College Bound: Where to Start?

By Patricia Gorden Neill - February 26th, 2013

If you’re seriously considering attending college, there’s steps you’ll need to take in high school, and indeed, to begin thinking about it even as early as 7th and 8th grade. While this may seem a bit early to you, any early research and thought you put into the process will reward you later on. Here’s a list of what colleges look for in applicants. As you enter high school, these are the steps you need to take to ensure you get into the college of your choice.

What Colleges Look For

Basically what colleges look for in applicants is a well-rounded individual who has already challenged himself intellectually by taking rigorous math and science courses all through his schooling so far, who has developed interesting pursuits outside of the classroom, who can communicate easily both in writing and orally and who performs well academically as shown by good grades and good scores on standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. Now, that’s quite a bit for a kid in high school to do and do well. Yet it can be done and is done every year by millions of students. Let’s look at this list in more detail.

Rigorous Courses

While colleges vary in their requirements for applicants, what most want to see is a solid academic performance in core curriculum courses. Each year of high school, a college bound student should take an English or literature class; math courses including algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus; science courses like biology, chemistry, physics or earth or space science, including at least one laboratory class; social studies including U.S. history, world history or geography and U.S. government and a language class or two. Obtain good to excellent grades in these classes to make the college application process a breeze.

This can seem a rather intimidating academic schedule for high school, yet when you get to college, or even out in the working world, the ability to communicate well and a basic understanding of math and science is considered necessary.

Extracurricular Activities

Admission officers consider academics first, but your activities outside of the classroom interest them as well. Sports, performing dance, music or theatre, painting, sculpting, origami, writing poetry or stories, outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking or fishing or volunteering in your community—nearly anything you do outside the classroom that has helped you develop personally will intrigue the colleges you apply to. Colleges are interested in the quality of your involvement with your activity, not the number of activities you do. Whatever interests you, work with it, challenge yourself with it, delve into it, and be prepared to communicate your interest with a certain amount of passion. This will put a spark in an admissions officer’s eye when they consider your application.

Good Grades

Getting good grades in high school is important, but even more important to colleges, is that you challenged yourself by taking advanced or difficult courses. If you can, take Advanced Placement (AP) or honors classes. AP classes bridge the gap between high school and college. You can even earn college credits by taking them. They’ll be more of a challenge than the usual high school class, and it will be more difficult to get great grades in them, but that’s exactly what a college looks for in its future students. A college admissions officer would probably take a B average student taking AP courses over an A student taking standard high school courses.

Good Communication Skills

Being able to communicate well orally and in writing cannot be underestimated in any area of life, whether you intend on going to college or not. Employers look for people who can express themselves well and who can write clearly and competently, and so do colleges. Challenge yourself to learn to write well. Not necessarily Great American Novel well, but write well enough to get a point across with ease. Being able to speak clearly with a decent vocabulary is important as well. Reading a variety of books, magazines and newspapers will help build your vocabulary and understanding of English grammar, as well as increase your knowledge base.

College Admissions Tests

Colleges definitely take college admissions tests into consideration when reviewing a student’s application. If you’re hoping for a scholarship, then high SAT or ACT scores should be a strong focus in your college preparation. However, SAT or ACT scores are not the only thing colleges look for. In fact, according to the Fair Test organization, over 800 colleges are now test optional, meaning they don’t require standardized test scores from students. Your class schedules, grades, class rank and powerful recommendations can all help get you in if your test scores are median or low.

Keep in mind, there are differences in the ACT and the SAT tests that will be addressed in another article. You can consider your own strengths and weaknesses when deciding which test to take. This can make a difference in how the college of your choice considers your application.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.