I got through my four years of high school with considerable stress, confusion and anxiety. Yes, I did work my butt off, but I did get into my dream school. Here is a four year game plan for those who know what school they want to shoot for.
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Step 1: Research!!!
Where do you want to go? Harvard? University of Florida? Ohio Community college?
Here is some honest advice: ONLY WORK AS HARD AS YOU HAVE TO!!!! Many state schools are great and practical choices for state residents: they are inexpensive, local and a great way to find what you want to do for a living without spending much cash. If you do not have the means to go to school out of state, don't worry about it. Just don't work super hard to get into a school that you can't afford and then end up going to a state school and resenting others who didn't do as much work as you.
Go to prospective school's website and
1. Find out what classes they expect you to take (standard, honors, AP)
2. Find out what standardized test scores they expect (SAT, SAT II and ACT)
3. Find out what they value- Are they focused on sustainable living for the near future and a cleaner America? Or do they specialize in bringing finer arts to life? This will help you shape your high school schedule as well as extracurriculars, and also tell you what to emphasize in the admissions process.
NOTE: If you end up taking more challenging classes then you need to, try not to worry about it. Education will come back and benefit you even if the result is not immediately apparent.
Step 2: Plan Your Schedule
From here on out, I'm going to write this assuming that you're trying to get into to a highly selective school. This means you'll be trying to appear well-rounded as well as intent on challenging yourself, serving the community, and leading your peers.
As far as what classes to take, you have an IB schedule, you have the equilvalent of all AP classes. If you can survive this rigorous schedule, you're lucky. Many of these schools are well known by the Ivy Leagues and their reputation precedes them. I went to a public school that had many AP classes available. Some good guidelines to follow :
1. Make sure to take AT LEAST one AP class in at least these areas: English, Math, Science, History, and Language.
2. Take upper level classes that are known to be easy and/or have fun teachers. You may not have an immediate interest in environmental science, but you'll thank me when you're doing homework from other classes during a video.
3. Do not take lower than an honors level class during your junior and senior year. I know some required classes are standard credit only, and it hurts your GPA, but these are good to get out of the way early.
4. NEVER take less AP classes than the year before. You take more, or the same amount. It builds the perception of progress and shows colleges that you're not slacking off senior year (god forbid)
My AP class schedule from sophomore year on went thusly 2, 4, 5
5. Play to your strengths without overloading yourself. If you love English, take Lang and Lit. If math is for you, take Calc and Statistics. Science has even more options (chem, bio, psych, physics, env)
NOTE: Three years of a language looks good. Four is more impressive, if you can swing it.
Step 3: Extracurriculars, Sports, Band, and More
There are certain organizations at your school that are easy to excel in, sound impressive, and don't take up a lot of your time. Yes, join all the BS honor societies you want, but there are others, oh yes, there are others. For example, BPA, the Business Professionals of America, basically takes students to conventions where they can take multiple choice tests. Because these are the staple of public schools, I was easily able to claim 1st place in one or two categories and brought home a rather nice plaque.
The point is, find one or two clubs like that. Colleges don't know you showed up one hour a month and then went to the state convention to get free food (You're a Business Professional of America, darn it!).
Play to your strengths in the clubs you choose as well. If you dig English, work on the newspaper, or join the writing club.
When it comes to sports, I must be brutally honest. Unless you are skilled enough to have a sure shot at team captain, are dependent on said sport for a scholarship, or cannot imagine life without it, think seriously on not participating. Sports are extremely time intensive, and can be very frustrating if one has an incompetent coach (I know from experience). They cut in to study time, job time, or that spare ten seconds you have to yourself. Again, you know what's best for your situation.
To Band, the Flag team, dance, etc. the same applies. Unless you love it to death or think you can get a scholarship from the activity, your time might be better spent elsewhere.
You don't have to abandon music or sports entirely if you forsake them in school. Volunteer to coach a soccer team or play in the orchestra at church. It's just extremely hard to structure your time around these activities. They are potentially fun and enriching, but know what you are giving up in order to partake in them.
