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8 Amazing College Application Strategies That You Need to Know as a High Schooler

The college admissions landscape is only growing more competitive year on year. As schools receive increasingly higher numbers of applicants, acceptance rates are becoming lower than ever. It’s understandable to feel stressed in this environment. Although there’s an inherent subjectivity to application evaluation, it’s still possible for students to boost their odds through making strategic choices. In this blog, we’ll review eight essential strategies to keep in mind as you work on your college applications, from creating a smart choice of schools to crafting a cohesive application strategy. 

1. Build a balanced school list

While students understandably often want to aim for the most prestigious schools, it’s necessary to be realistic. With more and more acceptance rates dipping below 10%, even the strongest students cannot count on admission to highly selective schools. 

Most people familiar with the world of college admissions are aware of the labels of “Reach”, “Target”, and “Safety” schools. Generally, a “Reach” school can be considered any school where you’re below the middle 50% SAT/ACT and GPA of admitted students. Additionally, any school with an acceptance rate of below 15% must be considered a Reach (yes, even for those with a 4.0 and strong testing!). For a “Target” school, you should be above the middle 50% in these categories, and ideally higher. You should only consider somewhere a “Safety” school if you are well above the 75% range for SAT/ACT and GPA. 

I recommend that students apply to a number of Target and Safety schools that, combined, slightly outnumber the number of Reaches. For example, a great balance would be 5 Reaches, 3 Targets, and 3 Safeties. It’s important to put a lot of effort into choosing Target and Safety schools that strongly appeal to you. Even though it’s stressful to think about getting rejected from all of your Reach schools, it’s essential to have options if things don’t go your way.

2. Spend time on your activity list

In a resume-like structure, the Common App Activities List asks you to list up to 5 awards and provide brief descriptions of 10 extracurricular activities. Though this might seem like a quick, simple task to complete, there’s an art to crafting a compelling Activities List. 

Vague descriptions are not sufficient — you should aim to fill the activity description with concrete details, including as many numbers as possible. Don’t just write that you wrote for the school newspaper, share how many articles you published each month. Don’t just say you led fundraisers, tell the reader how much money you raised. Details like this will show the scale of your impact, which is crucial for impressing Admissions Officers. 

You should also take advantage of the space you have for the organization name (100 characters) and your position (50 characters). List all of the roles you had in the club if you had multiple leadership positions. Even if you don’t have an official title, describe what you did. For example, instead of saying you were a “Member” of the debate team, clarify that you were a “Public Forum Debater.” For clubs that have atypical or ambiguous names, use the extra space to explain its purpose or structure. Not to mention, the more information you can fit into these spaces, the more room you’ll have in the Description section to add more information about your accomplishments.

3. Leverage application review services

Rather than working right up to the deadline, it’s a strong idea to leave an extra week or two to refine your application materials. While editing on your own is essential to ensure you’re accurately describing your accomplishments and motivations for study, having a third party read over your work can help catch mistakes or areas of improvement that you may have missed. If your school counselor offers essay reviews, you should take advantage of that resource — make sure to check in advance whether they have any timeline requirements! You can also work with designated college application review services such as Early Bird, which offer feedback on your work from the perspective of an admissions officer. 

4. Choose strategic recommenders

Colleges place a lot of weight on Letters of Recommendation when evaluating your profile — this is where they’ll learn about what you’re like in the classroom, which is key information to determine if you’re the right fit for their school. These letters should emphasize both strong personal qualities and academic performance. 

The Common App requires students to submit three recommendations — one from their school counselor, and two from teachers. It is strongly advisable to select one teacher from a humanities course, and one from a STEM course. Remember, even though you’ll be majoring in a single discipline, nearly all schools require you to take general education courses across subjects. And, schools don’t want to admit a student who might be great at science but unable to write a strong research paper or lab report! Having balanced recommenders is necessary to show that you’re a talented student across the board. 

