Starting the College Search

So you want to go to college...

Congratulations! You've taken the first step toward fulfilling your ambitions. Higher learning is the next frontier, full of opportunities, independence, and a new dimension of challenges. I also would be remiss to ignore the lasting friendships and fond memories that you will make as an undergrad that will change your life inside and outside of classroom.

However, if you want to change your daydreams of college life into reality, there’s a ways to go. But…if you want to ‘Jump Around’during Saturday mornings in the stands of Camp Randall Stadium as a Wisconsin Badger football fan; if you want to continue the family tradition of military service and join thehonorable ranks of the United States Naval Academy;if you are determined to earn a widely coveted, yet elusive place within the ivy-adorned walls of Harvard University; regardless of where you end up going, the first question that you need to address is not ‘where?’ or ‘why?’ It’s simply, ‘how?’ That’s where I come in.

As a current college student who’s jumped from a Boston University, a private urban university, to Michigan State University, a campus-based public university, I will supply you with as many tools and tips as I can to reach your goals. It would be one thing to tell you to try as hard as you can by striving for the highest GPA in your graduating class, but I wouldn’t be illustrating the entire scope of the bigger admissions picture.

Don’t just settle for the minimum…

I was able to speak with Caroline Enriquez, the associate dean of admissions of the University of Texas in Austin for her intimate perspective on what you should do as a high school student intent on earning an acceptance letter to your school of choice.

“[In an applicant,] we’re looking for leadership and drive,” she said. “Someone who’s pushing the envelope; who’s trying something new; who’s doing something more than just sticking inside this defined box.”

It’s important to remember that many universities and liberal arts colleges around the country aren’t merely looking to process incoming freshmen based on numbers like test scores and grades alone. For example, the University of Washington in Seattle specifically asks applicants not to send their high school transcripts for consideration in its admissions process until further notice. Be warned though, this should not be interpreted as a fallback excuse for allowing your academic performance to stagnate. Rather, it should tell you that the university is looking for other not-so-apparent dimensions to your character.

What would some of these dimensions be? I’ll use myself as an example. I became a member of the National Honors Society at my high school through a good (albeit modest) GPA. With that membership came the responsibility to fulfill a certain requirement of community service hours. Note that the key word here is ‘requirement.’ Ultimately, I did complete those hours…but I didn’t just settle for what was expected.

I spent those hours in Detroit with a community service organization cleaning up blighted lots, assisting summer programs at local elementary schools, and replacing graffiti with spectacular murals nearly every weekday during my high school summers. Initially, I thought I was going leave the experience with NHS cords at graduation and be done with all the ‘grunt work.’ And I did. But I also left with a heightened sense of community pride, determination, and self-fulfillment. I also kept on coming back, getting dozens upon dozens of hours in excess of what the minimum NHS requirement for community service was.

Everyone’s ‘calling’ may be different, but from what I learned as a dedicated volunteer, it took an experience like that for me to really be able to appreciate the potential change that I could effect as an individual. To me, my merit as an NHS member didn’t reside within my academic aptitude. It resided within my endeavors to give back and immerse myself in a world that no textbook could convey.

Get involved!

There are also opportunities to transcend the ‘expected’ within the walls of your school. As a sophomore playing trumpet for the high school band, I was bluntly reminded by my mom that I would never be Louis Armstrong (I was pretty bad, I’ll be honest). She ultimately convinced me to join the school newspaper. My first article broke several journalistic ethics codes and read like an outline of quotes rather than a flowing narrative…but with enough drive and experience, I became a co-editor-in-chief my senior year.

“[High school students] should try different things that interest them and then as they go further along into high school, start running for leadership positions because that of course carries more weight when reviewing applicants,” Enriquez said. “[We] love to see students that are members of sports and clubs and wonderful organizations…it’s even more impressive to see that they’ve reached leadership positions.”

Regarding my experience in high school newspaper, it also played a key role in my major: journalism.

Nurture your budding career…school isn’t just there to measure you…

“We want to see that [applicants’] align with that major with which they are applying to,” Enriquez said.” That should be dictated through what they choose to be involved in in school, what organizations they’re involved in inside and outside of school, and the types of classes that they’ve chosen to take and how they relate to what they’re interested in studying.”

Class selection in regard to tailoring it to your ideal major may be difficult. Many of my freshmen peers were undecided and unsure of what they wanted to do. Many also changed their majors in the middle of their collegiate career. If you’re unsure, it’s still important to make sure that your course load, while not necessarily focused, is still going reflect that of someone who not only is prepared to work hard, but also aware of their limits.

“[High school students] should challenge themselves with a challenging curriculum, taking as hard of class as they can, but all the while, maintaining as high a GPA as they can…not to overdo it to the point where their performance is suffering, but to find that happy balance where they’re challenging themselves, but they’re also able to be successful in their classes at the same time.”

For example, I should never have taken AP Calculus, Honors Chemistry, or Honors Physics because I am terrible at the exact sciences, and I knew it. That didn’t bode well for my GPA. Yet, I knew that English-centric courses were my strength and I successfully took the most difficult classes offered in that discipline.

But wait, there’s more!

Ultimately, there are many factors we haven’t mentioned here, including standardized testing and the application process itself, but this is only the first of five blogs! For now, remember, we can merely recommend and advise, but it’s on you to kickstart the latent drive that all of us have to challenge ourselves and ultimately achieve our goals.

Quick Checklist:

  1. Push yourself beyond minimum requirements
    • Admissions officers don’t solely look for talent in your GPA or test scores.
    • Volunteering at a local hospital or started up a new organization that doesn’t even necessarily have to relate to your schoolwork. These can be big indicators of the individual initiative that schools like to see.
  2. Don’t forget that high school has plenty of opportunities after-hours.
    • Fancy being a captain of a varsity sport? There are plenty of ups and downs…but if you can lead a team, you’ll know how to handle a boardroom or a team project years down the line.
    • Try yearbook or band…you can make friends and learn how to be an excellent team member (or leader!) as time draws on.
  3. You can channel all of your extracurricular activities and classes into your career.
    • a. Want to be on Broadway? You can take a theater-heavy courseload and join school productions! Don’t just say you want to be on Broadway, immerse yourself in theater early just like many of the stars have.
  4. Take a courseload that matches you best; not one that sounds the best, nor one that will give you an easy A
    • AP Physics is hard (it was for me, at least). Consider taking a less difficult course, because although you might have an AP on your transcript, the mediocre grade you may or may not get won’t be as appealing as the high mark you would have otherwise have gotten in the easier version of the class
    • If you can do Honors Physics relatively well, go for it, because an easy A in intermediate physics won’t look as good as a hard earned A or even B+ in Honors Physics.