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7 Tips for Early High School Students Applying to Selective Schools

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

This is for the one who has just entered the big leagues of high school within the last year or two and is now beginning to think about colleges.

This is for the person who doesn’t know where to start building a strong application, but who has heard the words “selective” or “elite” describe certain colleges and has felt a tingling of interest.

If you are a high school student interested in applying to highly selective schools in the U.S., this for you!

I am a second-year physics student at Princeton University. Just to toot the horn of my school, Princeton this past year finished number one in the “big three” of college admissions ranking sites, U.S. News, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal, and finished fifth in Niche college rankings (a ranking system using real student reviews!).

During my admissions cycle for the Great Class of 2026 as we call it, the university chose not to release the admissions rate in order to not “discourage prospective students from applying to Princeton because of its selectivity” [1].

As Princetonians, we read into this kind of statement in a multitude of ways, but the one thing stands is that Princeton is still really hard to get into, and this difficulty doesn’t only rest within Princeton’s characteristics.

There are several highly selective schools in the U.S., those coming to mind are of course the most famous, being those of the Ivy League, the California-system schools, various highly-selective, STEM-heavy schools (MIT, Caltech, Stanford), and of course, the Little Ivies of the North, among others. 

While this definition is loose and can be wiggled around, it’s not the point of this blog. Disregarding how selective the school is that you want to apply for, in any college application you want to stand out.

You want the admissions officer to read your application and remember you. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Oh, and you’ve only got anywhere from 600 to 1,500 words to make that happen.

How do you spend the next couple years in high school preparing yourself for a strong application? Well, that’s why I’m here to give a few tips to help guide your high school decisions.

While I won’t tell you how to write your application, my hope is that you come away from this encouraged to take chances and apply to difficult schools, knowing you don’t have to be an Albert Einstein-level theoretical physicist by the end of high school to get into a selective school.

Here are my seven tips to the early high schooler in preparing for a strong college application.

Tip 1. Do your research.

Now is the time to do research. Start Googling schools like crazy.

Find a geographic region you’re interested and look what’s in the area. Or find a ranking system for the best schools with your field of study and take a peek at the rankings.

I’d highly recommend looking at Niche for school rankings, since, as I mentioned before, Niche uses student reviews for their information on colleges. The “research” portion of preparing for college will be the entirety of your college admissions experience.

You should always try to learn more about the colleges you are applying to for several reasons. First off, college is a lot like a relationship. When you’re applying to college, you want to feel it out. See if you and said college are a good fit.

After all, you’re going to be living for the next four years (give or take) at this place. You’ll be surrounded by people your age more so than ever before and be challenged in a plethora of new ways.

Look into student life on the college websites, ask students you know about the life at school, take a college tour and ask questions. Start asking questions early, so you know if you want to spend time applying to the school. Don’t apply for the name, but for the fit.

Secondly, I tend to believe that colleges like to see when you know a lot about their school, so the more familiar with the school you are applying to, the better, especially for more selective schools.

For competitive schools, if you are accepted to that school, the admissions officers want to know that you are going to be 100% committed and ready to work harder than you’ve ever worked before.

They want someone who really wants to go to their school, so know all there is to know already. Once you’ve done this, make sure this is reflected in your application.

Usually, this is fit into the “why [insert school name]” question that is common on applications. Believe me, this will suit you well in your application and will help you make both your application decisions and your acceptance decisions when the time comes.

Tip 2: Standardized Tests: Take Them Early, But Not Too Seriously

Take them seriously, don’t get me wrong, but here’s what I’m going to say about this. When I was in high school, I worked doggone hard to get a really good SAT/ACT score and made it a goal of mine to try to hit the average SAT/ACT score of my target schools.

I read books, took plenty of practice tests, and put a lot of weight on my practice tests to the point where I’d feel pretty much the same stress taking a test from my bedroom desk as I’d feel during the actual test.

This may have worked, but boy was I wrong in the weight of the test itself. Here’s the most notorious component of college admissions.

First, take both the SAT and ACT, because each test fits each person differently. I did better on the ACT, and that definitely helped me in my admissions.

Take one or so near the end of sophomore year maybe, then a bunch junior year. The last thing you want to do is take one senior year. That is bad news, because you want to be entirely focused on your applications rather than your test scores.

The reason why you want to prioritize your applications is because your applications show you who you are as a person, your test scores do not. This is big-time.

I like to think of admissions as officers putting together a puzzle. They have a big picture in mind and want to see if you fit in that puzzle.

You might not, and that’s okay, but if you do, that’s great too. They want to see your personality, passions (we’ll get to that), and everything about you.

Don’t get me wrong, your test scores matter, and sometimes I believe that they’ll get your application ready (I’m sure everyone reads every application, it’s just a figure of speech).

Your test scores show that you are able to keep up with the rigor of a difficult school such as the selective ones you are applying to. But so can thousands of other students.

What makes you you? Your test scores show you’re up to the task; now its time to figure out whether you fit in their view. So take them early, but know that they do not decide your future.

Tip 3: Find a Passion, and Pour Into It

We’ve determined that test scores do not guarantee acceptance. What gets you in?

Well, I’m sorry to tell you, I can’t tell you what the answer to that question is. However, I can tell you what it’s not: you!

