“How to get into good colleges?” is a question that generations of students struggle with. To obtain this goal, students should start preparing long before the college application process even begins. If you are lucky and prudent enough to read this well ahead of applying, congrats! I will help you navigate through the three major stages of getting into the college of your dreams.
Stage one. General Preparation. About a Year Before Applying to College
Okay, whether you are a high school student just about to start your senior year or whether you are in the middle of applying to a university – no worries! All of our recommendations can still be helpful, and there’s still time for you to profit from the following steps. So, with that said… where should we start?
1. Developing a reasonable grading system for available colleges
I get it: you are nervous about not being accepted into the college of your dreams, so maybe you’re grasping at every other option. But please, just breathe.
Apply the rule of the supermarket counter to your college choice: the more snacks are there, the less you’ll be satisfied with the one you picked up.
A wide variety of options can defocus you and increase your anxiety, uncertainty, and the amount of time you’ll have to prepare applications for the schools you really want to attend. Instead, let’s focus and create some clear criteria for your decision by asking the following questions:
- Do you have any restrictions concerning the amount of tuition? Will you need financial aid, grants, or scholarships?
- What major are you interested in?
- Can you move anywhere, or should it be a college somewhere nearby?
- How prestigious is the college?
- As far as acceptance goes, which schools are most likely to accept you based on your past achievements?
That’s it. Answer these five questions honestly, and you are already halfway there.
2. College application calendar
The very first step in completing the task is planning the task. Colleges differ in the application timeframes, and some have complicated multi-staged application processes. It helps to consider more than just the application deadline. What I mean here is to schedule all the activities you need to get done for your application so that you break down the process into steps and don’t have to worry about being late with your application. For instance, some universities explicitly let students know what courses they should take to improve their chances of being accepted.
I advise you to create a timeline with deadlines dedicated to each stage of preparation. Here is an example of an applicant planning to enter college in the fall of 2025:
In this example, the student started planning to apply to university at the beginning of their high school career, but as stated before, you can always make a similar document with a more condensed timeline. Throughout the process, bear in mind that it will be helpful if you start collecting all the documents and resources that you’ll need so you don’t wind up empty-handed when they’re needed.
3. Developing your character and self-presentation
Admission into college can be a cinch if you’re doing two things: not underperforming your competitors and offering something special or unique. The first point concerns your grades. The second is about your personality and the special contribution you can bring to the college’s reputation as a member of its student body. Many prestigious schools are looking to bring diversity to their campuses. This can mean bringing in people from different backgrounds or bringing in people who can bring unique and interesting qualities.
So, how do you present yourself in the best light? Here are some ideas:
- Highlighting your qualities in your motivation letter. Consider your positive qualities and how they align with the college’s mission statement.
- Showcase those times when you displayed leadership. Whether it’s business management, international relations, or electrical engineering, having the ability to lead can make you a more attractive candidate.
- Mention volunteering and participation in community activities. Campus life is a fantastic blend of activities. There are tons of social activities to get involved in, and many of them involve volunteering or helping out your community. Preparing for college means more than just getting good grades. The admission boards of the top universities see thousands of the best-of-the-best students every year. They are looking for people they’ll be proud to have living on campus as students and eventually visiting campus as alumni.
This step sometimes feels like you should mold yourself into some sort of “perfectly fitting college applicant.” But don’t do that. It’s not about erasing yourself to fit someone else’s mold, rather, it’s about developing the best version of yourself by pursuing your passions with passion.
4. Essay writing skills, preparing for SAT or ACT, and maintaining a high GPA
The Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Test are two gateways that can lead one to the next chapter in life. Most colleges and universities in the U.S. accept both of these tests, but some require a particular one. Both of these tests are going to take a while to do. Both of these tests test a range of skills and subjects to test a student’s preparedness for college, and both are going to be challenging for most students.
While it can be challenging to prepare for the SAT and ACT and keep your GPA (Grand Point Average) high, you can combine these goals. If you make the most of your studies, you’ll actually be preparing for the tests as well. Here’s how I managed to combine my regular studies with preparing for the tests:
- Comparing the current curriculum with the test program. I divided a paper into two columns and wrote down my curriculum requirements on one side and my test requirements on the other. Then, I checked where the two matched and made these points my studying priorities.
- Managing the differences. Where those points didn’t match, I developed two systems.
- First, I determined what the minimum amount of effort necessary to get a good grade. Unless particularly interested in the subject, I cut effort that exceeded my minimum criteria and instead put it into test preparation.
