2023 Hawai‘i College Guide: Preparing for College in High School

A student’s involvement sets the foundation for college acceptance—and beyond. Here’s how to build that foundation with strength and purpose.


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Chess club. Mock trial. The school newspaper. Chinese club. Volleyball. Sign up for it all! Not so fast. It’s not the number of activities students do in high school that counts, experts say. Think quality over quantity. “And whatever you choose, do it consistently,” says Amy Prince, a school counselor at Southampton High School, in Southampton, New York. “It’s what you’re engaged with actively. Somebody might do 40 hours of community service, but was it 40 hours over one week during a church mission, and the other 51 weeks of the year they did nothing?” Compare that to a student who volunteers with, say, Best Buddies, helping people with developmental disabilities, once a week, all year.


“When students can demonstrate they have had consistent involvement and that they are leaders within the organizations, we get excited about their potential to contribute positively on our campus,” says Mark Cortez, director of Outreach and Recruitment at The Ohio State University. “This doesn’t have to just be school activities; we want students to think broadly about experiences like community opportunities and/or work experiences. They each add something a little different and that is what we consider.”


Connect the Dots

Students should seek out areas where they can take on leadership roles. “That doesn’t always mean being the president of a club or its founder,” says Prince. “What events did you organize? If you’re just listing on your application that you were a member—what does that mean to an admissions officer? Define your role. Now, in ninth or 10th grade, there aren’t a lot of leadership roles but, if you stick with it, if you rise up to captain or co-captain in an athletic setting, or treasurer or president in a group; this shows the qualities colleges are seeking within their own school’s population.”


Schools can tell from a mile away when an applicant is trying to build a résumé out of nothing, grabbing onto 15 random activities. If, on the other hand, a student is involved with Model UN and student government and Girls Learn International, the school can see a pattern and a purpose.


According to Prince, students should use ninth and 10th grade for experimentation, to find out what they are most interested in, and then home in. Remember that “colleges and universities have seniors graduating and need to fill leadership roles or spark something new,” Prince points out. For an athletic program, they may need a new quarterback; for an orchestra, a new cellist. “It’s not like they put an ad out: ‘Hey, we need a cellist,’ but it’s part of the thought process,” she says. “I think one of the reasons I got into the college I did, York College of Pennsylvania, was that I had been a DJ for a high school radio station and they had a radio station that needed a manager.”


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Choosing Coursework

Even though AP coursework is a great opportunity, again, think quality over quantity. Consider your strengths and your goals. For example, someone interested in engineering might not want to take AP literature, but, instead, explore an engineering program, even without an AP label attached to it. “Schools are trying to figure out: What drives the student?” says Prince. “If you want to be pre-med, and haven’t done well in science or math, maybe that’s not a realistic goal. That’s a student who is going to change major.” Think about classes that are genuine passions, things that can extend into interests in college. Otherwise, Prince warns, “students become machines of cranking out grades and don’t find what resonates with them.”


Strong Essays

Most schools require students to submit supplemental essays with their application, which can be a way for college admission officers to decipher whether you will be a good fit at their university. This is especially important now, as many schools are loosening their SAT requirements and taking a more holistic approach when reviewing applications. Recent graduates recommend focusing on telling the admissions officer about yourself, especially outside of academics.


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Finishing Strong Senior Year

Students should avoid giving in to senioritis, or playing what Prince calls “a game of academic chicken.” That’s when seniors try to find the line of how little effort they can put in. “It’s not a good game to play,” she says. “If you were a 90 student, you should stay a 90 student, even in senior year. Schools are still watching.” There is some wiggle room, of course. For example, if a student is challenging himself or herself with AP physics, he or she might not get a 90, and schools will understand that.


Your senior year will also be the time when colleges see if your grades have shown consistent growth. This upward trend gives grace to those who might not have gotten the highest grades but have improved over time.


“We encourage students to stay in a foreign language, and recommend electives. It’s free in high school!” says Prince. “Electives cost a lot of money in college. Take advantage. A lot of the AP and honors-level kids haven’t gotten to take a lot of electives.”


Last, remember that being engaged doesn’t stop after college acceptance. “Once they get on campus we expect that students will be actively involved, as doing so contributes to their social and academic success,” says Cortez. “As students work to discover their passions in college, they are doing this with [other] students who are diverse in majors, experiences and backgrounds. This discovery stage leads to rich experiences where students can learn from those around them and, in most cases, benefit.”


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