Looking at college admissions websites and requirements can be overwhelming. Many colleges have slightly different standardized test and letter of recommendation requirements. Furthermore, some colleges require just one personal statement, while others require multiple essays and short answer responses. It can be a lot to keep track of!
So how do you go about preparing your college applications, when colleges seem like they all want slightly different application materials? And how do you make sure you are competitive everywhere you apply? We will explain how to make the most versatile college application.
By versatile we mean an application that will allow you to apply competitively to the broadest range of colleges.
This guide is suitable for students aiming for the most competitive colleges, but you can also tailor it to your needs if you’re applying to local state schools.
Maximize Your ACT/SAT Score – But Just Focus on One
The most efficient way, hour-for-hour, to improve your college admissions chances is to study for the ACT or SAT and get the highest score you can.
Your SAT/ACT score is a very important factor in admissions. Having a score above a school’s average range greatly improves your odds of admission, but if you are below their admitted student range, your odds go down. So it’s important to get the highest possible SAT/ACT score for you, as it will give you flexibility in terms of where you can apply.
As an example, here are the middle 50% SAT and ACT ranges for four popular colleges in the Boston area. Middle 50% means these are the ranges of scores in the middle of their accepted applicant pool. This means a score above the middle 50% range puts you in line with the top 25% of their applicants, and a score below it puts you in the bottom 25% and makes you a less likely admit.
SAT Math 730-800
SAT Evidence-Based Reading & Writing 730-790
ACT Composite 32-35
ACT English 34-36
ACT Math 31-35
Via Harvard's 2017-2018 Common Data Set
Harvard is one of the most competitive colleges in the country. As such, their SAT and ACT ranges can be intimidating. Notice that their middle 50% ranges for the SAT all end at 790 or 800, meaning that the top 25% of admits have perfect scores on those sections. To be competitive at Harvard, you need SAT section scores at least in the 700s, but the closer to 800 you are, the better chances you have.
SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 650-720
SAT Math 650-740
ACT Composite 31-33
Boston College is also a competitive college in the Boston area. While BC isn't quite as competitive as Harvard, you need SAT section scores in the low to mid 700s to be a competitive applicant, while any scores 650 or lower would make your admission less likely.
SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 640-720
SAT Math 660-760
ACT Composite 29-32
ACT English 28-34
ACT Math 27-32
Via Boston University's Common Data Set, 2017-2018.
Boston University is a large, top-50 university. Like with BC, SAT section scores in the 600s would put you in line with their middle 50% of admits, while anything lower than 600 would make you less competitive, and anything higher than 760 would make you quite competitive. The main difference in the score profiles between BU and BC is that BU's ACT score range is a bit lower.
University of Massachusetts Boston
SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 490-600
SAT Math 510-600
ACT Composite 21-26
ACT English 20-29
ACT Math 21-26
Via University of Massachusetts Boston's Common Data Set, 2017-2018.
The University of Massachusetts Boston is a public research university. Section scores in the 600s or higher would make you quite competitive, while anything lower than a 500 would put you towards the bottom half of their admitted students.
As you can see, the higher your SAT or ACT score is, the more colleges you can apply to competitively. For example, if you had a 1400 on the current SAT, with 700 on each section, Harvard would be a reach, but you would be in line with the admitted students at Boston College and Boston University and competitive at U Mass Boston. But if you had a 1000/1600, with about 500 on each section, you would be in line with admits at U Mass Boston, but the other schools would all be reaches.
In short, it’s smart to maximize your ACT or SAT score to give yourself the most options when applying to college.
But just focus on studying for one test! The vast majority of colleges accept both tests equally, and they don’t favor students who have taken both. In fact, if you do worse on one test, that could hurt your chances.
Just pick one!
It’s also much more efficient to focus your time on studying for one test. If you split your time between the two, you’ll likely end up doing worse on both than you could have if you had just focused on one. (Wondering which one you should take? Read a detailed comparison of the ACT and SAT, and figure out which test you will do the best on.)
As a final note, make sure to take the ACT Plus Writing or the SAT with Essay if you want the most versatile application. Not all colleges require the writing sections of the ACT and SAT, but if you want to have the most versatile college application, having the writing version under your belt is important, since some colleges only accept the SAT or the ACT with the optional writing section.
Take Two SAT Subject Tests
In addition to taking either the SAT or ACT, you can help put together a flexible college application by taking two SAT subject tests. Why?
