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Applying to College: A Survival Guide

If you're all stressed out about getting into college, here are some tips from the experts on how to maximize your chances without overdoing it.

By Samantha Stainburn


This may be you, or someone you know: the student who's on two varsity teams, plays the cello, runs a school club, volunteers regularly, has taken eight A.P. courses, five SAT subject tests, and has even prepped for the PSAT.

With all the competition over getting into college, it's not surprising applicants want to make sure they've done enough. But how much is too much (or too little)? Experts say it's possible to maximize your chances without overdoing it. Whether you're applying to a state school close to home, or to a private university across the country, here are their suggestions.

1. Take Two Or Three Practice Tests
Standardized test scores are one of the top factors influencing admissions decisions. Familiarity with the test (SAT or ACT)—the question types and what they're looking for—will help you do better.

"Don't walk in cold," says Brian O'Reilly of the College Board, which administers the SAT. "Every minute you spend reading the test directions is a minute you're not . . . answering questions.''

If you choose the SAT, take the PSAT and a few other practice tests on your own right before taking the exam, he says. (Most students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year and the SAT in the spring.)

How helpful is it to prep beyond that? Test-prep companies contend that they can raise scores by hundreds of points, but some studies show less-impressive results. One time waster: PSAT prep. Don't prepare for what is designed to be a practice test: Colleges don't even see PSAT scores. .

2. Take Three Sat Subject Tests
Most colleges don't require these subject-specific exams. But many of the more competitive schools require scores from two, and several schools ask for three. None want more than that. So keep your options open and take three. And while many colleges waive subject test requirements for those who take the ACT instead of the SAT, not all do.

Start early and take one test at a time over the course of your high school career, says Ellen Fisher, a college adviser at the Bronx High School of Science in New York.

Even if they're not required, the tests come in handy. Submitting excellent results "can help a student who's in that gray area,'' says Robert K. Andrea of the State University of New York at Albany.

3. Take As Many A.P.'S As You Can Handle
The surest way to pique colleges' interest is to "take the hardest courses you can get into in high school,'' says the dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine. A.P. and I.B. courses are considered the most challenging, notes the admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with honors classes "a little less so, unless that's the only advanced coursework that the school offers."

But there's a catch. Gary L. Ross, dean of admissions at Colgate University in upstate New York, says: "The question we get asked more than any other is, 'Is it better to take an A.P. course and possibly get a B or C, or is it better to take a more basic course and get an A?'

"Our response is, we want to see applicants who are able to do both—take advanced-level courses and do well.''

Admissions officers say there's no such thing as an ideal number of A.P., I.B., or honors courses on a transcript because they evaluate each applicant in the context of the high school—the number of such courses offered, school policies, and even scheduling conflicts (information that school counselors submit with student applications).

Still, Ross can define what is considered too little: "If the student comes from a school where there were 15 or 20 courses offered and didn't take advantage of any of those courses, that would certainly raise a flag.''.

4. Only Do Extracurriculars That You Love
"The student who says, 'Here's a long list of things, each of which I've done for four hours a week for a year,' really is not impressive to us,'' says Robert A. Seltzer, director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"We would rather see a few activities where a student has stuck with it and moved up in the ranks, so now they're a club president or a team captain, and they exhibit leadership. Students who have created a club, and now they've raised $20,000 for Katrina victims—that looks strong to us.''.

5. Send Three To Five Recommendation Letters
Top colleges often request three letters from specific people—say, two teachers in different subject areas and a school counselor. Feel free to send additional recommendations, counselors say, but more than two extras is overkill.

Even if letters are optional, as they are at SUNY Albany, consider sending at least one. "For students who are not going to match up to the applicant pool whatsoever, letters are not going to make a difference," says Andrea. "But for that middle student, it can make a difference."

Letters should come from people who really know you. If possible, get recommendations from teachers in upper-level, full-year courses.

6. Apply To Five To Eight Colleges
The rule of thumb is at least five colleges: one or two safety schools, two to four schools you have a good chance of getting into, and one or two dream schools.

Fisher of Bronx Science knows students who have applied to 21 colleges. "It's a lot of work, and it's a lot of money, and in the end they generally get into the schools we assumed they'd get into,'' she says. "When students start applying to 21 schools, most of them are dream schools, and so most of those will be a rejection.''

The more applications you do, the greater the chance you will make a bad impression. Seltzer of the University of Wisconsin explains: "I can't tell you how many times students have clearly taken an essay and modified it for us, rather than answering the question that we put forth.

"Every day,'' he says, "we get applications where the student says, 'I have always wanted to go to the University of Michigan.' ".