How to Make Yourself Irresistible to Colleges

All too often, students and their families start their college search feeling like it is their job to convince colleges to let them in.

The good news is that there are great schools out there that are just as eager to find you as you are to find them. The trick is knowing how to find a good match that is a great academic fit so that they can actively recruit you to their school.

What recruiters are looking for

So, exactly what kind of academic measures do admissions and financial aid officers use to decide if one student is more likely to graduate than another?

The most popular predictors of academic success are high school grades and standardized test scores.

  • High school grades are measured by grade point averages, or GPAs. The higher a student’s GPA is, the more attractive they will be to that school’s recruiters. Read this article to learn more about the impact of your high school GPA.
  • Standardized test scores include the American College Test (ACT) and Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT): Depending on the college you’re interested in, you may be asked to supply one or the other.

Most colleges will tell you exactly what kinds of grades and scores they expect of their incoming students. Just check their websites or contact the admissions office directly to find out.

How they attract potential graduates

What do schools do to attract a student with a desirable GPA and ACT or SAT? They create a financial incentive for that student.

Of course, not all schools will do this. For example, a top tier school like Harvard can be very selective in their recruitment because tons of qualified students want to graduate from their schools. As a result, the school doesn’t need to offer much financial incentive.

At the other end of the spectrum are state colleges that get the majority of their students from their home state. Their recruiting depends on attracting local students who are looking for an affordable college experience. This means that they have limited resources — and less need — to recruit students through financial aid awards.

For many talented students from middle-income families, the biggest financial opportunities lie with matching a student’s academic resume with a school that is looking to increase the number of students like them on campus. These are schools that are often looking to use financial aid as a strategic lever to recruit talented students.

Ways to enhance your academic skills

How can you become the kind of student an admissions officer is eager to recruit? Here are a few strategies to consider.

  • Improve your general study skills. Unfortunately, relatively few high schools take the time to teach study skills and simply assume that students will learn them “along the way.” There are often study skills courses available through local community colleges or professional tutoring companies that can help you develop these skills and be better prepared to earn the highest GPA possible.
  • Increase reading speed and comprehension. What you want is to be able to read more naturally so you spend less time thinking about how you’re reading and more time becoming totally engaged with the material. Practice also helps, so become an avid reader of all types of materials.
  • Enroll in a test-taking skills class. Research has proven that the way tests are written and scored is its own language, and the more comfortable you are with that language, the more effective you become at achieving a score that accurately reflects your talents and abilities.
  • Raise your ACT or SAT score. Purchasing test study guides, taking a class, or visiting a website specifically designed to help you take the test (like Khan Academy’s Web-based SAT tutoring tools) are great ways to help raise your score. Another option is to take the test more than once.

Get a leg up by earning college credits

Another way to make a favorable impression on college admissions officers is by taking advanced placement (AP) and international baccalaureate (IB) classes. While these courses will be more difficult than regular high school courses, if you get a high enough score on the final exam, you can potentially earn credits for college, saving you time and money.

Before signing up for advanced classes, however, consider this:

  • Because AP and IB courses are more difficult than regular high school courses, beware of the workload. Not many students can successfully balance several advanced classes at the same time. And earning a poor grade in even one of these classes could end up hurting your GPA.

While an AP course can earn you college credit for transfer, it doesn’t mean that the college you’re interested in will accept the credit. Every school sets its own policies on what credits will or will not be accepted in transfer.

Dual enrollment is another popular option for early college credits. “Dual enrollment” means that you actually sign up for and take a college course (usually on campus). The grade you earn in the class is the grade that goes on your college transcript, which then may be transferable to the college of your choice. These programs are generally done in partnership with high schools and involve classes held on local college campuses.

Finally, two lesser-known college credit programs are the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) and the DSST Program. They are similar to AP and IB in that students take an exam, and if they earn a high enough score, they can earn credits that may transfer to their future colleges. However, CLEP and DSST exams do not require students to take a specific course prior to taking the exam.

The best advice is to talk to your school guidance counselor about whether any of these programs are available to you and will help you accomplish your goals.

The big picture

While there is much you can do academically to improve your chances of getting into your dream college, obtaining impressive grades and test scores should not be your only focus. You may want to check out our article on The Impact of Leadership and Service on college applications.

It’s all about finding the right academic and financial fit and giving colleges the opportunity to invite you in. Make sure that you are looking at lots of schools so that you can connect with the ones that are most eager to recruit you to join them. Read our “7 College Fit Factors” article to help you identify what to look for when searching for your best college fit.


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