How to Get Into College

June 7, 2024
5 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/24/24

Considering the next steps after high school? Keep reading for our in-depth guide on how to get into college.

While it may not be for everyone, many students view college as an exciting first step toward their preferred career path. 

The hustle and bustle of rounding up your application materials paired with picking a dream college can prove to be quite exciting - and simultaneously terrifying! 

Some students have known for years where they imagine themselves going, while others begin by researching local colleges through the Common App or other sources to figure out what’s available to them. 

An important first step is to assess how you're doing academically in high school. The good news is that as long as you’re making decent grades, you should be able to begin your college journey. That said, there's much more to getting into college than just the numbers. 

Here we’ll discuss our tips on where you should start and how you can get into college by playing to your strengths. Let’s get started!

What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?

It can be challenging to pinpoint exactly what looks good on a college application, as the “ideal application” will look quite different from person to person. However, there are a few consistent things we can nail down as pillars of success:

  • Honesty: The best way to present yourself to the admissions committee is to be honest about what drives you, what you care about, and why attending this school plays an integral role in your future.
  • Good grades: Of course, colleges always look for good grades and test scores. If some of your grades are below average, you may want to focus heavily on improving other aspects of your application, such as your essays and extracurriculars.
  • A well-balanced life: Participating in extracurriculars, volunteerism, and/or having a job are good signifiers of your ability to maintain a balanced schedule and develop a variety of interests. 
  • Passion: You should be able to demonstrate your passion for your major/school and express how your interest first began, especially in your essays and interview. Work on your “origin story,” so your entire application is cohesive and compelling.

Remember, colleges review your entire application, not just the numbers. If one aspect of your application is subpar, you can always compensate by knocking it out of the park in other areas. 

How to Get Into a Good College

Deciding to pursue higher education is just as important as figuring out which schools to add to your college list and what major you want to pursue. 

However, there are a number of strategies and general good habits that will help you stand out in your application, especially if you’re looking into how to get into a more prestigious program. Below we’ll discuss everything you need to know about getting into college.

1. Earn Good Grades

Your GPA should be your priority in high school. The higher it is, the more choices you will have. Aim to get at least a 3.0, but the closer to 4.0, the better. Here are a few ways to help boost your grades: 

  • Try to write everything down from memory
  • Figure out how & where you study best
  • Use flashcards
  • Read the text if provided
  • Study with a group

Not every subject is the same level of difficulty for everyone, so give your weaker subjects more time as needed. If you’re falling behind in a course, don’t hesitate to talk to your teachers. Remember, their job is to help you! 

If possible, make sure to take advanced high school courses. Colleges pay attention to your high school course selection, so higher-level courses coupled with a high GPA will maximize your likelihood of getting accepted. 

But how are higher-level courses evaluated? 

We asked Judson Epperly, a Director of International Admissions and Recruitment at Post University, “how do college admissions officers evaluate the rigor of a student's high school coursework? What advice do you have for students choosing between standard, honors, and AP classes?”

Here’s what he told us:

    2. Ace the ACT or SAT

    You probably need to take either the ACT or SAT unless all the schools you’re applying to are test-optional. You may take both, although they both require fees and dedicated study time on separate material. Doing well on your standardized test(s) will greatly increase your chances of acceptance.

    While the SAT focuses more on your math skills and language abilities, the ACT puts a heavier emphasis on math and science with less on language and writing. Both tests are about equal in difficulty; however, their emphasis on specific subjects should be the driving factor in choosing between the tests. 

    The most important study tip for these tests is to not stress yourself over them. You are free to take them as much as you want and send your results to your college as you improve your score. While you may have to pay the fee again, a higher score will pay off; it may help you get accepted. Practice testing skills if you feel overwhelmed.

    Jed Macosko, a Professor of Physics at Wake Forest University and President and Academic Director of Academic Influence, gives his advice on test-optional schools, and what you should do if you’re applying to them. 

    “Only submit your scores if they improve your overall application. There are some handy online charts that indicate whether a standardized test score is consistent with or even above what would be expected for a person with your particular weighted GPA.”

    3. Do Community Service

    A great way to look good on a college application would be to volunteer! There are many community service events that you can participate in that could help out your college application, push you in the direction of potential scholarships, and potentially point to a career path for the future. 

    Your school may offer a beta club, national honor society, or host a scout troop. Participating in any of these will help round out your college application and show that you are more than just your academic achievements; you’re willing to put in hours of service toward making your community a better place. 

    4. Extracurricular Activities

    Don’t underestimate extracurricular activities! Sports, after-school programs, and creative endeavors look good on a college application. Showing your commitment and leadership skills will look good on any college application. 

    However, it’s important to only participate in activities you actually enjoy — not just ones you think will look good on an application. 

    Extracurriculars may provide you with scholarship opportunities as well. Exceptional ability of any kind will get you noticed, so don't hesitate to participate in activities you have a talent or special interest in, and don’t worry about it being conventional. 

