get ORGANIZED! Tim McCormick's well-planned campaign got him into three top schools. By learning from his example, you can boost your chances of getting into the college of your choice.
(MONEY Magazine) – Tim McCormick's march to college began in seventh grade, when teachers at his Portland, Ore. middle school chose him to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is usually given to college-bound high school juniors and seniors. He scored an impressive 1,130 -- 262 points higher than the average for a high school senior. ''That's when I realized that I could go to any college I wanted if I just kept up the momentum,'' says Tim, now 18. And that he did. Throughout high school, McCormick pursued his college quest with the kind of precise planning and shrewd calculation that marked Operation Desert Storm. His doggedness, along with his stellar grades, test scores and extracurricular activities, won him acceptance letters from three leading colleges, including Yale, his top choice. While you don't have to be as disciplined as Tim, a carefully organized college search can improve your chances of finding a school that's just right -- and getting in. Here's how Tim did it and what you can learn from him.
Tim's Freshman Year In his first year at Wilson High in Portland, Tim enrolled in the most advanced courses he could take and signed up for the toughest teachers. ''My older sister went to Wilson, and she told me who to avoid,'' he says. ''They're the ones I picked.'' He stayed busy outside the classroom as well, helping to design the school's arts magazine, the Veridian.
Your Freshman Year When mapping your academic plan, you needn't seek out the very hardest courses, but don't go for the easiest ones either. College officials like students who have stretched their abilities. And you want to be sure that you eventually fulfill most colleges' basic admission requirements, which usually include three years of math and two or three years of a foreign language. Furthermore, since admissions officers tend to favor well-rounded candidates, develop personal interests by participating in extracurricular activities.
Tim's Sophomore Year In the fall, Tim took the PSAT -- an introductory version of the SAT -- scoring the equivalent of 1,420. He continued to work on the arts magazine, supervising printing. Making use of every free moment, he took summer courses in computer science and precalculus at Portland State University.
Your Sophomore Year Keep signing up for challenging courses. And look for opportunities to broaden your nonacademic side. You might, for example, do community volunteer work. In the spring, take the PSAT or the PLAN (formerly known as the P-ACT+) for practice. Along with verbal, math and science questions, the PLAN, administered by American College Testing, includes a questionnaire that is meant to help you identify your academic strengths and interests. Don't be nervous: Your scores will not be reported to any colleges unless you indicate on the test form that you want them to be.
Tim's Junior Year Tim added calculus and physics to his schedule. He took and passed advanced- placement tests -- which award college credit for material learned in high school -- in Spanish, calculus and computer science. He participated in Boys' State, a debating program run by the American Legion, because, he says, ''I needed to become more articulate.'' Tim began assembling a list of colleges, looking for schools that had academic prestige and large campuses with diverse student bodies. His father, an architect, and mother, a teacher, were prepared to help out financially. But to make sure he would get as much financial aid as he deserved, Tim also looked for schools that pledged to meet 100% of students' needs as determined under the financial aid formulas (see ''The New Rules of Financial Aid,'' page 42). Using a computer, Tim ranked his 30 favorite schools on such factors as the size of each school's endowment and the number of books in its library. Yale won. Tim continued to exploit his extracurricular activities: After taking photos of impoverished local neighborhoods for the Veridian, he wrote practice college application essays about the experience. In the spring, he managed an excellent combined score of 1,480 on the SAT, a level reached by less than 1% of the people who take the exam.