For a few other tips on choosing recommenders, consider the following strategies. Try to have one recommender who teaches the subject you intend to major in (or a related field), as you should be emphasizing your competence in this field. You should also aim to select recommenders from 11th grade, as colleges will want to see the most up-to-date information about your academic performance. 

5. Know the different application rounds

There are three main “rounds” in the college admissions cycle, which you should leverage strategically as you form your application plan. 

Regular Decision (RD) is the standard admissions plan — applications are generally due in early- to mid-January, and decisions are typically released in mid- to late-March.

However, there are a few other options that have the potential to boost your chances.

Early Action is a non-binding admissions plan where you’ll submit your application in November and receive a decision at some point between December and February, depending on the school. It is advisable to apply under this plan for all of the schools on your list that offer it. There is typically a (slightly) higher acceptance rate during this round, and having at least one acceptance before entering the RD round can be a massive stress relief.

Early Decision follows the same timeline as Early Action, but it includes a binding agreement to attend — if accepted, you must withdraw all other applications and commit to attending the school. The acceptance rate is often markedly higher than the RD rate, which makes it a good strategy for Reach schools. However, the binding commitment means you must be 100% confident that you’d love to attend if admitted.

6. Submit a portfolio if relevant

Though this won’t be applicable to all students, if you have outstanding abilities in research, music, visual art, performing arts, or writing, you should consider submitting a supplementary portfolio. In these optional submissions, you’ll submit evidence of your skills that can emphasize the value you’d bring to the university. Portfolios can include submissions ranging from research papers, videos of concert performances, photos of your artwork, or short samples of written work. 

It’s important that you only submit a portfolio if you’re sure that it would help your odds — typically only students who are competitive at a national or international level can benefit from these submissions. However, if these standards apply to you, don’t miss out on the opportunity to back up the accomplishments on your resume! Note that requirements may vary school-by-school. So, before compiling your portfolio, carefully review the standards set by each Admissions Office.

7. Create a cohesive application 

After you submit your application, the first person to read your materials will be your Regional Admissions Officer. This individual will review all applications from your area, and determine which applicants should move on to committee review. The Regional AO will have only a few minutes to “pitch” your application to the rest of the team, who will then deliberate on whether you ought to be accepted. So, your goal is to have an application that is easy to “sell” — the more cohesive and digestible, the easier it will be for your Regional AO to give a clear description of your profile and why you’re qualified to attend. 

In order to achieve this, ensure close alignment between your Activities List, essays, and choice of major. Emphasize the extracurriculars that connect most to your intended course of study, and add nuance to your resume descriptions within your “Why this major?” essay. Your application should show a clear narrative of your interests and motivations, with each component complementing the information provided in the others.

8. Plan essays strategically 

Nearly all colleges require applicants to submit supplemental essays in addition to the Common App personal statement. While prompts do vary between schools, certain types of essays are incredibly common. “Why us?” essays ask you to discuss the specific features of the school that have led you to apply. “Why this major?” prompts task you to describe your motivation towards your chosen field of study. Extracurricular essays entail an in-depth discussion of one of your activities. Diversity essays ask you to describe some aspect of your identity or background, and how your experiences would contribute to the campus community. 

While it is never advisable to submit the same essay word-for-word to different colleges, it is strategic to find universally-relevant information for these paradigmatic essays. For example, anecdotes about your involvement in a given extracurricular can often be reused without issue, though your analysis should be modified based on each prompt. Similarly, if you’re applying to the same major at different schools, the narrative of how you became interested in the field won’t change, though you’ll have to tailor your discussion based on the nuances of the program at individual schools. By preparing these components in advance, you can streamline the essay writing process and make it simpler to complete requirements for numerous applications. 

One other option - Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re interested in pursuing independent research, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!

Alexej is a graduate of Princeton University, where he studied Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Humanities & Sciences. Alexej works in college admissions consulting, and is passionate about pursuing research at the intersection of humanities, linguistics, and psychology. He enjoys creative writing, hiking, and playing the piano.




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