Clara Perez knew she wanted to study architecture by freshman year of high school, when she spent hours building virtual houses for the characters in the computer game The Sims.
Her college search was equally focused; she worked with her family and an independent counselor to come up with a short list of schools with strong architecture programs. When she decided after a campus visit that Syracuse University was the place, she made frequent contact with the recruiter for SU's architecture school as she worked on a portfolio. She scheduled an interview to show off her ability to speak on her feet.
"I wasn't the girl with the strongest grades in high school, but I put myself out there," she says. This fall she'll be a junior at Syracuse.
While some schools accept single-digit percentages of their applicant pool, on average, colleges are accepting almost two-thirds of their applicants, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. U.S. News talked with admissions officers, independent college counselors and high school guidance counselors to find out the right things to do to get accepted.
Plenty of kids enter high school figuring they've got lots of time to perfect their act. But freshman year is not a dress rehearsal.
[Learn more about getting an early start on college prep.]
"We do start really paying attention to students' grades in the ninth grade year," says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Institute of Technology. "Selective schools will take the whole high school career into account."
Beyond attending to your grades, that means making sure you're on track from the outset to fit in all the courses you might need for admission, advises Thyra Briggs, vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. That might mean making sure you have advanced algebra under your belt by the end of sophomore year if a college wants to see a year of calculus, or that you're taking Spanish as a freshman if schools strongly prefer four years of a foreign language.
Grades in college prep courses still carry the most weight in admissions decisions. People who can show they've successfully challenged themselves in high school are "better prepared to handle college work," says Paul Marthers, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and student success at The State University of New York.
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At the same time, no one expects students to take every AP class offered. Better to do the best you can in the highest level classes that make sense given your interests and aptitudes, while getting eight to nine hours of sleep a night, advises Katy Murphy, director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, California, and immediate past president of NACAC. "We see too many kids taking advanced courses across the curriculum who crash and burn because they've taken on too much."
To repeat: It's most important to take AP classes in your areas of strength. And because your guidance counselor will send colleges a detailed profile of your school and its curriculum, the people vetting applications will know if you've taken wise advantage or gone after easy A's.
"We don't need to see the student who intends to pursue magazine journalism in AP biology, chemistry, physics and calculus," says Laura Linn, director of admission at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. That person is probably better off with two advanced English courses; someone planning on majoring in engineering, on the other hand, can prioritize AP math and science.
Picking colleges requires a long look inward as well as study of all those websites. "Pause and assess who you are, what you're good at," advises Judy Muir, an independent college consultant in Houston. Then consider how your learning style and other preferences -- large lectures? discussion-intensive seminars? a tight college community? Big Ten sports? -- fit with each college's strengths.
Ted Spencer, senior adviser on admissions outreach at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, says you should be able to come up with five reasons for applying to every school on your list. Then run the list by your guidance counselor to be sure you're being realistic about the chances for admission. Some high schools have software that can tell you where you'd stack up against past applicants to a college.
Make sure to include a few safe bets, suggests Caroline Brokaw Tucker, an independent college consultant at New Canaan, Connecticut-based Dunbar Educational Consultants, and that they are places where you'll be happy. Just in case.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2016" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.