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Planning and preparing for the SAT and ACT is tough proposition. Let our experts make it easier for you and your student by reviewing some of the many options available to improve scores, grow scholarship offers, and get into the best college!

How to Get Into Your Dream School

The college admissions process doesn’t begin with test prep or filling out applications. If you have a specific school you’d like to get into, there’s plenty that you can do to improve your chances of admission now, whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior.

Get started early. Meet with your school’s guidance counselor and ask to see your high school’s admissions statistics for your dream school. Most high schools keep records of students who were accepted, rejected or waitlisted at certain schools, along with numbers like GPA, test scores, and class rank. Oftentimes, this information is available online through a program like Naviance.

At most colleges and universities, test scores, and GPAs in particular, are considered at a high school-specific level, so your fellow classmates’ numbers are a better gauge of where you need to be than the numbers posted on school websites.

Know Your Dream School Like the Back of Your Hand

Research your school. You’ll want to find out everything you can about your school’s admissions requirements. How many SAT Subject tests does it require for admission? Are there particular AP courses or exam scores the school recommends? Having this information handy will help you plan your courses during your high school career, so that you’ve covered all your bases by the time it comes to apply.

If you haven’t started high school yet, you might even be able to find out if the college or university has particular feeder high schools from which it accepts large or above-average numbers of students. Sometimes colleges won’t even accept the top student at high schools they don’t know much about. So, if your local high school doesn’t tend to send graduates to your dream school, consider attending one of these schools to give you a better chance at securing admission to your dream college.

Involve yourself in sports and extracurricular activities that your dream school values. Of course, you’ll want an impressive resume of sports and extracurricular activities for whichever school you’re applying to, but finding out which sports and extracurricular pursuits your dream school values, and getting involved in those, might help catch your dream school’s eye. Perhaps your dream school has a nationally-ranked science team. Maybe you should join Science Club at your school. Or maybe your dream school is trying to improve their football program. If you’re an athlete and play football for your high school, this could improve your chances of admission.

Your Relationship with Your Dream School is Reciprocal

Get in touch with admissions officers. Don’t be too overzealous with contacting admissions officials—nobody likes a nag or a stalker—but make an effort to get to know your dream school’s admissions officials for your particular region of the country. These officials will likely come through your area at least once a year for a college admissions fair, usually held at a hotel ballroom or high school in the area. Try to attend a few of these, and politely introduce yourself and talk about your enthusiasm for the school. When application time comes around, it will be helpful to your chances for these admissions officers to remember your name and face. It will help you stand out among the thousands of faceless applications he or she will be dealing with.

Then, when junior year rolls around and you go on your college tour, check in with these admissions officials if you can. Going all the way to the school is a sign of your commitment and continued interest in that school, and will show the admissions officials that you’re the real deal.

Botton line: know your school well. There might be one or two reasons you want to go to your dream school. Maybe it’s the location. Maybe it’s a sports team or academic program. Or maybe it’s just the name—no doubt, this is the reason plenty of Harvard applicants are dreaming of wearing Crimson.

But, as good as your reason for wanting to attend is, if accepted to your dream school, you’ll be spending four years of your life there. So, get to know the school really well. Research what it has to offer as much as you can. Make sure that it’s somewhere you’d be comfortable—urban v. rural campus, city v. campus feel, religiously affiliated, far from home or close to home, etc.

Also, check in with yourself once in a while to make sure that your priorities and interests still match up with your choice of dream school. We change a lot during high school, so a school you’ve dreamed of attending your whole life might not be as great a fit as another by the time you’re ready to start submitting applications. Try to remember what it is about the school that made it your dream school, and make sure that those interests and priorities still align with your interests and priorities today.

At the End of the Day, It’s All About Academics

Be an academic superstar. Even if you don’t need loads of APs and a 4.0 GPA to be admitted to your dream school, it still helps to be in the top percentage of applicants, rather than right at the cusp. After all, most schools get more and more competitive each year, so if you’re in the 50th percentile of applicants this year, by next year you’ll probably be in the bottom half. So, work hard and keep those grades up!

Take test prep seriously. More than anything else, your GPA and your test scores are the single biggest factors in whether you’ll gain admission to your dream school. So, find out what standardized tests your school requires, come up with a study plan, and then work until you’ve reached the level you need to be at. Most schools will take either the SAT or ACT, so you might want to try taking both, and find out which you do better on—this can be the test score you submit to your school. And if there are SAT Subject tests or AP scores your school wants, make sure you take classes in these areas and have a study plan in place.

Prep Expert’s SAT and ACT prep is an excellent resource if you need to improve your scores. Our expert instructors combine content knowledge with strategy tips and tricks to ensure you’re maximally prepared for your exam. And our courses have led thousands of students to higher scores. What’s more, we offer in-person instruction in cities throughout the country, as well as online classes so you can study from anywhere. For those wanting to put in even more test-prep time, we offer in-person or online sessions with a private tutor.

If you’re taking a test-prep class, this isn’t the only time you should be spending on test prep. Until you’ve achieved the score you need to get admitted to your dream school, you should make test prep third in your list of priorities, after family and your schoolwork. Set a consistent schedule, and study somewhere quiet and free of distractions. Fitting in study whenever you can is great, but it’s best to have a consistent study schedule and stick with it. Prep Expert instructors can help you plan a study schedule that will work for you.

Strategy, Strategy, Strategy

When it comes time to apply, be sure to select the admissions category that will give you the strongest advantage. If you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend a particular school, then applying Early Decision (ED) might be your best shot. If your school doesn’t have ED admission and you’ll be applying Regular Decision with the rest of the applicant pool, it doesn’t hurt to mention in your personal statement that the school is your top choice and that you’ll attend if admitted.

Using the features you like about your dream school as a starting-off point, research other schools that might also be well-suited to you. It’s important that you have a list of 9-12 schools you’re applying to, and which cover three categories—reaches, targets and safeties. Is your dream school Harvard? Well, Tufts, only a few miles away, offers many of the benefits of Harvard, but is easier to get into. Are you a budding politico with your sights set on Georgetown? Well, George Washington University offers all the same benefits of being located in our nation’s capitol, but is less competitive for admission. (Don’t forget American University, either!)

There might even be some schools where you are the dream applicant. If a school wants more students of color, or from another region of the country, or football stars or flutists, you might have an edge for admission based on these things. Doing research will help you discover plenty of these types of opportunities.

Remember: keep perspective. What to do if you’re not admitted to your dream school? Remember that it’s not the end of the world. There are plenty of excellent schools out there, and wherever you matriculate, if you apply yourself and work hard, you’ll get an excellent education and be in a great position to succeed going forward. Remember that where you go is not who you are! And if you work hard at whichever school you end up attending, there’s always the transfer applicant pool—another chance of attending your dream school.



Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation, a #1 bestselling SAT & ACT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect using 100 strategies that we teach in our Prep Expert SAT and ACT courses.