Want to know a secret? Rankings aren't what college is really about. Just because a school is ranked first doesn’t mean it's the absolute best—and it definitely doesn't mean it offers the college programs, majors, or activities that interest you.
So how do you find your match? Making sure you're aligned with prospective schools' academics is a good place to start. This includes things like entrance criteria, SAT/ACT scores, and the high school GPA of admitted students. While stats like these are just guidelines to college academics, thinking about them helps ensure that you’ll end up in a challenging and rewarding academic environment.
Remember, you are choosing a college as much as a college is choosing you. As long as you seek schools that suit you, there’s no need to stress.
You should look at the school's selectivity
Selectivity reflects the percentage of students who are accepted out of all who apply. Being selective doesn't necessarily make a school better, but it does mean it's harder to get in. Even if they offer a wide range of college majors, they don't have room for everyone. The most difficult schools to get into will likely have students who were able to meet stringent admission criteria. Are you competitive enough to go up against other top students to get into a more prestigious school? It's good to think about these things, since there's a fee attached to every application you send in. If you're starting early, thinking about a school's selectivity can give you a sense of what you might have to do to bolster your application.
Your SAT or ACT scores may make a difference
Obviously, your test scores play a big part in selecting a school. While SAT and ACT scores are not the sole criteria used by universities to determine acceptance, they are weighted heavily by more than 60 percent of the schools that require them. If your scores aren't where they need to be, consider taking the necessary tests again. You could improve your score.
Many schools report on the average SAT and/or ACT scores of entering freshman. Use this as a guideline, but not as an absolute since these are averages, not the highest or lowest scores. Some schools are less particular about standardized test scores and evaluate applicants in conjunction with other elements of their applications.
Does your GPA make the grade?
Just like with test scores, colleges usually report the average high school GPA of entering freshman. That doesn't necessarily mean that a less-than-stellar GPA will cost you a spot, especially if your application demonstrates your strengths in other ways. In general, solid test scores and grades are good indicator to colleges about your chances for success in college degree programs. If you have obvious inconsistencies between the two, the admission committee may peruse your scholastic history more closely as they try to determine your potential. If you had inconsistent grades or they perceive that you caved in to "senior slump," they may conclude that you studied for your SAT but didn’t work hard over the long haul and will not be able to stay the course in your intended college major.
Will you have to write an admissions essay?
In the hectic office of a college admission officer, hundreds of applications may blur together over time. How do admission officers decide between applications when they all start to look the same? Much of the time, it's your essay that will set you apart from the pack. Show your mastery of the English language, especially if it is your intended college major, but don't forget to let your stellar personality and strength of character shine through. This is your best opportunity to market yourself. Put time and effort (and proofreading) into your essay—it may clinch the college acceptance you’re seeking.
What will your extracurricular activities say about you?
In addition to your essay, another thing that can set you apart during the admissions process is your participation in athletics and activities outside of the high school classroom. Colleges may be on the lookout for students who demonstrate leadership potential and excellence. Many schools seek a diverse student population, so your grand prize for underwater basket-weaving may be just what they need to balance the team captains, the Goths, and the musicians. Seriously, though, participation in extracurricular activities demonstrates to the admission committees your interests and strengths and helps them to get a better sense of who you are and what attributes you may add to campus beyond your work in one of the college programs.
In general, it makes sense that you stand the best chance of getting in to the college of your choice by working hard throughout high school and taking part in activities that you enjoy. However, even top students highly suited to college academics may be rejected due to limited space, not deficits in their qualifications. Making a determined effort is your best guarantee for success, and if it still doesn't work in the long run, you won't be able to say that you didn't give it the "old college try!" Besides, there's definitely more than one good college match for every student.