Ultimate College Preparation Guide

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November 8, 2022
The Importance of College PreparednessWhat Does Preparing for College Look Like?The Complete College Preparation ChecklistFAQs: Ultimate College Preparation Guide


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/22

Preparing for college applications can really be a hustle. But your worries are over because this article will serve as your ultimate guide for college preparation!

If you’re in your last year of high school, you might come across the option to further extend your education. If you’ve chosen to go to college, there are quite a few things you must do before you can apply to a program you’re interested in. 

Keep in mind that the application process is certainly not an easy task: there are lots to prepare for, and the process requires lots of work, dedication, and good decision-making. But before you get discouraged, here is an ultimate college preparation checklist that will give you all the information and helpful tips you need to apply to the colleges of your dreams!

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The Importance of College Preparedness

Preparing for college is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and careful planning. There are many documents that schools need to look at when evaluating an applicant. These documents can include your:

Creating a college preparation checklist can help you stay on top of your admission requirements. 

This is especially true for recommendation letters and academic-related documents, such as your transcript and test scores. For standardized tests, you will need to manage the registration, test-taking, and sending your scores, ensuring the whole process goes well. 

Whereas for recommendation letters, you need to connect with your teachers, instructors, or counselors so they can provide glowing, informed letters.

Making your application as competitive as possible requires even more time and effort. Keep in mind that you are competing for a limited amount of open spots amongst countless other qualified applicants. So how effectively you prepare for applications will make the difference between an offer or a rejection.

What Does Preparing for College Look Like?

Many people have the false impression that preparing for college is simply locking yourself in your room and spending every waking moment of your life studying as hard as you can. 

While academic performance is certainly important, and you do need to spend lots of time to raise your grades and maintain them throughout your school years, colleges care about much more than simply how well you can study. 

Getting ready for college is very multifaceted. In addition to academic prowess, colleges evaluate candidates’ experience, extracurricular activities, achievements, and awards and honors To prepare sufficiently for college applications, you must spend time away from your desk, and manage that time wisely. 

Below is a list of everything you need to keep in mind when it comes to preparing for college applications.

The Complete College Preparation Checklist

This checklist is everything you need to prepare for when applying to college. Of course, every school has different requirements on what you must submit, but the following are required for almost every application.

Choosing Which Schools to Apply To

For any process, the very first step of preparation is selecting your goals. There are more than 1,000 colleges in the United States, and you need to make choices. Which schools are you planning to go to, and why? Which programs do you want to enroll in, and why? How selective are the schools you plan to apply to?

The last question is one you need to put in the time to think about. Make sure your goals aren’t too far from your reach, but also don’t be intimidated by the selectiveness of better schools. Sit down and analyze your circumstances, abilities, and performance, and weigh your chances. 

Other than acceptance rates, another useful piece of information to research is the class profile. This includes the average or median GPAs, test scores, and other important figures associated with the school’s undergraduate, admitted freshmen. Reviewing your prospective schools’ class profile will help you make a rough comparison between you and the average admitted applicant.

It’s best to sort your college list into three categories: ideal schools (or reach schools), target schools, and safety schools. Your ideal goals are your dream schools; Ivy Leagues tend to fall into this category. These are schools you want to get into the most but will require a lot of preparation to ensure you have a competitive application. 

Your realistic goals are the schools with good programs that you are confident about getting into. Safety schools are schools you believe you have an almost guaranteed chance of getting accepted to but might not be as reputable as the schools in the other two categories.

Checking the Application Deadlines

Another important part of preparing for college is deciding when to apply. College applications all have deadlines that you must follow meticulously, or else all your hard work and efforts will be all for nothing. 

Each school’s application deadlines are different and can be found on their official website. So, make sure to do your research and know when the last day your school will accept applications. It’s best to write down every due date for every program you apply to, preferably on a calendar, so you have a clear picture of how much time you have left.

In addition to the regular admission period, many schools will also have early applications. This option will allow you to spread out your application schedule, so you won’t have to balance too many tasks once the regular application period begins. 

Before rushing into submitting an early application, beware. There’s a good chance the early application will also have preconditions that you must adhere to, which may also affect your plans. Be sure to weigh every factor before you make your decision.

Course Grades and GPA

Colleges care deeply about your academic performance. The admissions committee uses it to decide whether or not you are ready and suitable to take the programs that you applied for. Therefore, you must show evidence of your academic prowess by submitting your high school transcript. 

Your GPA measures your overall performance in the courses you’ve taken. It is calculated by taking the average of your course grades and converging it into a new number according to a scale. Although each high school and college may use different scales to calculate students’ GPA, it still gives you a rough idea of where you are competitively. 

In general, a 3.0 GPA or higher shows promising academic performance. A 3.5 GPA or higher offers a good competitive advantage. Whereas a 3.7 GPA or above is very optimal, giving a respectable chance at even the most competitive schools. 

