Even if you were captain of the swim team, a member of the school chorus, and an Honor Roll student, it’s pretty likely that there’s something in your academic background that you consider a weakness. Here’s how you can overcome those weaknesses and position yourself for success in the college application process.
Start Your Planning Early
The best way to address weaknesses in your academic and personal background is to avoid them. While this may sound impossible, if you create an action plan for yourself early in your high school career, you’ll be less likely to end up with deficits to surmount when it comes time to apply to college.
So, what’s the plan?
Choose courses that are challenging, with context. Use your own strengths and interests as a guide when selecting advanced courses.
If you’re really interested in history, but less so in science, then choose to take an Honors or AP course in American History or World History instead of Chemistry. The higher your interest level, the easier it is to put in the extra time required for an advanced class.
Structure the demands of your school work, extracurricular activities, and paid work to balance one another as best you can.
A student who decides to play a spring sport, act in the end-of-year musical production, and take multiple AP classes is setting herself up for a major time crunch. Being over-scheduled and overwhelmed will lead to errors, which could become weaknesses on your application. When deciding what activities to participate in, consider staggering them with your other commitments, like school work or a job.
It’s ok to start wide with extracurricular activities, but don’t forget to narrow them down.
I am frequently asked how many clubs and teams students should join to get into college. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to participate in 15 different extracurricular activities to get into college. In fact, colleges are looking for an applicant who has gone deep into 1 or 2 activities, meaning that the student demonstrates her commitment to the activity by taking on increasing responsibility over time. In your first year of high school, it’s great to try out a number of different activities that pique your interest. By doing so, you’ll be able to find the activities that really spark your passion, which will shine through in your application and help you set yourself apart. But don’t forget to focus your time and efforts in the activities that really matter to you. In the end, you’ll win with quality over quantity.
Test Like a Pro
Testing is another area in which a little planning goes a long way.
Instead of choosing which admissions test to sign up for based on your friends’ suggestions, start the testing process by taking practice tests for both the SAT and ACT. You’ll find which test is better suited to your skills to increase the chances of a strong score.
Don’t wait until the last minute to take your tests, i.e., your senior year. Take your first SAT/ ACT in the spring of your junior year if possible, and no later than the summer before your senior year. That way, if you’re not happy with your initial scores, you’ll have plenty of time to retake the test. If you start the process early and put in the time to prepare, you can avoid the conundrum of addressing a low score altogether.
If you plan to apply to the most competitive schools, you will likely need to take SAT subject tests. Research these requirements as soon as you start narrowing down your list of schools. It’s best to take SAT Subject Tests as soon as you’ve finished the relevant coursework, even as early as your sophomore year. Proper timing will ensure that you have the material fresh in your mind and won’t have a backlog of tests in your senior year.
Use ALL the Portions of Your Application to Highlight Your Strengths
Even with the best planning, most students approach the college application process with one or two gaps in their admissions package. First, remember that colleges are not looking for perfect applicants. The admissions officers are human too, and know that no one always lives up to his own expectations.
Moreover, applicants don’t have to rely solely on their numbers to demonstrate their strengths and make the case for their acceptance. While it would be great if the Common App were shorter and had fewer questions, the plus side to all those sections is that they give students plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and qualifications. Here are some examples of common weaknesses and how to employ all the pieces of an application to counterbalance them.
I bombed geometry. How do I demonstrate to colleges that I have decent math skills?
Math skills are more than just academic; they’re meant to be practical. So, show off a way you have successfully applied your math abilities in real life. Focus on your experience as the treasurer of an extracurricular group or spearheading a fundraiser to demonstrate your number sense. Tell the story of how hard you worked to save money from your summer. See, you’ve already got a choice of subjects for your personal statement.
I’ve participated in a bunch of extracurricular activities, but I’ve never been the captain or president. How do I demonstrate leadership skills?
Don’t forget about the Letters of Recommendation. A teacher can describe the leadership you’ve shown in the classroom through the example you’ve set for your classmates. A coach can talk about the critical role you played on a team by promoting the bond among your teammates. The best way to make sure your recommenders share this critical information to balance out your weakness is to tell them about your concerns in advance. And, when possible, choose recommenders who know you well and with whom you have a good relationship. By sharing this information with your recommender, you’ll have an ally in the application process.
My freshman year grades were weak, and bring down my GPA.
College admissions officers know that it takes some students longer to adapt to life in high school, and that their first-year grades will reflect that rough transition. The good news is that colleges look very favorably on transcripts that demonstrate a positive upward trajectory over time. In other words, colleges like to see a student who has matured and improved over the course of her high school career. For students with this sort of transcript, applications become a question of strategy and game theory. If you’re certain that your 1st semester senior year grades will boost your overall GPA, then you may want to bypass the Early Decision application deadline and wait until the Regular Decision deadline to submit an application with a higher GPA. Conversely, applicants who have their hearts set on a reach school and who know that their GPAs will remain static over senior may choose to apply during the Early Decision round to demonstrate their deep interest in and commitment to that college.
The college application process is stressful enough without panicking over perceived weaknesses in your application. Remember to stay true to yourself, and pursue what interests you most. With some planning and strategy, your true personality and strengths will shine through in your application, and you’ll be on your way.