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How to Make Yourself Irresistible to Colleges

All too often, student and their families start their college search feeling like it is their job to convince colleges to let them in. “After all,” many say to themselves, “it’s the college that has the degree that I want and need if I can just get admitted to the right school.”

While this frame of mind is understandable, it can make the college search feel like a battle, with the admissions office playing the role of gatekeeper and the student storming the castle. The good news is that this isn’t how it works at all! 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.

To improve your chances of this happening, you need to think like a recruiter. Because after all, what is the No. 1 job of a college admissions and financial aid officer? To recruit future graduates who go on to do impressive things in life.

Why is this so important? Because producing graduates who do impressive things is one of the best ways to attract future talent. And the best way to ensure they’re attracting students who will do impressive things is by recruiting the ones who have the best chance of graduating in the first place.

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 relative to the average student on their own campus, the more attractive they will be to that school’s recruiters.

Standardized test scores include the ACT (American College Test) and SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test). Depending on the college you’re interested in, you may be asked to supply one or the other. In the middle of the country, more schools require the ACT. On the east and west coasts, the SAT is more common. However, some schools will accept either one.

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

Now, if you’re still thinking like a financial aid officer, what do you do to attract a student with a high GPA and ACT or SAT score to your school? What your school could do is create a financial incentive for that student that supports your objective to recruit future graduates.

Of course, not all schools will do this. For example, a top tier school like Harvard or Stanford can be very selective in their recruitment because tons of qualified students want the prestige of being a graduate of their schools. As a result, every student comes in with a very high GPA and test scores. So the school doesn’t need to offer much financial incentive since it’s very difficult to differentiate on skill or merit when almost everyone is equally skilled. They tend to reserve most of their aid for talented students with the greatest financial need.

At the other end of the spectrum are state colleges that usually are less selective about the students they recruit. They get the majority of their students from their home state. And so their recruiting depends on attracting local students who are looking for an affordable college experience versus pulling in candidates nationwide. 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 mid-tier school that is looking to increase the number of students like them on campus. These are schools that may have less name recognition than the nation’s most selective colleges, and yet offer first rate educational experiences for their students. They are often looking to use merit aid as a strategic lever for increasing the school’s overall academic profile.

So if you have good grades, use that to your advantage. Focus on matching your academic background to the type of school that is most likely to recruit you financially.

Ways to enhance your academic skills

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

  • Improve your general study skills. Unfortunately, relatively few high schools are able to take the time to teach study skills and simply assume that students will learn them “along the way.” This has led to many colleges needing to enroll freshmen in study skills courses to boost their academic performance. Ideally, you would want to take this type of class sometime between the start of 7th grade and the end of 8th grade. That way, you’ll be better prepared to earn the highest GPA possible throughout your four years of high school. These types of classes are often available through local community colleges or professional tutoring companies.
  • Increase reading speed and comprehension. Take a speed reading course, but not one of the ones advertised on late-night TV! What you want is to be able to read more naturally so that the information can flow more quickly into the thought centers of your brain. That way, 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. Taking a class on how to take a test may sound odd. But research has proven that the way tests are written and scored is its own language. And the more fluent and comfortable you are with that language, the more effective you become at achieving a score that accurately reflects your talents and abilities. There are many learning and test-prep centers available around the country that offer classes or private tutoring to those who are interested.
  • Raise your ACT or SAT score. This may mean purchasing test study guides or taking a class or visiting a website specifically designed to help you take the test. One example is Kahn Academy’s Web-based SAT tutoring tools, which are the only ones that are both free and co-developed with the College Board that writes the SAT exams. Another option is to take the test more than once. Typically, you’ll want to take the practice ACT or SAT as a sophomore or junior. Then take the official ACT or SAT in the winter or spring of junior year. If you decide to retake the test, you’ll want to do so in the summer between junior and senior year, but no later than fall of senior year.

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 the regular high school courses, if you get a high enough score on the final exam, you can potentially earn credits for college. So not only can they get you noticed, they could also save you time — and money — as well.

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 is allowed to set its own policies on what credits will or will not be accepted in transfer. Be sure to check with the college before signing up for the classes.

Dual enrollment is another popular option for early college credits. Unlike AP and IB, “dual enrollment” means that you actually sign up for and take a college course on campus. There is no separate test; 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 local high schools and involve classes held on community college campuses. They are usually open to both traditional high school students with their school’s approval as well as to home school students whose parents coordinate with the local college.

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, unlike AP or IB programs, CLEP and DSST exams do not require students to take a specific course prior to taking the exam. You are free to self-study or take an exam after completing a regular (non-AP) class in the same or similar subject area in high school. These exams can also be a great way for home school students to provide a benchmark for their subject mastery relative to other students taking the same 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 what you want them to.

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. 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.

It’s not about storming the castle; it’s about finding the right academic and financial fit and giving colleges the opportunity to invite you in. Concentrate on finding schools that fit you rather than trying to mold yourself to what you think schools want you to be. That way, you improve your chances that a college recruiter will believe that you have what it takes to become that impressive graduate.

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