Keep in mind that colleges will also look at the full picture of your academic performance, and not just one number on your transcript. Colleges will inspect which courses you’ve taken, the final grade of each course, and, depending on the layout of your transcript, how your grades progressed throughout the year. 

It is worth mentioning a common yet critical mistake of taking only easy courses as a way to boost your grades. Remember, schools don’t just want candidates with high grades. They want students that are willing to take on challenges and still do well. 

In fact, there is an alternative version of the GPA that many schools look at called the weighted GPA, which is calculated with the difficulty of courses taken into account. In contrast, GPA obtained solely by calculating the average of grades is called the unweighted GPA. 

If a school looks at your transcript and discovers you only have a high unweighted GPA because all your courses were easy, it won’t look good. It’s fine to have a few easy courses, but make sure your transcript reflects your ability to really push yourself despite the difficulties.

Standardized Tests

All college applicants must submit the final score of one of these two tests: the SAT or the ACT. Both of these tests are lengthy and consist entirely of multiple-choice questions. The final score for both tests is calculated based on the number of your correct answers. Therefore, neither tests give any penalties for guessing. 

The SAT takes a total of three hours to complete and consists of the following tests:

SAT information table
Source: CollegeBoard

Meanwhile, the ACT has the following tests:

ACT information table
Source: ACT

The official SAT and ACT websites will provide much useful information on what you should specifically study for to do well in either test. Both ACT and SAT cover topics learned in grades 9 to 12. 

This means doing well in school coursework of the corresponding subject usually results in good test scores. Your teachers in school can also help you prepare and offer much-needed help. When it comes to timing, it is best if you can take your first test while in eleventh grade. This will allow you to retake the exam at the beginning of your senior year, if needed. 

The earlier you take these tests, the more chances you have to improve your score in case you aren’t satisfied. Regardless of when you plan to take a standardized test, you should begin preparing for either the SAT or the ACT from grade 10. 

Make sure you also register early so you can secure a spot at the test date and location convenient for you. 

Recommendation Letters

Colleges also want to hear what others have to say about your achievements and contributions, especially those who have a strong grasp of who you are, what you are like, your skills, and attitudes. 

Asking for someone to write you a letter of recommendation can certainly be an intimidating task. You must consider: who to ask, when to ask, how to ask specifically, and possibly other questions, all of which require lots of thought and consideration.

Many students ask teachers who taught courses they did well in. This is a good idea; if you perform well, you are more likely to leave a stronger impression, and you can get a letter of recommendation that showcases your strengths. 

However, you should also consider another option. You can also ask a teacher who taught a class that you struggled in at first but eventually progressed in over the semester or the year. The strides and efforts you made to improve your situation are certainly something you want to be represented in your letters of recommendation. 

Additionally, eager participation in courses, such as answering many questions in class and being enthusiastic in discussions, will also help you leave a positive impression on the teacher. You don’t necessarily need to make yourself a strong presence all the time. Simply leaving positive impressions will make them more likely to help you when it comes time to work your way through your college preparation checklist. 

Another thing you should do is to try and connect with teachers, tutors, instructors, or counselors outside of classes. Attend office hours frequently. Reach out to them often. Actively ask questions. Be eager to converse with them. 

Building that interpersonal connection with teachers and counselors can allow you to feel more comfortable and less awkward when asking the favor of the recommendation letter. Furthermore, don’t just send them the initial request and leave it at that. Don’t be afraid to reach out again or send reminders

If a teacher, instructor, or counselor has promised to help you, then there’s nothing wrong with checking up on it every once in a while. After all, they likely understand how important recommendation letters are, so they would certainly treat the task seriously. If you’re not confident that they will deliver the optimal help, always look for alternative options you can go to. 

Extracurricular Activities

As previously mentioned, colleges are not just looking for someone good at studying. They also care about what an applicant does outside the desk. Extracurricular activities are an often overlooked yet crucial factor of application success. 

This is because academic success is mostly measured in a fixed set of numerical values (or letter values, which offer even less variety). The uniqueness of extracurricular activity experiences does a much better job of making you stand out than your grades. Of course, standing out won’t secure you the offer, but it will provide a significant advantage nonetheless

When it comes to extracurricular activities, quality matters more than quantity. Shallow and forgettable participation will merely be a redundant distraction. Colleges are more intrigued about your accomplishments, growth, and significant experience that you got out of your activities. 

Sue Rexford, the director of college guidance at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, once wrote: "No college will expect that a student has a huge laundry list of extracurriculars that they have been passionately involved in for an extended period of time." This means that selecting the right activities is very important. 

There’s no fixed right answer when it comes to selection. Some particular activities might improve your chances slightly, activities that help the community (such as student council and community service) might give favorable impressions, and uncommon activities are better than typical ones, as uniqueness makes you stand out better. 

