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What Matters Most in a College Application

Paige Buttels

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If your child is planning on attending college after they graduate high school, it’s important to get an early start on academic preparation. It’s pretty hard to boost a 2.5 GPA to a 3.5 when you have only one year left.

But academics aren’t the only consideration in college admissions. While there is no specific combination of factors that will guarantee your student a spot at their preferred college, a survey compiled by the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that, besides academics, admissions officers look at factors like test results, community involvement and demonstrated interest.

Here are 5 tips to make the most of high school in preparation for college!

1. High School Academic Success

In the estimation of college admissions officials, doing well in high school courses is THE most important consideration in admissions decisions. Encourage your student to challenge themselves in honors, dual credit or AP classes in subjects they are strongest in.

At the same time, monitor them for signs of burnout or emotional distress. It’s not unusual for high-performing students to feel overwhelmed, or feel like failures if they don’t get As in everything. Help them find a balance between achievement and personal well-being.

2. Test Prep

Though it’s a little ways down the list, the next most important factor in admissions are scores in college admissions tests. This landscape has changed vastly over the last few years:

  • Students can submit the SAT or ACT for college admissions at most colleges. Some colleges are test-blind, though, and do not want to see test scores.
  • Many colleges became test-optional during the height of the pandemic, and some are keeping that status at least for the next couple of academic years. See a full list at FairTest: the National Center for Open and Fair Testing.
  • Although it is hard to say without knowing a student’s background, if a test score is a positive part of their application, they should submit it. If the test score does not help their application and the college is test-optional, do not submit it.

Students may want to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT to see which they score higher on in terms of percentile. Then they can focus their efforts on the test they do better on.

I encourage students to utilize test preparation for the SAT or ACT in the winter of their junior year before taking the test in the spring. Free SAT prep is available through Khan Academy.  The ACT offers free prep and tutoring for its test. Also, the high school and public library may offer test prep. School counselors will have specific suggestions.

Learn more about the pros and cons of applying test-optional >

3. Get Involved

Extracurriculars are not a huge consideration, but they are still a factor. Encourage your student to become involved in one or two clubs, sports or community service activities that are meaningful to them. Quality, not quantity.

Not only will this help a student explore what’s important to them, it will also give them something to write about in their college essays (still high on the list of admissions factors!).

4. Career Exploration

No one expects a high school student to know exactly what they want to do in life, but the high school years are a great time for career exploration.

Help your student identify one or two career fields of interest and then get some feedback from a school counselor and one or two trusted adults. They can take classes related to these fields or become involved in related groups or clubs. It’s a good idea for them to ask someone in the field if they can job shadow, intern or work part-time to gain firsthand insight to the career field.

This type of experience is great content for a college essay!

5. College Exploration 

At colleges with competitive admissions, the interest a student shows in the college — visits, calls, social media interaction, responsiveness to emails — becomes a significant factor in admission decisions.

Sit down with your student and determine what is important to both of you in a college “fit,” then research colleges online, using matching tools such as College Board’s Search Tool. Make sure to attend college fairs and talk to representatives about academic and career interests. Then make your college visits and identify three to eight schools to apply to in fall of your child’s senior year. College visits provide invaluable insight to determine if a college feels like home for a student’s future four years.

By preparing for college while in high school, and by exploring careers through academics and social settings, students will have more financial opportunities (such as scholarships) and be ready to apply to college.

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Paige Buttels is a college/career counselor at a public high school in suburban Chicago and works with parents and students as a member of My College Planning Team ( She holds a master’s in counseling from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s in psychology from Illinois State University.
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