This is intended to be a brief overview of what prospective students in grades 9—12 can do to prepare for college. It is important to note that just because you do all of the things mentioned, you are in no way guaranteeing admission to any particular college or university. However, it will position you to increase your chances of success in college.
Highly selective colleges and universities seek students who will contribute to the intellectual vitality, cultural life, and diversity of their campus communities. Your high school academic preparation and unique set of extracurricular activities and experiences form the basis of that distinction.
Each section below indicates the high school year in which you will want to pay particular attention to the information presented.
Take a demanding college preparatory curriculum (the most appropriately demanding schedule your high school has to offer). Get off to a good start. It's VERY difficult to raise your GPA if you start out low. A strong academic transcript is what many schools will view as the most critical piece of your application. If your high school offers any advanced, honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate courses it's recommended you pursue those as appropriate. You should challenge yourself without getting in over your head.
Outside of the classroom, find your passion and pursue it to the fullest. As impressive as it may seem that a student is involved in numerous different organizations, it's equally (if not more) impressive to see a student who is involved in just a few organizations during high school and is in a leadership position in each of them. Think quality not quantity in terms of activities. Many schools will also place a value on service work that is done outside of the high school requirements.
Ask teachers from your core courses (English, Math, Social Science, Natural Science, Foreign Language) to write your letters of recommendation. Ask teachers who know you well or in whose classes you regularly contributed. Sometimes the teacher from the very difficult advanced-level course, where you worked very hard for a "B," may prove to be your best advocate. Of course, the teacher in whose class you performed exceptionally well may be an excellent choice as well.
Get to know your school/college/guidance counselor; their recommendation is also very important. Keep in mind that counselors are often busy serving students in many different capacities, so be aware how valuable their time is.
For many schools test scores are more important than you want them to be, but less important than you think. While there won't typically be a preference between the SAT and ACT, some schools will require the ACT be taken with the Writing option; other schools may want SAT II Subject tests. Be sure you are clear as to what is expected of you and what will be considered as your application is reviewed.
Begin your search by identifying your various personal and academic goals. It's important that you are confident that the schools to which you are applying offer academic programs which interest you and meet your personal needs (small v. medium v. large; urban v. suburban v. rural, etc.). Spend time considering what type of campus life and academic curriculum suits you. Visit as many schools as you can. Begin with a broad list of many different kinds of school and begin to narrow the list as you learn more about the schools and understand more of what you want out of college.
Ask questions. Use campus visits wisely, asking questions of admissions officers, students, and professors. Call or email questions for which your internet searches don't answer. Understand that all your communications with the college will likely become part of your admissions file should you decide to apply, so avoid slang language and sloppy emails.
Lastly, give yourself options. In today's competitive college admission atmosphere, even the most talented students need options. Your list should include safety, target, and reach schools that you would be excited to attend. There are thousands of accredited four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., so with careful preparation and thoughtful consideration, you will land on a campus that is right for you.