    Your unique interests and skill set may be just the thing that sets your application apart from other candidates. 

    Judson’s thoughts on the importance of extracurricular activities: 

    “Joining clubs and extracurricular activities will allow students to improve their skills and make a difference in their college applications. Beyond extracurricular activities, it’s critical for students to obtain good grades from the outset and develop good strong study habits to prepare for AP or college level courses.” 

    5. Write Unique & Thoughtful Personal Statement and Essays

    You’ll need to write a personal statement when you apply to college. Your personal statement is sent to every school you apply to, so it must be compelling!

    Most colleges also ask you to write additional essays as part of your application. These supplemental essays can vary in length but expect to write something short that reveals who you are outside of academics. 

    For students looking to surpass the tough competition, writing a unique, thoughtful essay is essential

    If you're not as confident in your writing ability, give yourself time to practice. Take time to choose a college essay topic you can answer best. Looking at college essay examples can also help you determine what top schools expect from applicants. 

    When it comes to writing your essay, finding your topic and starting the writing process are some of the more challenging things you’ll need to do. That’s why we asked Jed, “what essay-writing advice would you give to students who may not be strong writers? What techniques or resources should they utilize to produce standout essays? How can students brainstorm essay topics effectively?”

    Here’s what he had to say:

    “You do not want to start writing an essay before you have brainstormed ideas with at least one other person. It is extremely difficult to throw an essay in the trash once you have started it, but that's exactly what you'll have to do if you start off on the wrong foot. So, it is better to start off on the right foot by brainstorming with at least one other person.”

    In your essays, you can tell your story and share significant experiences that have defined who you are. Remember to end your essays in a way that wraps up your narrative! 

    6. Get Work Experience 

    Another great way to stand out in your college application is to build your resume. As a high school student, colleges aren’t expecting you to have much work experience so far. 

    However, demonstrating volunteerism, job shadowing, tutoring, interning, or any summer job you’ve been able to acquire is an excellent way to show responsibility, leadership, and commitment.

    If you already have an idea of what you want to do career-wise, a student internship or a co-op opportunity may be a good use of your time. 

    Don’t feel limited because of your age. At this point, you could do anything from lifeguarding to setting up a small business of your own; the world is your oyster! 

    7. Build Meaningful Relationships

    Networking of any kind can be extremely useful for college students. You never know who could help you get a job down the line! Remember to maintain respectful, professional relationships with your teachers, bosses, coworkers, etc. 

    Letters of recommendation are important. These can be written by a boss, manager, or teacher that likes you as a student and person. You may also reconnect with the same individuals for internship opportunities, connections, job references, and more. Never underestimate the power of networking!

    Judson had this to say about what admission officers look for in an effective recommendation letters:

    “Admissions officers look for recommendation letters that display a student's personality, academic abilities, and future growth potential. Letters should contain examples of the student's achievements, dedication, and interpersonal skills. The most effective letters come from recommenders who perhaps have a relationship/friendship with the student and can talk about their unique strengths and achievements that go beyond grades and test scores.
    Students should be very careful in choosing recommenders and ask those that have observed them in meaningful environments. Some examples would be from high school teachers, church pastors, community leaders, or athletic coaches. It's important to find and select recommenders that have a favorable view of the student and can highlight and detail their abilities and achievements. 
    My recommendation would be to build relationships with possible recommenders as early as possible during the freshman and sophomore years to take advantage of experiences gained over time to write a great recommendation letter.”

    Jed also shared his thoughts on recommendation letters:

    “Recommendation letters end up either confirming or disapproving everything else in your application. Hopefully, you will ask for letters of recommendation from people who see you the same way you are portraying yourself in your résumé and essays. If not, there could be a cognitive dissonance between what the admissions officers are reading in those letters and what they are reading in the rest of your application, and that is not a good thing!”

    8. Define Your Long-Term Plans

    After you’ve decided to go to college, you’ll have to define what exactly you need to do going forward to get there. A few things are obvious and should take priority. Make sure to take the SAT or ACT. 

    Your to-do list might look something like this: 

    • Sign up and study for the SAT or ACT
    • Pick out your choice schools after receiving your test scores
    • Apply for any and all scholarships that you can
    • Budget what amount of money you have and what is feasible to pay
    • Apply to your schools, and make sure to include everything required 
    • Wait for the acceptance letters

    One easy way to keep track of what you need to do is to download one of our college planning checklists below! We’ve got custom checklists for Grade 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, & 11 students!

    While your success may vary, a lot depends on your test scores and how good your application looks. For students wondering how long it takes to get accepted into college, the answer is about a month to a month and a half. Don’t stress yourself out too much while waiting. 

    9. Make a List of Colleges

    The best option for students dreading potential rejection is to build a list of potential schools and apply to a good number of them. Tailor your list to what criteria you value the most. Here are some important questions to ask yourself when listing schools

    • Do they offer the major(s) that you want to pursue? 
    • Do they provide internship or research opportunities?
    • Is the school in an ideal location?
    • Do they have a student-to-faculty ratio that you’re comfortable with? 
    • Is this school feasible for your academic ability? 