Some colleges (especially selective ones) require or recommend SAT Subject Tests as part of applications. For example, Princeton recommends two SAT Subject Tests. Harvard does not officially require them, but highly recommends them unless you have extenuating circumstances: “While we normally require two SAT Subject Tests, you may apply without them if the cost of the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them.”
Some colleges don’t require SAT Subject Tests, but say they will still consider them as part of applications, like the University of Michigan. And even colleges that don’t use SAT Subject Tests for admissions often use SAT Subject scores to place students in first-year classes, especially in language, math, and science.
In short, taking two SAT Subject Tests will allow you to apply to schools that require them, but also give you an additional credential anywhere you apply. It will give you more flexibility and the chance to start in more advanced classes your freshman year.
Also, make sure you take the two SAT Subject Tests in different subjects. For example, don’t take Math I and Math II. If you’re interested in engineering programs, try to take one Subject Test in math and one in science. For any other programs, take the two you can do best on. For more on SAT subject tests and which ones to take, read this guide.
There is no magic set of extracurricular activities or sports that will make your college application the most impressive. But keep the following rule in mind as you pursue extracurricular activities and put together your college applications: depth over breadth.
It’s more impressive to be deeply involved with two activities and have leadership roles in both than to be in eight clubs or sports but just participate without getting too involved.
You should add to the trophy case, not just the club roster.
So if you’re reading this as a junior or younger, try to get involved in a few clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities you’re passionate about, and go for leadership positions. Also aim to get recognition or awards at the highest level you can – whether that’s regional, state, or national.
Don’t join anything and everything just to be able to say you were in 10 clubs. Focus on a few activities you are passionate about and can make a difference doing.
If you’re a senior putting together your college applications, list everything you’ve been involved in, starting with the most important and working your way down. Make sure to highlight any leadership positions, awards, or other accomplishments. And again, emphasize depth over breadth. Don’t feel pressured to fill out every available “activities” space. Again, depth matters more than breadth.
Make sure for every activity you add, you have something valuable to say about it – an award you won, a leadership position you held, or the effect it had on your academic or personal development. As Stanford says on their admissions website, “We want to see the impact you have had on that club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you.”
Letters of Recommendation
Some colleges don’t have very specific guidelines for letters of recommendation (sometimes called teacher evaluations), and some don’t require them at all. As an example, the University of Washington really doesn’t want any letters.
However, it’s pretty typical for colleges to require two letters of recommendation. This is especially true at selective colleges. For example, Stanford requires two teacher evaluations.
Some colleges have stricter guidelines, and say they want the letters to come from teachers who teach different subjects. MIT says the letters have to come from one math/science teacher and one humanities teacher.
So to maximize your application reach, get two letters from teachers in different subjects – a math teacher and an English teacher, for example. Obviously don’t send the letters to colleges that don’t want them, but if you have those letters ready to go, it will allow you to apply to nearly any college.
Also, to make your application most competitive, remember to follow basic letter of recommendation guidelines: choose teachers who taught you recently, ideally junior year, and can speak specifically to your academic strengths. Don’t choose a teacher who won’t have specific, positive things to say about you.
“Halle was a good student and always did her homework” won’t cut it. Find a teacher who can say something closer to “Halle’s essays were consistently insightful. Her work was of a higher quality than not just this year’s students, but of many students I have taught over my career.”
Should I Get A Third Letter?
It’s rare for a college to require more than two teacher recommendations. However, some allow for a third letter, which can come from a person who knows you well, like a coach, boss, youth group leader, or instructor from a summer course.
Don't add a letter just to stuff your admissions file.
If you have someone like this in your life who you know will have very good things to say to you and will provide information that your teachers cannot, ask them to write you a third letter.
For example, if you took a summer college course and the professor can speak to how well you handled the material, they could write a great recommendation. Or if you have a boss who can talk about your busy schedule and work ethic the way a teacher can’t, that provides important extra information to your application.
Don’t get an extra letter just to have one. Make sure the extra letter is adding additional material to your application.
For colleges that allow a third letter of recommendation, getting one can help your chances by giving colleges another chance to get to know you.
Don’t Blow Off Senior Year
A common theme on college admissions websites is that colleges want students who have challenged themselves in high school with rigorous schedules. This is especially true if you are going for top-tier schools. And senior year is no exception! For example, Yale says “senior year is not the time to take a light course load.”
By the time you reach senior year, you can’t go back in time and change your first three years of high school. However, you can make sure your senior year schedule is challenging. Colleges will be looking at your senior year schedule, and it won’t look good if you’re slacking off.