You do not have the decision on whether you get in. Sucks, doesn’t it?

That is entirely dependent on how you fit within the admissions officer’s views for the class they are accepting. So what can you do to make yourself a piece of their puzzle? Simple: do what you want to do.

It’s as simple as it sounds. During my time at Princeton, I’ve heard the craziest admissions stories: one person gets denied from fifteen schools except Princeton, one person applies to twenty-two and gets into all of them, one person is super low-income, first-generation, and gets in, one has a three-generational legacy.

Literally everyone at Princeton has some story to tell that differs on how they came about Princeton and how they reflected themselves on their application. The common denominator between everyone here? Everyone has something about them that they love.

My freshman year roommate was a world-class track athlete, one of my best friends loves all things Dallas-sports. Another one of my friends is very involved in politics, and myself, I love playing the banjo and started a bluegrass band at Princeton.

Everyone has a passion that they poured into and/or continue to pour into. Colleges love seeing you excited, because when you’re excited about something, they hope you are going to bring that excitement to their school, and thus add to their community.

Get into something and do it well. They want to see you put your heart and soul into what you do, so that when you go to college, you put your heart and soul into what you do there and go and change the world. Colleges want the passionate, not necessarily mechanical test-taking geniuses.

Extracurriculars are a great way to get involved. I was involved in Science Olympiad in high school.

Community service is another great way to find a passion. Colleges love service and want you to bring the service-oriented selfless attitude to their school.

Princeton’s motto, after all, is “in the Nation’s service and the service of humanity.” Whatever you do, do it well, and do it passionately, then reflect that on your application.

One quick side note: don’t do something to get into college. If you fall into the trap of “I am going to be the [insert title] of [insert club] because it looks better on my application,” not only will you find that the title really doesn’t do much for your application, but it also won’t be enjoyable as a job if your sole purpose is to get into a selective school.

College admissions feels a lot like a lottery. If you do something you enjoy, you at least find pleasure in all the work you’ve done, and when you apply to colleges, you can safely say you’ve made a difference and been fulfilled.

If you tell that to colleges, they love that. And if you get in, great! Keep up the hard work in college.

If you don’t, you’ve had a great experience following your passion, and I’d encourage you to continue it wherever you go to school.

Niche College Application Organizer

Tip 4: Try Out New Things; Just Do Stuff

Now I get onto my soapbox of doing stuff. College is new. The dorms, the people, the academics, everything changes when you get to college.

Colleges want to see someone who thrives with the word new. You have to convey on your application how newness is good, and you succeed in a new environment.

Telling them this can be good, but showing them is better. In addition to pouring yourself into some passion, don’t be afraid to do crazy things that you’d never think of.

Learn to dance, learn an instrument and start a band, play a sport you’ve never tried. Don’t say no.

My freshman year at Princeton, I told myself I won’t say no to things the first week of school, so when a girl pulled me out of the archery line to sign up for club curling, I couldn’t say no.

I ended up being on a second-place national curling team, having never curled before, being from rural Georgia. Yeah, that’s new alright, and that’s what they want to see: people who embrace newness and love it.

Tip 5: Give Back to Your Community

I touched on this briefly when I was discussing passions. This is a subset of the passion talk, but I want to bring a special importance here because of how colleges hold community service in such high esteem.

What do colleges do? They prepare you for life, which includes a job. Many jobs, in fact I’d say most jobs, involve some sort of service.

For this reason and many others, colleges want to see you have a heart of service. This starts with your community.

Family, friends, townsfolk, and those who are around you are directly impacted by your actions, and colleges want to see your impact because if you are accepted, you’ll have an impact, positive or negative, in their community.

You want to show that you serve your community in any way you feel. Don’t serve solely for getting into college, but if something tugs on your heart, let this be a motivating factor to take action and start giving back to those who need it.

College aside, service is good. Service is humbling, and it reinforces the innate desire in mankind to care for one another and look out for one another.

Furthermore, it is fulfilling, and prepares you for leadership and relationships. Finally, services teaches you about you, because when you serve, you learn how to not think about you.

So forget about yourself, and go pour into others, even aside from the hustle and bustle of college admissions.

Tip 6: Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

Here, we’re getting into what I wish I knew when I was applying to college. As I said earlier, elite selective colleges are assembling a puzzle in their admissions class.

They have a picture in mind, and they want to see, through your application, if you are a piece of that puzzle. You might not fit in that puzzle, but you might fit in another puzzle at another school.

Decisions are not necessarily statements of your worth or intelligence. You’re going to college to learn, and they want to see students excited about that.

I actually learned this when I entered college. Much thanks to Princeton Christian Fellowship, I learned my life was more than the work that I did and how good I was compared to others.

I would encourage you to look beyond college admissions and know that it is not life or death. This will give you less stress when applying and make the admissions process for enjoyable.

Tip 7: Apply!

So many times, I’ve heard folks tell me, “I thought about applying to [insert selective school], but I knew I wasn’t going to get in.”

Very false. You don’t know that. Nobody does, until you apply.

Believe me again when I say I’ve heard the craziest stories at Princeton of applications and admissions, and there is no way to know if you’ll get in unless you apply. So just apply! Give it a shot.

Best of luck with college admissions in the next few years! I’m rooting for you.



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