The Magic Formula for Getting into a Great College
We often have parents and students ask us:
What is the right path in high school?
Is my student behind? Are they ahead?
What is the success formula?
Are we doing the right thing?
What did that student do to get into Harvard?
What are all the clubs and internships I need to get into a good school?
When should I be doing x, y, or z?
What ACT score should I get to do well?
High school years can be a time of worry, stress, and anxiety. As students are subject to comparing themselves with their peers, they may feel overcome with ‘imposter syndrome’ where students start to doubt their own abilities.
We’ve compiled a list of expert advice from our Ivy League tutors and various paths they've taken throughout their high school journey. Based on a survey of these key achievers, here’s a list of things your student should be looking out for during each phase of their high school journey.
This “schedule” is just a suggested path your child may take. Every child’s journey is different; some children specialize in one area throughout high school, while others like to try a little bit of everything to find their niche. And that is okay. If after reviewing this timeline you still have questions, feel free to reach out to us here at HiFive.
And remember, getting into a “great college” is a subjective description. For some students, they think 'great' only lies within the Ivy League, but for many students, their happiest fit may be a state school. With this schedule, we hope to prepare students to maximize their chances of reaching whichever school they desire.
Focus on getting consistently good grades and practice staying on top of school work. Though grades don’t “count,” this is the year students should start growing very serious about deadlines, time management, and grades. If grades do unfortunately end up slipping, embrace “learning to fail” and use the slippage to learn more effective study strategies to help later on in high school.
Start thinking about what subjects might be of interest to you or very general paths you might consider in the future (STEM, Humanities etc). Find what makes you happy and excited to learn.
Perform well in your classes to get recommended for higher level high school courses, such as honors math, science, literature, foreign language, and AP Government.
Begin planning some extracurricular sports or activities you’d like to pursue in high school
Consider taking elective PE + Health classes online the summer before 9th grade begins (not necessary, but this will save summer time later)
Attend high school orientation and think about the classes you’d like to take freshman year
Focus on grades! Many students face new levels of course intensity their freshman year when compared to middle school rigor. Push through this change of pace.
Start volunteering! Consistent volunteering is not only a great resume builder, but is also a great way to meet cool people and give back to your community.
Join at least 1 school club. Many schools offer club fairs where students can get a feel for different student organizations - try to find some groups with a good community that can act as an outlet for the pursuit of your passions. NOTE: Don’t join a club because “it’ll look good on college applications.” Colleges want passion and pursuit, not what “looks good,” so find what you love and do it.
See what classes you’re enjoying so far. If you find yourself enjoying a pathway area (theater, visual arts, etc), consider taking enough courses to complete the pathway and get a diploma seal.
Keep a journal - this will be for personal self-reflection! Write down any big decisions you make this year, the fun times you had, the bad times. Explain your passions, and just be yourself.
Maintain a resume log - record any accomplishments or awards you receive throughout high school.
Prepare early for your first AP Exam (ideally starting in March).
Decide on classes to take your sophomore year. Find areas to push yourself, but also remember to balance your schedule as necessary.
Remember those clubs you joined in the Fall? Really reflect on which ones you enjoy, and start to work towards standing out and finding leadership roles within them in the years to come. If you don’t find yourself enjoying many clubs, look for new clubs next year, make sure they align with your passions, and similarly start to search for a way to give a little extra.
If you’re considering joining a military academy, research the application process - it’s hefty, and if you think you may have an interest in this, make sure you’re staying on top of that schedule.
Sophomore year is a notable year of drifting. Stay on top of your coursework. Continue thinking about what coursework intrigues you - this may help with choosing a college major later! (And don’t worry - you don’t have to decide yet, but feeling out the areas you enjoy is a great place to start).
Continue to pursue your interests through clubs and extracurriculars.
Start thinking about SAT / ACT preparation. You may even want to take a blind SAT and/or ACT to help decide which test you prefer. If you find a test you want to stick with, we recommend finding review materials, common question types, and even tutoring if you wish.
If possible, apply for officer positions for the clubs you’re a part of! Many organizations select juniors and seniors as club officers, so take advantage of these opportunities to have a bigger hand in the clubs you enjoy.
Decide what course you want to take your junior year - be sure to have a good mix of challenging AP/Honors courses with room for an elective/pathway or two. The upcoming year is known for its rigor, but we have faith that you can handle it!
NOTE: Maxing out your schedule with AP courses may sound impressive to colleges, but we assure you, six AP’s your junior year will not be the step that gets you into Harvard. Make sure to assess if you can handle the course load you plan to take - acing four AP courses beats failing 6 of them.
Enjoy your summer, but also try to engage in community service, a summer job, or an internship, if possible.
This is it. Junior. Year. Excited? Within your first two weeks, assess how you’re faring in your courses. Are you feeling dangerously behind in classes, or with some dedication, can you keep up with the work? Consider exchanging an honors course for an AP if needed, but remember that you are smarter than you think you are.