For example, if you take a full schedule with three AP classes junior year, and then have a senior schedule with free periods and no AP classes, that might raise questions, especially at selective colleges you might be applying to.
Of course, don’t do the opposite and overload yourself – especially since you need time senior year for college apps! – but make sure your senior year schedule doesn’t raise any red flags.
And if you’re reading this as a younger high school student, make sure to take the most challenging schedule available to you at your high school. Challenge yourself with AP or IB classes if they are available. (Read more here about choosing between AP and IB and how many AP classes you should take.)
Choose Your Essay Topic Carefully
One thing you’ll notice as you begin looking at different colleges’ applications is that many have extra questions or Common Application supplements that give you the chance to share lots of info about yourself – what you want to study, why you want to go to that particular college, or even things like your favorite movies and books.
For example, the University of Chicago is famous for having unique, quirky additional essay questions, like “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” or “Were pH an expression of personality, what would your pH be and why?”
Columbia University asks you to share your favorite required reading and books you read for pleasure in the past year, as well as publications you read and entertainment (like movies, concerts, exhibits) that you enjoyed the most in the past year.
To read any college’s supplement, you can search for “[Name of College/University] Supplement” or “[Name of College/University] Essay Questions.” If you’re using the Common Application or Universal College Application, you can look up colleges you’re interested in to see their supplements.
However, sometimes colleges don’t have a supplement or additional questions, meaning the one part of your application you can let them get to know you is with your personal statement.
In other words, your main essay is very important, since in some cases it will be your only chance to show your personality. If there is something you want every college to know about – from an important personal experience to an intellectual passion of yours – that experience should be in your main essay.
Even if your main topic perfectly fits a prompt for one college’s supplement, you should use it for your main essay instead. This way, even if a college doesn’t have a supplement, you will get to present the information most important to you.
If colleges do have supplemental questions, you can use them to dive deeper into your essay topic or, even better, share other experiences or passions.
What’s a Good Essay Topic?
There are as many potential personal essay topics as there are students applying. Every student has different experiences and passions that could make a great essay. The key is to write about something that is meaningful and specific to you.
Remember that a complete stranger will be reading your application. You want them to come away from your essay feeling like they know you, and what you can bring to their college.
For example, if you went through an incredibly challenging personal experience – a family member’s illness, an instance of discrimination, an unexpected setback – that could be great material for you essay, especially if it has affected your future goals and interests.
Or if you are passionate about a certain topic or subject – from 18th century French history to making your own mobile phone apps – that could also be a great essay topic, as it will show your intellectual depth and give colleges an idea of what you might contribute to them.
The key is to write about something that will help tell your story, and help show what you will be pursue in college.
Don’t choose a topic just because you think it’s something colleges will like. For example, if you went on a service trip your junior year but it didn’t resonate with you or affect your future goals, don’t try and make up a story about how meaningful the trip was to you. It will be more effective to write about something you are actually passionate about.
Once you've chosen a topic, ask yourself the following questions to make sure it's a strong choice:
- Will any other student applying to college this year have an essay like mine? (If you can see several students writing a very similar essay, you should choose a topic more specific to you)
- If I gave this essay to a complete stranger, would they get a clear sense of my personality just by reading it?
- Am I writing about something I care about, or did I choose this topic becuase I thought it would look good?
If your essay is specific to you, reveals your personality, and allows you to write about something you actually care about, chances are, it's going to be a great essay.
Bottom Line: How to Put Together a Winning College App
There is a lot that goes into a successful college application, and your chances of admission will vary by the schools you apply to and your set of strengths and weaknesses.
But chances of admission aside, these are the steps you can take to put together a college application that will allow you to apply to the broadest range of colleges, from the most selective to your local state schools.
#1: Take either the ACT Plus Writing or the SAT, and do as well as you can.
#2: Take two SAT Subject Tests.
#3: Go for depth over breadth with your extracurriculars.
#4: Get two letters of recommendation from teachers in different subjects. Consider getting a third letter if it will add more information to your application.
#5: Take a challenging senior year schedule.
#6: Choose a personal essay topic that is specific and meaningful to you.
Speaking of maximizing your ACT and SAT score, get tips from our full-scorer on getting a perfect score on the SAT or on the ACT. Even if you’re not aiming for perfect, these principles can help you raise your score to whatever your target is.
Also consider our PrepScholar program to get prepared for the SAT or the ACT.
Learn to raise a low SAT/ACT math score with these tips.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.