Pre-College Advising

Journey to College: The Ultimate Four-Year Road Map for Admissions to Your Dream University

POSTED ON 06/14/2024 BY Sheetal Vora

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Admission to selective colleges continues to grow more competitive each year. For the Fall 2024 cycle, Yale University received a record 57,465 applications, a nearly 10 percent increase from its previous record of 52,250. Yale’s acceptance rate also hit a new low of 3.7 percent, down from 4.5 percent last year, making the road to college feel overwhelming, especially when you’re staring down the barrel in high school. But what if we told you a stress-free, well-prepared college application experience is within reach? This blog will serve as your roadmap, breaking down the college preparation process into clear, achievable steps across your four years of high school (grades 9-12). So, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a smooth journey to the university of your dreams. Remember, the path to university is a marathon, not a sprint. Start early, stay focused, and enjoy the process.

Preparing for college in grade 9 

While college may seem distant, the groundwork for it starts now. Here are a few things you can do to kickstart your journey to college in grade 9: 

1) Focus on academic achievement

Your academic performance in grade 9 lays the foundation for your high school transcript, which will be crucial to your college applications. While there is no need to stress excessively, taking your studies seriously from the outset is essential. Improving your study habits, enhancing time management skills, and striving for good grades will benefit you throughout high school and beyond.

2) Embrace academic challenges

While maintaining good grades is important, it is equally essential to challenge yourself with rigorous coursework. College admissions officers look beyond your GPA to assess your classes’ difficulty level. Take core subjects like math and lab sciences in grade 9 to demonstrate academic rigour. 

3) Leverage your counsellor’s guidance

Engaging with your school counsellor can help you brainstorm ideas for school initiatives you can participate in or clubs you can join and eventually lead. Demonstrating your contributions within the school community in this way gives admissions officers a clear perspective on the value you bring to the student body. Additionally, it allows your school counsellor to include substantial specifics in your letter of recommendation, making it more impactful.

4) Explore extracurricular activities

Grade 9 is the right time to identify certain extracurricular activities you wish to pursue in-depth over the next four years of high school. Demonstrating depth in certain extracurriculars shows consistency, commitment, discipline, and profound growth, which speaks a lot about your evolution. Grade 9 is when you start filtering out the breadth and thinking of how you will show depth in your passions and strengths.

5) Enhance your reading and writing skills

Universities significantly emphasize one’s ability to articulate thoughts clearly and effectively. Therefore, regular journaling or cultivating the habit of writing becomes exceedingly important. 

6) Plan your summers productively 

Participating in summer programmes, workshops, and classes allows you to explore and develop new interests and skills. These experiences provide valuable learning opportunities and lay a solid foundation for demonstrating depth in your activities as you progress.

Preparing for college in grade 10

What you do in grade 10 will significantly influence your future college options. Here are a few things to power your journey to college. 

1) Maintain your academic performance

Ensuring strong academic performance is crucial. While extracurricular activities matter, prioritise maintaining high grades. Effective time management and seeking timely feedback from teachers are essential. Aim for excellence in core subjects such as mathematics, sciences, history, geography and languages to showcase your readiness for future endeavours.

2) Enrol in honours or Advanced Placement (AP) courses

Challenge yourself with AP classes or credit bearing courses. They allow you to delve deeper into subjects you’re passionate about, challenging you to excel academically and develop critical thinking skills. By undertaking these courses, you demonstrate your commitment to academic excellence, earn credit and prepare for the rigours of university-level studies. 

3) Identify extracurricular activities that you want to pursue long-term

As things get busy in Grade 10, you must mindfully identify extracurricular activities that resonate with your long-term goals. Universities like to see commitment at a deeper level, so invest in fewer activities. It’s better to have pursued baking for three years to raise funds for underprivileged children than to pursue multiple activities to showcase proactivity. More importantly, don’t lose sight of involvement in writing-related extracurriculars, as they can enhance your skills and experiences.

4) Use your summer break wisely

Engage in activities that contribute to your personal growth. This could include researching colleges and visiting campuses to understand different environments. Additionally, consider researching national and international-level competitions and planning accordingly by being aware of registration dates and preparing for these opportunities. 

5) Choose the right curriculum for grades 11 and 12

While Indian boards are shifting toward holistic education to meet global standards, the country offers a wide range of international curricula, including IBDP and A Levels. Before changing your curriculum, understand the differences in teaching methods, subjects, assessments, and rigour. Transitioning requires adapting to advanced coursework and teaching styles, so assess readiness and carefully match curricula to your learning preferences and goals.