Volunteering is wonderful as well, especially if it is tailored to your interests. The point in all these activities is to give the colleges and idea of you as a person-- your passions, strengths and interests.
NOTE: Score extra points by creating your own club. This shows initiative and a willingness to lead. I created a club based on nerd culture and was asked about it in EVERY INTERVIEW.
*I am not trying to insult the fine establishment of BPA in any way. I found my experiences with the club to be extremely rewarding...
Step 4: Standardized Tests
So you're required to take the SAT/ACT and probably some SAT II's. Heed my advice, younglings. Start studying EARLY. Start studying FRESHMEN YEAR. Get yourself a review book for each test you plan to take, like the one pictured below.
Find out what test works for you. Some who score low on the SAT do very well on the ACT, and vice versa. If a prep course is available for cheap at or near your school, take it. If you can find a study partner who is willing to take practice tests with you at Borders, go for it.
Brush up on your vocab. At the back of Princeton Review Word Smart there is a so called "hit list." you don't need to buy the book to find these words and the definitions. Do you know what meticulous means? Find out.
Free Rice is another good resource. It is the most enjoyable way to learn vocab I have found to date. free rice
On test day, eat a good breakfast, not a Grand Slam, and bring a banana as a snack. Use a WOOD #2 PENCIL, NEVER MECHANICAL. There are actually studies that have been done showing that a slightly dull wood pencil saves you time. No, I did not conduct these studies myself.
As for SAT II's, you have a little more leeway. Take the tests the summer after you take a class with pertinent subject matter, while everything is fresh in your head. A review book might help for these as well, though you know your study habits best.
Step 5: Jobs and Working
Ideally, we would all be able to focus purely on our studies, activities, and having fun. I know this is not an option for many of us.
If you must work, work on the weekends. If you must work during the week, work extreme part time (four hour shifts max). Fortunately, many states have laws that are extremely protective of minors, requiring half hour paid breaks every four hours or so (grumble).
Local jobs are best. Who has time to commute? Also, is there a job you can find where it is possible to do homework during slow times (such as a fast food drive through)?
Note: If you can get a job suited to your interests, such as an internship or assisting a professor, you will own the admissions committee. Absolutely own them. They will frolic before you scattering rose petals before your feet, singing of your victory. O.k, that's an exaggeration, but only slightly.
Step 6: The Application Process
This is the most annoying part of getting into college and can make or break your senior year. Start apply in the summer after junior year, if possible, to lighten the load. Make sure to ask for recommendation letters early in the year from teachers in upper level classes who like you. Or have "Dr." in front of their names (actually, many members of these admission committees have PhDs and will not be impressed).
You will want to apply to approximately
3 ideal/dream schools (you would go there in a second)
2 safety schools (you would be content to go there, and you would get a better scholarship)
1 state school (inexpensive and close to home)
This ratio can be played with, but if you narrow it down to five or less you are golden. Don't be afraid to apply to more, but applications are expensive and quite a lot of work. The Common Application comes in handy here. Please don't apply to more than ten schools. You will hate life, join a cult and become the shame of your family.
Note: These rules may not be best for everybody. I know someone who applied to fifteen colleges, and ended up with a full ride to one of them. Even so, know your limits when it comes to monotonous drudgery.
Step 7: Good Luck!!!
Send in your applications and enjoy the rest of senior year. Don't slack off but don't worry too much either. I know this is a difficult balance to achieve. I've been there.
I know high school is a tremendously stressful time. Your time is not your own, and you have to become someone who looks attractive to colleges while staying true to yourself. A lot of it is BS and a lot of it is stressful. Spend time with your friends, and stop wondering if all the hard work will be worth it. It will.
Good luck in the years ahead. If you do make it into your dream school, try not to become too pretentious. A little bit is fine. And if it's and Ivy League school you're after, stock up on argyle. :)
Comments and advice on on what worked for you are more than welcome.