Engage with your teachers. Get to know them as people, and really soak in all they have to share with you. Most teacher recommendations for college come from junior year teachers, so getting to know them (and allowing them to get to know you) is extremely important.
NOTE: This does not mean kissing up to teachers or only communicating with them to “get a good rec” - teachers are smart, and they can tell when students are only being agreeable for the sake of a recommendation. The best recommendations are from teachers that know their students well, even if the students aren’t the highest academic performers.
Take the chance to show teachers your character through the way you act in class, the way you engage with peers, and the way you engage with them.
Delve into your passions. Not only are these a great way to get a break from coursework, but pushing yourself in a sport, exploring new art forms, or practicing your instrument, for example, are important ways to keep yourself grounded and later, to use these to show who you are to colleges who are curious.
Continue studying and working hard, of course!
Decide on classes for senior year. You may experience fatigue towards your second senior semester, but still continue to sign up for stimulating courses that will challenge you. (Colleges still look at your senior year!)
Start looking into jobs or internships. Either of these could take place over the summer, or you may even be able to substitute an internship opportunity for an academic class your senior year.
Start filtering a list of colleges. A great system is creating a spreadsheet where you can compare the features of each school that are important to you. Do you want a large school in a bustling college town? Include a heading for “college environment” and “nearby activities. ”Do you want a small, close-knit class size? Include a heading for “student population” and “percent of students that live on campus.” Do you want to go to a technical school or a liberal arts college? Include a heading for “college type.” Devise various headings so you can readily compare the information that matters to you for each school.
Ponder your passions. What makes you you? It’s easy to get lost junior year, and this makes describing yourself to curious colleges all the more difficult. So continue pursuing what you love! KEEP JOURNALING!
Consider finding a summer internship, job, or long-term volunteer role.
Schedule college visits. Get excited for the college decisions process! If it is affordable for you, you may want to sort through your college list and narrow down the list of schools you’d really like to see in person so that you may visit them throughout your senior year.
Keep journaling throughout the summer - explain what is currently making you happy, what you enjoy, and reflect on your last three years of high school. Just do it. Write freely. We’ll tell you why it’s important in a bit.
Re-sort through your college list. Have your interests changed? Can you rule out any colleges? If accepted, could you truly see yourself in the places on your list? Delete any colleges that you are no longer considering.
Make a list of every college you wish to apply to and rank them from your highest to least priority (the college you want to go to the most v. the one you want to go to the least). From here, research their admissions policies - are they Early Decision, Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, or Regular Decision?
NOTE: Deadlines are more than dates - the deadline at which you chose to apply to schools holds implications for your other applications, potential aid opportunities, and level of commitment to the school, if offered acceptance. Keep an eye out here - we may be posting a blog sometime soon discussing the intricacies of decision deadlines!
Decide which schools you want to apply to early v. regular decision, and start drafting those college essays.
As you start brainstorming college essay topics, CONSULT your junior summer journal. Those decisions? Passions? Turning points? Write about them now.
Apply to colleges as the deadlines progress - make sure to keep track of the early ones if applicable, because applying early leads to a quicker college response.
Keep on top of your coursework - this semester does, in fact, matter.
Ask a couple teachers for teacher recommendation letters, and if needed, ask a peer for a peer rec (required for only a select few schools).
Research scholarships and deadlines.
Continue working, if you’re employed, or consider finding your first job.
Pursue an internship opportunity! Activities like leadership, research, internship, jobs, are not easy to achieve in your first semester - rather they are achieved through a culmination of prior work, such as high grades, continued participation in a club, stellar performance on certain competitions, etc. These activities and experiences build on each other. If you obtain an internship or similar experience, consider using this as fodder for your college essay where applicable.
Apply for scholarships. Many schools have scholarship portals in addition to or within their undergraduate applications, but also research and apply to outside scholarships.
Personally meaningful extracurriculars - clubs, athletics, choir, theater, etc
Leadership of some form (helping out your family, club leadership, sports captain, etc)
What if I don’t get into a club my first semester?
Try again next semester - they could be full, or they could want to allow a bit of time for you to figure out high school rigor before joining a club. Do not fret!
What if I do poorly in my first semester?
Dust yourself off, learn from that first semester, and start afresh second semester. Colleges love a come back story, so come back ready to prove your brilliance.
How much is enough?
You should have a busy schedule, but you should not be overwhelmed. Students should not be physically ill due to their coursework - this is a sign of extreme, unhealthy stress rather than the spurring, motivating form of stress that shapes strong students. If you can balance extracurriculars, personal life, and academic life while still obtaining proper rest and emotional stability, you’re doing enough!
Do I need to lead a club my freshman/sophomore year?
No. If an opportunity arises naturally for you to lead a group during your freshman or sophomore year, feel free to take the position, but do not feel as if you are “behind” if you’re not Beta Club president your freshman year. A lot of leadership opportunities open up your junior year, so get ahead if possible, but don’t feel like you’re “failing” if your first officer positions arise a bit later.
More questions? Feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com