Preparing for college in grade 11

Grade 11 requires attention to your grades, college entrance exams, and college search. Equally important is focusing on yourself and discovering the activities that bring you joy. Here’s what you can do to take your college preparations to the next level: 

1) Participate in international competitions or research projects

International competitions and research projects demonstrate your commitment, passion, and curiosity, enhancing your college applications. Research projects showcase sustained inquiry, creativity, and tangible outcomes, while competitions highlight global skills and creativity. Events like the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition or the World Scholar’s Cup foster critical thinking, teamwork, and communication, highly valued by top universities. These experiences exhibit initiative and rigorous academic engagement, which are crucial for admissions to leading institutions.

2) Study and register for standardised tests 

Preparing for standardised tests like the SAT and ACT is crucial as many universities are reinstating them after implementing test-optional policies due to COVID-19. These tests serve as benchmarks for college readiness and can enhance your chances of achieving competitive scores. Consult your admissions counsellor for guidance on test preparation resources, recommended tests based on your strengths and interests, and understanding of college testing requirements.

3) Build meaningful relationships with teachers

Establishing robust relationships with your teachers is crucial. Actively engage in class, seek assistance when necessary, and showcase dedication to your studies. Moreover, nurturing meaningful bonds with your teachers enables them to craft personalised recommendation letters, which are crucial for admissions. 

4) Elevate your academic game 

Grade 11 is when you ramp up your academic pursuits. If your academic performance in the earlier years was intense, it’s essential to maintain that standard of excellence. Conversely, if you faced challenges in previous grades, now is the time to embark on a journey of academic resurgence, establishing a clear trajectory of improvement. 

5) Familiarise yourself with the Common App and UCAS platforms

If you want to study in the US, familiarise yourself with the Common App form. It is used by 900 universities, including many of the larger ones in the country. Alternatively, if you want to study in the UK, acquaint yourself with UCAS, the country’s centralised college application platform. 

6) Refine your extracurricular activities

As your academic workload intensifies, it’s crucial to streamline your extracurricular activities. To create a compelling application, you should select the ones that most matter to you. Concentrate on dedicating time and effort to two or three key activities. Choose ones that hold a special meaning and enable you to contribute to important causes within your community.

7) Attend university fairs

University fairs offer valuable insights into various institutions. Consult your school counsellor for details on the local event. Before attending, research participating universities to prioritise your interests. Prepare questions, collect contact details, and follow up with personalised emails to express gratitude.

8) Work on your college list

Assuming you began exploring colleges in grades 9 or 10,  it’s essential to start narrowing down your options. Begin by creating an extensive list of potential colleges. Use the summer before junior year and the first semester to gather as much information as possible about various schools. You can achieve this by networking with friends, family, and mentors and researching schools online. 

9) Explore scholarship opportunities

Start by consulting the financial aid offices of your chosen colleges to uncover institutional grants and scholarships suited to your profile. These scholarships may be tailored to academic excellence, athletic prowess, or specific fields like STEM. Your college counsellors are invaluable resources for scholarship guidance, often aware of those not easily found online. Additionally, online scholarship search engines offer tailored searches based on factors like majors, interests, demographics, and financial needs. 

10) Demonstrate interest

Demonstrating interest in universities can significantly impact admissions decisions. Universities often track demonstrated interest as a measure of an applicant’s enthusiasm and commitment. Take proactive steps to engage with prospective universities, such as scheduling interviews when available, attending campus visits, and participating in information sessions or webinars. These actions allow you to learn more about the university and leave a positive impression on admissions committees. Don’t wait until grade 12 to demonstrate interest; it will leave you little time before the early deadlines. Instead, begin in March or April of grade 11, which is towards the end of your academic year and continue to do so through grade 12. 

11) Take standardised tests and language proficiency tests in the summer before grade 12

Scheduling and completing standardised tests like the SAT or ACT early or language proficiency tests like IELTS or TOEFL gives you ample time to retake them if necessary and to focus on other aspects of your application. Early preparation and registration for these exams are vital in maximising your chances of success. Get them out of the way so that you can focus on school grades, application components and essays. 

12) Begin groundwork for your Common App essays

Start working on the foundation for your essays in Grade 11. The Common App essay prompts go live on August 1, but they don’t change much. Therefore, aim to have the Common App essay ready and done by the time Grade 12 begins. This reflective college essay sheds light on your character, background and value as a potential student. So, highlight academic interests, extracurriculars, obstacles overcome, and future goals. 