    Taking a school selection quiz can also help you begin to make your list. Make sure the colleges on your list check most of these boxes and the personal ones you include. This is a big decision; take your time making it! 

    10. Study Admissions Requirements

    Every college has its own unique admission requirements listed on its website. They may require a specific GPA or may or may not require SAT/ACT scores. Make sure you follow the directions listed carefully, as missing a single requirement could lead to rejection. 

    If you have questions regarding the rest of your college application, contact an admissions officer via email. They should be able to help with specific questions regarding your essay, where you can submit information, and more. However, try not to ask questions that you could find the answers to on the college website.

    11. Start the Application Process Early  

    By far, the most important part of applying to college is to start early. You don’t want to get behind and put out an application that misses the deadline. Learn each of your target school’s deadlines and plug them into your calendar as early as you can.

    Early planning is one of the most important things you can do when considering a college application. Here’s what Judson said about early planning:

    “Planning is critical to a student’s success and early planning makes a difference in applying to colleges and universities. In doing so, students will have more time to participate in academic and extracurricular activities and eventually add them into their resume. Keep in mind, it’s never too early (even as a freshman) to explore career paths, interests, and/or discuss college options. Students will want to build relationships with teachers, counselors, and community leaders entering high school to eventually obtain valuable recommendation letters.”

    Do All Colleges Have the Same Approach When Admitting Students? 

    No, not all colleges have the same approach when admitting students. Each college has its own set of criteria and priorities for selecting students. Some colleges might focus more on academic achievements like grades and test scores, while others might consider extracurricular activities, personal essays, letters of recommendation, or even interviews. 

    Additionally, factors such as the size of the school, its location, and its mission can also influence the admissions process. So, it's important for students to research and understand the specific requirements and values of each college they're interested in applying to.

    FAQs: Getting Into College

    Still have more questions about how you can get accepted into college? Take a look at our answers to these frequently asked questions. 

    1. How Do You Get Into College?

    Beyond applying and meeting all of the requirements, make sure to consider what makes you a uniquely qualified candidate. 

    Your application shouldn’t be too extensive; you can elaborate more in your personal statement, essays, and interview. Getting professional counseling for college applications can help you fine-tune your application to maximize your chances.

    2. Is It Hard to Get Into College?

    It depends on what school you’re trying to get into and what your grades are like. If your GPA is low, you’ll have fewer options for college. On the other hand, if you’re looking into how to get into a good college, that process will be way more difficult. 

    Higher-ranked schools, like those in the Ivy League, have more strict entrance requirements.

    2. What GPA Will Get You Into College?

    The best GPA to aim for is between a 3.5 and a 4.0. If you want to get into a college, a 3.5 GPA should be your aim. Schools that aren’t as prestigious, typically state colleges, will be the most likely to accept you. 

    A lower GPA might get you into a community college that you can use to work your GPA up in the first two years to be able to transfer to a better school.

    3. How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

    Most students apply to anywhere from 4-15 colleges. You should apply to as many colleges as you have time for and that you would be happy to attend. The more options, the higher your odds of getting into a program. 

    4. Can You Apply For College In 11th Grade?

    You can apply for college as a junior, but you are less likely to meet the high school class requirements that your college may want on top of not having your diploma. Generally, it is best to apply during your senior year so you can flow into college with your graduating class. 

    5. What Do I Need to Get Into College?

    To get into a school, you’ll need a high school diploma (or equivalent), good grades, and scores from standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT. Most colleges also require letters of recommendation, essays, and/or an interview. 

    Additionally, many colleges have specific requirements or prerequisites for certain programs or majors. 

    6. How Can I Get Into College With Low Marks?

    If you have a low GPA in high school, there are still options for you to pursue higher education. Community colleges, colleges with open admissions, schools that don't require standardized test scores, and trade schools or apprenticeships are all great options for low-GPA students. 

    It is also important to note that most schools consider more than just grades when making admissions decisions, such as extracurricular activities, work experience, interviews, and essays. You can still get into plenty of universities with a low GPA by focusing on improving the other parts of your application. 

    7. Do Colleges Look At Grade 7 Marks?

    Colleges typically do not look at grade 7 marks as part of their admissions process, so there’s no need to worry if you had lower grades at a younger age. Colleges primarily focus on high school grades and standardized test scores.

    Final Thoughts

    College stands as the next step for most high school students. Your secondary education marks the direction of your career and the start of your adult independence. While college may not be for everyone, if you get in, you’ll likely be prepared to find your place in the working world. 

    Don’t let college scare you. Getting in is fairly easy if you take the application process seriously. How well you can communicate your values, goals, and dreams is a big part of getting into college. 

    You only need to meet the requirements. Don’t hesitate if you want to go. Make that commitment to yourself. Good luck!

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