Your Junior Year In the autumn, you'll want to take the PSAT. Then it's on to the real thing: your first round of SATs or ACTs in the spring, as well as College Board achievement tests. This is also the time to think about such issues as how expensive a school you can afford, whether you want a school that's close to home or across the country, and whether you'd prefer a large institution or a small one. Among the factors to weigh: Large schools will usually offer wider course selections and livelier campuses; yet classes may be huge, especially in introductory lecture courses, and it may be hard to feel at home on a sprawling campus. One of the many books that can help you sort out these questions is Looking Beyond the Ivy League by Loren Pope (Penguin, $10.95). Also try to find a copy of Choosing a College by Thomas Sowell (Harper & Row), which is out of print but available in many libraries. Among its solid advice are pointers for minority students on detecting schools where they may encounter racial hostility or isolation. Two tips: Eat a meal in the cafeteria, and observe whether black and white students sit in separate groups. And do some shopping nearby to gauge your reception by merchants. By early spring, draw up a list of 15 or 20 colleges that appeal to you. Call or send for each school's standard information packet and a course catalogue. The catalogue, which describes all courses in detail, will give you a better measure of the education you'll get at the school than will the promotional materials. After you've narrowed your choices to five or six colleges, begin visiting them, preferably while classes are in session; if you can't go now, wait until fall of your senior year. Spending a day on campus and a night in a dorm is the best way to get a sense of what it's like to attend a school. A weeknight visit to the library will tell you how seriously students pursue their schoolwork. You'll want to sample the dining hall food, since that will be your main source of nourishment for four years. And the dorms should provide a suitable atmosphere for studying. Chat with students and teachers to get a sense of how you'd get along with them, and ask them what they like and dislike about the school and one another. You'll also want to take a drive around the school's neighborhood to make sure you're comfortable with it. Before leaving, ask the admissions office for the graduation rate -- unless 70% or more of each freshman class typically wind up with a degree within six years, the school may not provide enough support or students may not be well motivated. And get the figures on campus crime. A new federal law requires colleges to provide statistics on thefts, assaults and other crimes. Ask how the school keeps students safe. Are there shuttle buses or escorts to take you from the library to the dorm late at night? Also, find out about serious incidents of alcohol abuse or sexual harassment. Since school officials may not be forthcoming on these topics, flip through back issues of the campus newspaper or talk to members of the paper's staff.
Tim's Senior Year Tim signed up for a second year of calculus and a second year of physics. He took advanced-placement tests in physics and English literature and composition, and another, tougher, calculus exam; all told, he gained about a year's worth of college credit. Tim started to work on his application essays five months before they were due so that he would have time to polish them. Depending on the question, he based his commentary on experiences such as taking photographs in the inner city or on wry views of himself. ''I spent hours on each one,'' he boasts. ''No Saturday night schlock for me.'' In October, he flew off on his own for a tour of East Coast campuses, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Yale. He loved Yale's residential colleges and didn't like the fact that MIT's fraternity houses were cut off from the main campus by the Charles River. Back home, he tended to his duties as editor-in-chief of the arts magazine and finished his applications, deciding to apply to Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Tufts, Washington University and Yale. In April, he learned that Washington would give him a full four-year tuition scholarship worth about $65,000, Yale offered a $19,000 yearly grant, and Tufts promised $20,000 a year in grants and loans. Three colleges -- Brown, Harvard and Princeton -- placed him on their waiting lists. He didn't wait, though -- he chose Yale.
Your Senior Year Make sure you have fulfilled all the courses required by colleges. Even if you took the SAT or ACT in your junior year, take it again in the fall. Most students raise their scores on the second try. (Don't sign up for a cram course until you've read the story on page 10.)
Get applications from the three to six schools that most appeal to you, including at least one safety school -- a college you're virtually sure will accept you. Also pick up the standard financial aid application from your high school guidance office. Compose your application essays, and give them to a parent or teacher for comments and proofreading. Collect recommendations from teachers or advisers who know you well and like you. Decision letters will start arriving in March and April. If you're waitlisted at a school you want to attend, write back expressing your eagerness to enroll. Include any recent favorable news, such as better grades, academic awards or personal achievements. If you get no acceptances at all, stay calm. These days, there are more freshman slots than there are kids to fill them. Last May, for example, a survey by the National Association of College Admission Counselors showed that 66% of the 607 schools responding still had unfilled spots for freshmen and transfer students. Your guidance counselor will have a list of good schools with openings. When you find one you like, submit an application right away. Your odds of getting in should be excellent. Soon you can start worrying about graduate school -- you can bet Tim McCormick is already working on it.