However, a much better idea is to select activities that align with your career goal or activities you excel in doing. Therefore, the best activities are those that fit both for you. Selecting the right extracurricular activities for you demonstrates self-awareness, maturity, and smart decision-making; whereas excellent performance shows passion, drive, skills, work ethic, and capabilities.

These are all qualities and attributes that colleges value deeply. According to US News and World Report, experts say that demonstrating proficiency in just one activity is enough to make applicants stand out, even in the more selective schools. 

Remember this: extracurricular activities aren’t just limited to the ones you do in school. The activities can include anything that you do in your spare time, such as on weekends, during breaks, or in the summer! 

In fact, your summer vacations are an excellent time for extracurricular activities, as you are less burdened by your studying tasks, and you have more time to work on your personal passion independently. So definitely take your chances.

Personal Statement

Personal statements are a special kind of essay that colleges require you to write for your application. Some colleges give you specific prompts, but more often, a personal statement just asks you to describe your goals, experiences, and motivations for applying.

Possibly the most important tip you need to remember is to stay true to yourself. Too many applicants worry about if they’re writing “what schools want to hear,” so they put on an act in hopes to impress the admission committee. 

However, for personal statements, schools only want to hear your true, honest voice. Listen to your heart and express your true self. There’s an old adage: “No one is better at being you than you.” 

You don’t need to be pretentious or deep, but you need to make it meaningful and significant. Sell the idea that your passions, goals, and dreams are important and valuable to you. It’s good if you can write a relevant past experience so the admission committee can understand you better from your point of view.

Similar to the previous aspects, it’s better to start preparing your personal statement at an early time. 

Financial Aid

When selecting a program to apply to, an important factor is the cost. University programs can be quite expensive, especially in top schools. Luckily, many schools offer financial aid and scholarships to help alleviate the burden of tuition.

Many colleges lay out all financial aid they offer to new undergraduate students on their official website. Make sure you look into all the financial aids available for your program so you won’t be bothered by monetary concerns. 

If you are struggling financially, don’t hesitate to contact any schools to ask for any accommodations for admitted applicants. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll get help, but it still is worth reaching out to ask for help.

FAQs: Ultimate College Preparation Guide

Still got questions? This section will provide the answer to the most frequently asked questions when it comes to preparing for college!

1. Where Can I Find the Testing Dates for the Sat and the Act?

The testing dates for the SAT can be found on the official College Board website, while the testing dates for the ACT can be found on act.org. For each testing date of both tests, you can also find the registration deadline there. 

2. Is Community Service Worth It as an Extracurricular Activity?

Community service tells colleges that you don’t just want to improve yourself, but also your environment and the people around you. It gives you valuable experience that will teach you many useful skills for the future, such as being attentive to others, providing care, commitment, decision-making skills, and so on. 

In fact, many universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, value students that can help communities. Therefore, community service activities will definitely do you service as well!

3. What Are Some Examples of Early Application Restrictions?

Some schools offer early application options that come with restrictions. Although, a better word to use would be commitments. 

For example, applying for an early decision means that once you’ve submitted your application, and have been offered admission, then you must enroll in the program you’ve applied for. It’s basically like telling the university that you’ll attend the program as soon as the school approves. 

Another example is the restrictive early action. Once you apply for restrictive early action, you are prohibited from applying for early action anywhere else as a commitment to the school.

4. Any Tips for Balancing Studying and Extracurricular Activities?

Time management really is key here. Think about how many hours you will spend each day on each activity. 

Try to find a schedule that will maximize your efficiency on what you’re doing for that time interval. Do you like to switch frequently, or would you rather focus on one thing for a longer period of time? You don’t necessarily need to criss-cross between studying and extracurricular activities, although that might help as well. 

Another tip is to focus more on extracurricular activities during your grade nine and grade ten school year, as your grades during that time are relatively less important, and the course difficulty typically isn't that high yet. Once you move into grade 11, shift your focus more on studying.

5. Do Colleges Care About Final Grades For Grade 12?

Even though they won’t see your final grades for your grade 12 school year, they still care about it a lot. Once you’ve graduated, they will request you to send in your final transcript. If no major discrepancy is found, you will maintain eligibility to attend the program you were admitted to. 

However, if they notice a significant drop in academic performance, the school might withdraw admission.

Final Thoughts

It might feel like you have a lot on your plate. And while college application is certainly complicated and time-consuming, there’s no need to feel overwhelmed! As long as you manage your time correctly and be sure you can complete everything on your checklist. 

Starting early really is the best option an applicant can take; it’s also the best way to alleviate stress. And remember: when you’re in doubt, always ask for help. This can be parents, friends, student assistant departments of your school, and so on.

One last tip: when completing your application, don’t hesitate to include additional materials that you’re proud of. This can include any awards, achievements, or anything else that shows your skill, knowledge, or passion.

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