Advice Column: College Admissions

By: Miyako Iwata

I have average grades but I want to get into a good college. What should I do?

One of the best ways to offset a less-than-ideal GPA is to beef up your resume with a handful of meaningful and long-term extracurricular activities that reflect well on your character. If you are an underclassman, you still have lots of time to explore different options in terms of which sports, clubs, volunteer services, and jobs may be the right fit for you.

When choosing your extracurriculars, make sure to consider the time commitment and the difficulty of the activities themselves, as well as the social atmosphere of the specific groups you are considering joining. Avoid choosing activities exclusively for the sake of making your college applications look better (“padding,” as admissions officers call it). Instead, pursue interests that are genuinely enjoyable and fulfilling to you, and let the boost to the “activities” section of your college applications follow naturally. Remember: you will be writing extensively about your pursuits outside of school in the Common Application and other forms, so it only makes sense that you spend your time doings things that you would be stoked to write essays about and talk about in interviews.

Ideally, by the time you reach your junior year, you have a solid set of activities that you are highly committed to and are excelling in, whether that be performing well in regional athletic competitions or taking on leadership roles within a volunteer organization. This makes for plenty of time to build more accomplishments that will strengthen your résumé considerably by senior year.

Another way to compensate for average grades is to score well on standardized exams. This, of course, relies heavily on natural test-taking ability and/or a strong commitment to extensive test prep. Nevertheless, it is important to know that exams like the SAT and ACT continue to play a major role in the college admissions game, and an impressive score can most certainly improve your chances of getting accepted into a more competitive institution.

What do I need to know about standardized testing to be application-ready?

Let’s start with the basics: Most four-year colleges require that prospective students submit either the ACT or the SAT as a part of the application process. Some schools, especially those with lower acceptance rates, may also require that you submit two SAT Subject Test scores to provide additional context on your strengths in specific academic areas (to be discussed more in-depth later on). Either way, testing remains a crucial means of proving your qualifications to your dream school.

Most students want to know what a “good” SAT score is. The reality is that this varies widely depending on that student’s goals in terms of what types of colleges they are applying to. If you want to attend a community college after graduation, for example, you don’t need an SAT or ACT score to report at all. However, if getting into a state school is your goal, then target scores of around 600 in each subsection of the SAT exam is recommended. Finally, for people who are competing for spots in the nation’s premier universities and private colleges, there is no such thing as too high a score to submit. Competition has become increasingly cutthroat in recent years, and excellent test scores are all but expected from students who want to have a shot at getting into these schools.

The best way to put yourself at an advantage with standardized tests is to start early. An ideal timeline to follow is to have all of your required testing finished by the end of junior year. If you are planning to take a certain test twice, schedule one in the fall of your junior year and another in the late winter or early spring. You might also consider doing formal test prep with a tutor, which is a more pricey but usually worthwhile option in terms of securing a tangibly higher score.

In regards to SAT Subject Tests, not all high schoolers should feel obligated to take these exams. It id important that you research all of your top choice schools so you can find out if they request subject test scores or not. STEM-focused students, especially those who want to attend tech schools like MIT and Harvey Mudd, should seriously consider taking exams in the maths and sciences to better prove their competency in those areas. Offerings include Mathematics Level 1 and 2, as well as Biology, Chemistry, and of course, Physics.

Despite these stress-inducing statistics, it is worth noting that many distinguished institutions have joined the movement against standardized test requirements in college admissions. Bates, Bowdoin, Smith, and Pitzer are just some of the elite private colleges that have moved away from the traditional testing-centric approach to the application process. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that all schools will remove such requirements in the near future, so high schoolers should still expect to spend a substantial amount of time studying for and taking these exams.

Still feeling overwhelmed by the college admissions process? Don’t worry! There are many resources available to you here at South, including the College & Career Center and the Counseling Center. Schedule a meeting with your counselor to get your personal questions answered by an expert.


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