By Katie, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
Most savvy college applicants these days are finely tuned into the fact that it takes a lot more than being an accomplished, high-achieving student to gain a coveted acceptance to the nation’s top institutions. But how exactly do you develop the best applicant profile? What can you do over your four years of high school to define your niche, find that hook, and, most importantly, become the best version of yourself that colleges will be excited to snatch right up?
A lot of developing your profile is hard work on your part as the student: to give 110% to the things you love and are passionate about, to identify and pursue your interests with excitement and enthusiasm, to take the most challenging classes you can while maintaining high grades, and so on. It’s a tall order to develop a profile that colleges will jump on, but here are a few key items to focus on that will help you work towards developing the best profile.
Begin getting active and involved as early as possible. It’s okay if your interests shift and change as you navigate high school, but admissions officers love to see longer-term, sustained, and continued commitment to activities, interests, and endeavors. While you might not see how being involved with Model United Nations or playing a sport all four years of high school will factor into your overall profile when you apply, they’re still valuable. You might not be angling to be a college-level athlete or an international delegate, but don’t underestimate the value admission officers see in you committing long-term to an activity, showing up for practice every day, working hard, contributing to group efforts, and navigating challenges — all great qualities that colleges look for in their prospective students.
Be Intentional About Academics and Testing
To be given serious consideration by the most highly selective universities out there, you need to have succeeded at the most rigorous and challenging curriculum available to you. Grade inflation, coming out of the pandemic, is pretty rampant across the U.S. While a lower grade or two across your four years was easier to look past or explain away during the pandemic, this is no longer true. This is less applicable to international education systems, as there is not the same degree of grade inflation in the British, French, German, Chinese, or other systems.
This is tough, and I wish there was more room for bumps in the road in the process. But the process is competitive for so many schools these days, so without another significant hook, one low grade or taking fewer AP courses compared to other top students at your high school can be an easy reason for an admissions officer to punt your application to the “no” pile.
I offer the same caveat around test scores. Although so many schools have remained test-optional, optional still means strongly recommended. The one caveat with this is that if your test scores are below the middle 50% of admitted students, it does not benefit you to submit test scores and give the college a reason to deny you. Better to try your odds test-optional.
Make an Impact in Extracurriculars and Activities
There still is no magic combination of activities that a college is looking for, but being active in your school community, finding ways to make an impact on the world around you, and participating and contributing to group efforts are all things that help make up your extracurricular profile. Colleges want to admit students who will be active in their student government; write breaking news stories for the school paper; or contribute to university-wide initiatives around diversity, equity, and inclusion. The best way to gauge who those students might be is to look at what they do with their time after school, on weekends, and during the summer.
As a 9th grader, cast a wide net — join a bunch of things and figure out what you like. Then as you progress into 10th and 11th grade, cull the things you don’t really love and put your time and energy into those things that bring you joy. But equally important to being part of these activities and endeavors is thinking about the impact you want to leave. How will the club sustain itself after you graduate? How are you leaving things better than when you joined? What can you do to improve or contribute to group efforts?
Plan Productive Summer Breaks
I often have conversations with students and families about what the “best” thing is to do over the summer. There is no one endeavor or activity that is better than another. It’s okay to pay to go to a program, and it’s okay to spend the summer working as a camp counselor. What is crucial is what you take out of the experience, how you reflect on it, and what you do as a result of that experience. The key thing is to be deliberate and purposeful in what you do. Serve as the camp counselor, but look for ways to connect your role to your academic interests. For example, if you’re interested in environmental science and climate change, look for ways to implement more sustainable practices at the camp. Or, if you hope to go into business, ask to spend some time shadowing the business manager to learn about the operations and financial side of the camp.
Use the summer (when you aren’t bogged down by academic work) to dive deeper into the subjects that intrigue you. Read books, listen to podcasts, take an online class, explore the topics and problems that captivate you, and become as much of an expert on the subject as possible. Writing and speaking with conviction on the ideas, issues, and topics that interest you will only help you come across better in the application process.
Build Strong Teacher and Counselor Relationships
Nurture the relationships in your life, such as the teachers you see on a daily basis, the club moderator, or your parent’s friend who happens to work in an industry that interests you. Share your interests, passions, or struggles to find what you love with those trusted adults. Every twist and turn my life has taken, both educationally and professionally, has been helped along by the relationships I’ve found along the way. Don’t underestimate the connections these relationships can help you make to opportunities that further your interests or even just having a mentor to bounce ideas off of as you are thinking about how you want to spend your time.
The other side of nurturing these relationships is that being well-liked, respected, and known by your teachers and school community can go a long way when it comes to how your personality and presence are talked about in your letters of recommendation. It can be challenging for the all-around awesome students who have done all the right things in terms of academics, extracurriculars, and developing their profile, but don’t necessarily check a box as an institutional priority (unique academic interest, diverse background, legacy, special talent or skill — like an athletic recruit or the tuba player that the marching band needs) to make the cut. The students in this category I have seen admitted over the last couple of years, however, are those whose personal qualities jump off the page, from their essays to the way their recommenders describe them and their impact on their communities.
Undoubtedly, being a high school student today and developing a compelling profile with your sights on the nation’s most selective institutions is akin to a full-time job. The key is finding the things you love and pursuing them wholeheartedly. Have fun doing this, but don’t just do things for the sake of doing them. Take the time to be reflective and think about what brings you joy in the things you are doing, what you are good at, and how those two facets come together in a way that can contribute to making the world a better place.
At IvyWise, the core of our work with students is helping them build compelling and authentic profiles that help them stand out when applying to their best-fit colleges and universities. As former admissions officers and college counselors, we know what colleges are looking for and how to work with students to help them identify and pursue their interests while maintaining a competitive grade point average and preparing for standardized testing. It’s critical to start early when preparing for college admissions. We can work with you throughout any phase of the process to build your profile in preparation for the application process senior year. Contact us today for more information on our college admissions counseling and profile building.