- Second, I brainstormed ways to connect the things that didn’t seem to match initially. For example, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in management. I felt a lack of relevant material in high school. So, while studying history, I paid special attention to the cases that involved leadership and how they impacted more significant issues, particularly when they pertained to businesses.
SAT and ACT are similar in that both tests are general evaluations of your ability to handle college-level courses. However, it’s worth paying attention to the grading systems and the number of questions. These two points differ between the two tests.
Stage Two. Active Preparation. Half of the Year Left Before Applying to College
In this stage, you already know what colleges are your top 5 targets, what are the application requirements, and when the deadlines are. This stage is the time to look for an insider from your preferred colleges and programs to learn about the good and the bad of the schools you’re interested in.
1. Contacting a college admission consultant or anybody from the college community
The majority of educational institutions, regardless of the level of degree they provide, have a person responsible for communicating with students, current and potential. Some have a special advisor that helps guide applicants through the college acceptance process. Either way, you need to contact somebody who is part of the college community to understand the core values and basic processes at the college. You can even get a sense of the lifestyle at your potential college if you put in some time to research it.
2. Psychological preparation
Getting into college is a highly demanding process that can mobilize all your resources. It can require hard work and preparation, leading to worrying and even some sleepless nights. The process can be long. You might be juggling filling out your college applications with writing your papers. You might also be stressed about not getting accepted.
So why am I saying all this? To drag you down? No! I just want you to be aware of what you might experience and to be prepared for it. Here are some things to consider:
- You may or may not get into your first-choice college. Either way, it’s fine. The phrase “there are other fish in the sea” also works with colleges. There are lots of other colleges out there. You might even end up liking one of the others better than your first choice! There are 50 states in the U.S., and each has many colleges. Many grant solid financial aid and offer academic excellence.
- After finishing one intense period, you should be ready for the next one. I don’t know whether you realize this, but after getting into college, you will still have work to do. You will still have responsibilities, homework, and your social life to think about – so getting into college is not your final destination in life. Finally, if you remember one thing from what I’ve written, remember this next point.
- Your mental health is your #1 priority. If you want this bad enough, you WILL get into a good college. But whether you’re already in college or preparing to get there, take care of yourself. Stay hydrated. Sleep well. Try to relax because worrying solves nothing.
3. Gathering all your documents
The document requirements across colleges in the U.S. are simultaneously similar and different. What you generally need for college admission is:
- Your personal data (usually in the application form, specific to each college)
- Academic transcripts
- Recommendation letters and/or honors letters
- Extracurricular activities
- Standard Test Scores
You’ll likely find more precise information about the documents you need on the college website or by contacting the college via phone, email, or in person. Some colleges use universalized programs for collecting prospective student information. For instance, Harvard College refers applicants to the Common App. Here is the first step of filling in the info via this service so you have an example of how the process looks:
Stage Three. Application
1. Early application
It is true that colleges provide opportunities for applicants to apply early. Here, you might consider a theory. Some say that when reading a resume, the admission committee is more likely to remember the very first lines of the application than the last ones. Some also say that this applies to any sample of data. But even if you don’t agree with this theory, there are other reasons why you might consider applying early. One is that the admissions committee might start choosing students early. Another is that you’ll appear to know what you want early on. And another is that it’ll probably be less stressful for you ultimately. Who wants to find out last minute that they’ve got something missing from their application form? Or that the week that you planned to fill out your application form is the same week of the concert that you just have to see?. Thus, an early admission plan and knowing the terms of all intakes can be helpful.
Early application means that you can start applying in November of the preceding year. For example, if you want to study in the fall of 2025, documents for early application should be all set in October-November of 2024.
2. Managing your online reputation
Five to ten years ago, this point had little impact on your admission chances. However, in the modern digital era, social media can tell a story about your reputation and reveal a lot about your values and personality. Anyway, the college application form may or may not require your social media profiles.
The internet never forgets a thing. Your comments, funny videos you share, and careless posts could become a source of conflict with your future employer or educational institution. To avoid that, here is what you can do:
- Make sure your public posts, reposts, and digital footprint won’t be a source of embarrassment.
- Understand that many colleges seek to build open and diverse campuses, so if you express racist, sexist, or homophobic views, you may be rejected.
- Make your public social media profiles a reflection of your personality. No need to morph them into your resume – but it helps if your social media reflects the statements you make in your application form
3. Double-checking everything
Well, here we go! My last recommendation is not to send your application form without looking it over. Even doing it a few times with some time breaks can help. It’s remarkable how much you might miss the first time doing something and how much you can spot when you look at something with fresh eyes. This is certainly true of college applications as well.
That’s all, I wish you the absolute best of luck with your application process. Maybe I will see you on campus!