – students typically have to be ready for geometry or even algebra II as freshmen. Students interested in math or engineering can take advanced online math courses to get a second year of more advanced calculus under their belt.
Too late to get that head start? There's always summer school. The key "is showing that you are going above and beyond in the areas you love," says Michele Hernández, co-founder of college admissions counseling firm Application Boot Camp.
At the same time, start mulling your criteria for college. Getting a jump on the research allows students to build relationships with admissions counselors from colleges of interest who make recruiting visits to their school, says Faye Felterman Tydlaska, Tulane University's associate vice president for enrollment management.
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2. Weigh the early options carefully: Early admission programs, ranging from nonbinding early action – which comes through with a decision early but doesn't require accepted students to enroll – to early decision, which does obligate them to attend, are more popular than ever.
Many schools report double-digit growth in early applications from last year. At the California Institute of Technology, early applications rose 16 percent; Boston University reported an increase of more than 40 percent.
Early decision can allow colleges to secure more than half of their incoming freshmen before December 15, and give applicants an edge over those who apply in the regular round. Georgia Tech's early admit rate was 57 percent, more than triple its regular rate of 18 percent.
But committing to a school in the fall means students counting on the best possible financial aid package won't be able to compare offers, which are made in March.
When prodded, financial aid offices will estimate a package before a student applies early decision – and if an award ends up not meeting a family's needs, colleges will release them from the commitment. By then, however, it may be too late to apply to your next-favorite choices.
And it's not worth sacrificing choice if you're not truly sold on a school.
"Too often, the temptation comes from a different direction, like 'I'm definitely applying ED and where should I apply?'" says Karen Giannino, senior associate dean of admission at Colgate University. "The worst thing that can happen is if a student applies somewhere and gets in, and they no longer really want to go there."
[Consider the reasons to apply early action to college.]
3. Demonstrate your interest: The rising tide of applications has colleges seriously calling into question students' sincerity.
Author Peter Van Buskirk, former admissions dean at Franklin and Marshall College, suggests making yours known by visiting campus and introducing yourself to the regional director of admissions, who is "likely to be the first one to review your application and the last to defend it before decisions are final."
Increasingly, he says, regional recruiters "ping students to see if they're still engaged." You should respond, or risk falling off the radar.
The same advice applies if you land on the waitlist, which many colleges increasingly lean on. Staying in touch at this stage shows the admissions office that you're still a good catch. Send in any updated academic information and try to get a feel for how much and what type of contact is beneficial.
"You have to read the instructions of the school, because they all differ," stresses Pete Caruso, associate director of undergrad admissions at Boston College. Though "we clearly state that we're not meeting with wait-listed applicants," he says, inevitably some show up. "It makes for an awkward discussion."
Once all of the apps are in the mail, it's smart to reflect a bit and manage your expectations. Coming to terms with not getting your top choice can be difficult, but "it's not as if not getting into that school means there are no other options left," says Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
He sees that students are often driven to think that they should go to the school that's the hardest place to get in, whereas "we want them to find a place that is a good place for them."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.