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10 things college admissions officers want to see

What can high school students do to impress

What can high school students do to impress college admissions officers? Mandee Heller Adler, author of "From Public School to the Ivy League: How to Get into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources," has some advice. (Credit: iStock)

High school students may wonder what colleges are looking for in future applicants. To help your children stand out from the rest of the applicants, Mandee Heller Adler, author of "From Public Schools to the Ivy League: How to Get into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources" (Biographical Publishing Company, $14.95), offers the following tips.

1. Choose the right high school classes. "Take classes that are a challenge, including AP and IB, when possible," Adler says. "Students need to challenge themselves, but not to the extent they are hurting themselves grade-wise. Students must also meet all high school course requirements for their chosen college and to meet statewide graduation requirements in order to earn a diploma."

2. Get to know the college counselor. High school counselors can help students with their big-picture planning for the future, including academic advising, college planning and personal counseling, Adler says. "College counselors are also needed for college application letters of recommendation," Adler says. "Make an appointment to see a school counselor at least once each year, including freshman year. The goal is to try to build a relationship with the high school counselor during the four years of high school."

3. Keep the grades up. Make a commitment to work hard for good grades. Students who find themselves falling behind should get help – before they fall too far behind, Adler says. "Grades count and schools look for students who have challenged themselves and expressed a passion for learning."

4. Take standardized tests early. At most highly selective colleges, SAT or ACT tests are very important, Adler says. "The schools are looking to see if test scores are consistent with – or exceed – a student’s high school performance. No student knows how high his or her score can go until the test results come in. But, if a student waits too long and does not get a desired score, there won’t be enough time to retake it." Most students take the SAT and/or ACT at least twice and improve their score the second time they take it, Adler says.

5. Engage in the right mix of extracurricular activities. "Admissions officers are looking for commitment and impact in a student’s activities," Adler says. "It's better to be highly involved in one to three activities and/or sports over a number of years, than less involved in many activities. Anyone can join 10 clubs and be marginally involved in them all. Schools are looking for a student to demonstrate the willingness to stick with something and make the most of it."

6. Take the college application seriously. Students need to make sure they put time and effort into every part of the college application, from the essay to the resume, Adler says. "The college essay gives admissions officers the opportunity to know who a student is and how that student might contribute to the college campus," Adler says. "It also gives the admissions team a chance to learn something about a student that they won’t find elsewhere in the application."

7. Do the research. Know what the choices are when it comes to colleges. "This way any coulda, shoulda, woulda regrets can be avoided later in life," Adler says. "Research could be as simple as visiting a school’s website. Students should also try to attend college fairs, meet with admissions experts when they visit, and go on college visits."

8. Maximize summer opportunities. "High school students who want to stand out on their college applications should consider the summer an ideal time to add some resume gold," Adler says. "Good choices include attending a summer enrichment program, taking a summer job or internship, participating in volunteer work, taking virtual classes, attending a dual enrollment program or taking classes at a local college."

9. Develop any special talents or abilities. Students who do something extraordinarily well do gain an edge in the college admissions process, Adler says. "A special talent or ability can be anything including performing or visual arts, athletics, science, math, speech and debate or writing. Colleges will look for evidence of a student’s accomplishments through recognition from others. They may also look for significant contributions that show the student’s depth of commitment and follow-through."

10. Banish the self-doubt. Fear of failure and doubting personal abilities only hold students back from achieving what they want to achieve. "Just say no to these thoughts and others like them," Adler says.

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