Preparing for college in grade 12

Congratulations on reaching this milestone! Your hard work has brought you to this point, and you should take a moment to celebrate your achievements. However, it’s essential to remember that there’s still significant work ahead of you before graduation. While feeling a sense of accomplishment and anxiety is natural, it’s important to maintain focus and determination. So, keep your eyes peeled on the prize and carefully approach each task. Here’s a month-by-month breakdown of what you can do in the final stretch of the journey: 

1) Finalise your university list

Start by categorising your university list into “Dream,” “Target,” and “Likely” schools based on acceptance rates. “Dream” schools are aspirational but highly competitive, while “Target” schools match your academic profile, offering a reasonable chance of acceptance. “Likely” schools exceed your credentials, ensuring a high probability of approval. Further, organise universities by application deadlines. US universities offer Early Decision 1 (ED 1) and Early Decision 2 (ED 2) for committed applicants. Early Action (EA) provides non-binding early responses, and Rolling Admission schools review applications as they arrive, prioritising early submissions for better chances.

2) Work on supplemental essays and UCAS personal statements

Essays are vital for your university application. UK applicants must start with their UCAS personal statement, while US applicants should finalise the Common App essays they began in Grade 11. US universities also require supplemental essays tailored to each university’s prompts and values. Typically, there are five types of supplemental essays: The ‘Why College’ essay, The ‘Why Major’ essay, The ‘Extracurricular Activities’ essay, The ‘Letter to your Roommate’ essay, The ‘Community’ or ‘Identity’ essay. Seek feedback to refine drafts and proofread meticulously for errors.

3) Gather and submit supporting documents

Supporting documents like letters of recommendation and transcripts are vital for your application. Choose teachers or mentors who know you well and can give a robust and personalised recommendation. Approach them early with necessary information like your resume and achievements summary. Verify the accuracy and completeness of your academic transcripts, requesting official copies from your school. Some universities may need additional documents like test scores or portfolios.

4) Apply for scholarships

Many institutions and government bodies offer scholarships, grants, and financial aid based on academic performance, financial need, and other criteria. Assuming you’ve researched scholarships and financial aid in grade 11, you can now submit your application. Be sure to check the specific requirements and deadlines for financial aid applications. Many request you to write an essay. 

5) Secure financial documentation

Many universities, especially in the US, require proof of your financial capability to cover tuition and expenses. This ensures your ability to support yourself during your studies. Obtain a bank letter confirming sufficient funds for at least the first year, including tuition, accommodation, living costs, and fees. Include documentation of scholarships, grants, or loans if applicable. Some universities may request tax returns or income statements for further verification.

6) Complete and submit all application forms

Whether it’s the Common App form, UCAS form, or scholarship application form, note the deadlines. It is important to meticulously fill them out, ensuring that every section is accurately completed. Consistency in information across all applications is paramount, so it’s advisable to double-check your details to avoid discrepancies. Submitting your applications well before deadlines is essential to mitigate any potential last-minute technical glitches that could impede the submission process.

7) Prepare for interviews

Interviews are crucial in admissions and often influence decisions. Prepare by engaging in mock interviews to boost confidence and understand the format. Research the university thoroughly to articulate your interest and alignment with its values. Prepare insightful questions to show genuine engagement. For UK undergraduate medical degrees, explore traditional interviews and MMIs

8) Monitor application portals and emails

Keep an eye on application portals and emails to stay updated on your application status. Follow university instructions to create and frequently log in to your accounts. Regularly check for updates or new requirements to stay informed. Promptly respond to requests for additional information to show dedication and avoid delays.

9) Steps after admission decisions

After receiving admission decisions, carefully evaluate offers, considering factors like financial aid, campus culture, and academic programs. Once you’ve decided, secure your spot by paying the required deposit. As a courtesy to both institutions and fellow applicants, notify colleges you won’t attend.

10) Initiate visa applications 

International students must initiate visa applications promptly upon acceptance. This early submission ensures ample time for processing, interview scheduling, and addressing any potential delays, ensuring a smooth transition into their chosen academic institution abroad.

Navigating the university admissions process is both challenging and rewarding. Staying organised and proactive can help ensure you make the best decisions for your future. You may also read our blogs: Beyond the US, UK and Canada: Unique Study Abroad Destinations and Unravelling the Enigma: What Makes Ivy League Schools Special? Should you have any questions or require guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out. The undergraduate team is committed to providing the support you need to navigate this exciting chapter in your academic journey. 

Sheetal Vora heads the undergraduate admissions team at The Red Pen and annually hosts Journey to College. At this event, she invites former applicants who have recently succeeded in getting admission to leading universities worldwide.