You can mess up in your freshman year of high school and still get into one of the top-ranked—and comparatively affordable—public universities, says Theodore Spencer, executive director of the University of Michigan's Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
But to separate yourself out from the 50 percent of applicants who get rejected from Michigan, you'd better buckle down and get good grades as a sophomore and junior. And you need to write a great essay explaining the lapse, he says.
Spencer spills other secrets of winning admission to elite public colleges in this video:
VIDEO: University of Michigan Admissions Officer
Spencer says many students don't realize:
Admissions officers know which schools are tough: Selective schools like Michigan keep good records about each high school. The admissions officers know that a B from a tough school may be worth more than an A from another school. So a student with a lower grade-point average and good test scores from a more rigorous school might have a better chance of admission than the valedictorian from another school who has mediocre scores, Spencer says.
An A in study hall won't impress admissions officers: Admissions officers at selective schools like Michigan scrutinize students' records to see what courses they took. A student who got a 4.0 by taking "guts" or easy classes will be at a disadvantage when compared with a student who was willing to take tougher classes and prove that he or she can handle college-level work.
Smart slackers get thin envelopes: Smart applicants with high test scores who found high school boring and so have low grades are generally not looked upon favorably. Spencer says those students might do better to show they can work hard and succeed at a community college before applying to a selective school like Michigan.
Winners prove they can succeed in college: The key to a fat acceptance envelope, he says, is persuading an admissions officer that the student has "the passion and persistence it takes in an environment of a lot of freedom to succeed" in college. Success in high school is one of the best predictors of success in college, he notes.