The “No Copycat Formula” of College Admissions


If you are looking for the magic formula for getting into your top college choice, then you have come to the right place. Let me be the first (or maybe the fifth) person to tell you, there is no cookie-cutter format that guarantees you admission anywhere. Frankly, there are no guarantees. College admissions is a very individualized and organic process. Similar student profiles cannot be compared like apples, and increasing competitiveness continually changes this process. This is a good thing for you because college admissions is centered around using strategies that highlight your uniqueness.

Although there is no formula per se, there is a lot of effort and strategy behind a seamless application. With your entire application, you are telling a brief story about who you are and how you “fit” there, which for some of the most selective colleges may determine who makes it past the first cut. Working with an expert at H2D Counseling throughout this process saves you precious time and helps you to employ successful strategies that make you more competitive.

To get you started, we have outlined several aspects that are consistent across college admissions:

  1. You must apply to a college to attend. It is far better to apply to a college and be rejected than to assume the answer would be “no.” Too many eligible students take themselves out of the running by becoming discouraged from applying. The art of making a strong college list lies with striking a balance among a variety of factors. While your GPA and test scores are important factors, avoid searching for colleges by these categories (e.g., GPA, SAT, ACT). To get a sense of whether a college is a reach, match or safety school, contact the admissions office, and see how your stats compare to their range of stats (i.e., highest, average, lowest) for admitted students.
  2. You must follow the application instructions correctly and completely. If you fail to complete an application accurately it may be as though you did not apply, because your application may be dismissed early on in the review process. Colleges will be hesitant to admit you based on an application that tells a story with holes or inconsistencies. (See the Helpful Tip below for an easy way to improve your application).
  3. You must take the prerequisite courses. You will find that the most accurate eligibility information is on each college’s website under Admissions. (Websites that provide this information in one place for many colleges may not be up to date.) Read this information carefully. Be aware that some intended majors have additional requirements or application materials to submit. While taking honors or AP courses is not required, it is usually expected at top colleges. Additionally, honors and AP courses will help to raise your GPA (e.g., weighted GPA).
  4. You (most likely) must take entrance exams (e.g., SAT, ACT). Increasingly, entrance exam scores are becoming optional, but most colleges still require them. If your GPA is in the low to middle range for a testing optional college, you would benefit from sending strong scores as part of your application. However, absolutely do not send scores (or any document) if the application instructs you not to (refer back to #2).
  5. You are strongly encouraged to apply to the FAFSA regardless of your family’s income. To attend college, you must pay your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is your portion of tuition and fees. Your EFC is estimated from the FAFSA. Colleges use your EFC in multiple ways that may save you money, and there is no harm in filling it out. This year, you may apply to the FAFSA earlier than before, beginning on October 1st, so don’t delay.
  6. You are strongly encouraged to apply for scholarships. Start early and schedule additional time for these applications. If you plan to use an essay from one of your college applications for scholarships, think again. Many scholarships have completely unique applications and essays. Yet, unlike college applications, there is almost never a fee for applying to reputable scholarship programs. (See more on scholarships below).
  7. You must respond with your college choice by the May 1st deadline. If you do not confirm your acceptance to one (and only one) college by the deadline, your spot is automatically voided. You may receive your financial aid package and outside scholarships after this date, so be prepared to make this decision without a complete picture of financial information. If this is your situation, we highly suggest that you speak with an expert.

It may not seem like it, but you have a considerable amount of control in the college application process. Start early to give your applications the time that they deserve. Respect the fact that you are still in school and juggling classes, activities and life. A good rule of thumb for scheduling plenty of time is to start two months before your first application deadline. The first application will be the hardest and the others will build from there. However, once you are accepted into colleges, do not slack off during your senior year of high school. Colleges may rescind an offer of admission if you underperform at the end.

Rather than only applying to colleges that seem affordable, one approach that we recommend is applying for scholarships. There are two benefits with receiving scholarships. One is monetary by helping you to pay for college. There is nothing more exhilarating than getting money that you never have to pay back! The other is building your reputation. Oftentimes, the most competitive scholarships are those that award large sums of money. Yet, smaller scholarships, even as little as $25, help build your reputation too, which is just as valuable as money. Put all of your scholarships on your resume, because they will help you obtain future opportunities. So, consider scholarships with smaller sums because your odds of getting several smaller sums may be better and they add up.

Searching for scholarships can be mind-numbing because there are thousands of scholarships out there. Check with your high school because many do a very good job of regularly emailing or providing scholarship announcements to students. There are many free online databases that allow you to search for scholarships by specific eligibility criteria, including for international and immigrant students. You never want to apply to a scholarship if you do not meet the eligibility requirements because you will not be considered.

The college application process begins with your mindset and ends with your actions. If one door seems to be closed look around the corner because another one may be wide open. In other words, be flexible, be informed and be proactive. There are multiple routes to get to where you want to be, and to become successful in a career and in life. Take reasonable risks throughout the application process. If you make a mistake you will learn from it.

Applying to college may feel overwhelming and confusing, and it requires a lot of responsibility. You need to take ownership of the process because no one knows you better than you know yourself. But, you do not have to tough it out alone. H2D Counseling is here to assist you. Although there are no guarantees in college admissions, using proven strategies will greatly increase your chances. This is a very exciting time for you and the start of a great adventure!

Helpful Tip: Online college applications do not always have built-in spell check and grammar check. First, write the text in Microsoft Word (or another program with these features), and then cut and paste the text into your application. You would be surprised just how far an error free application will get you.

Warning: Be sure to go to to complete the application. There are a lot of companies and scammers with websites pretending to be the FAFSA. If the website you go to does not end with “.gov” then it is not a government website! You should never pay anyone to complete this application because it is a free application, and there are many free resources to receive help including on the FAFSA website.