High schoolers tackling the feat of college applications

COLUMBIA (WACH) -- As thousands of college freshmen begin a new chapter in their education, many in the class of high school seniors behind them are still crossing their fingers in hopes of an acceptance letter from their dream school.

From taking the correct college prerequisite courses to getting good grades in those courses -- and from writing strong essays to acing the interviews -- the list of to-dos in the pursuit of a college education goes on and on.

But Richland Northeast High School senior Michael Gonzales seems to have it down. He's the platoon commander for his ROTC drill team, he performs multiple roles at his student television station, and he's taking the AP classes that colleges look for on a transcript. He says he thinks his involvement outside of class will make him more competitive as colleges review his applications.

"Say someone had the exact same grades, classes and work load as me," said Gonzales, who hopes to be accepted into Cornell University. "But then he didn't do any extracurricular activities and I did. My extracurricular activities puts me at sort of a step ahead, shows leadership potential...and dedication."

And he is on the right track, according to Richland Northeast High School Director of Guidance Jan Post. She says if you have your sights set on college, it's best to get involved in high school, because in some cases a student's GPA isn't enough to make the cut, she says.

"Let's say they're all 4.0's, but now, why should [a prestigious university] pick you?" asked Post. "Well it's your activities -- the things you've done outside of the classroom that makes a difference for a lot of students."

But good grades and extracurriculars are only part of the complex recipe for college success.

"You really have to study for the ACT and SAT," said Serena Stoneberg, a senior at White Knoll High School. "That's what is 'make it or break it' nowadays."

Stoneberg -- who hopes to study at Augustana College -- says she spends several hours each week taking practice tests in preparation for the ACT. Like Gonzales, she is involved in a host of extracurricular activities, including starring roles in high school plays as part of her drama club.

"Most colleges require an entrance test," said Post, referencing the tests for which Stoneberg is studying. "They can start as early as nineth or tenth grade taking practice SATs or something called the PLAN, which is the practice ACT."

But Post recommends beginning preparations for college even before starting high school -- that way they'll be able to take the appropriate course work for the college major they plan to pursue.

And of course the more rigorous the coursework a student takes on in college, the more impressive that student's transcript will be, says Post. She recommends taking AP classes.

And she recommends being mindful of college application deadlines, as they are often earlier than you might expect. Both the University of South Carolina and Clemson University have December first application deadlines. Many universities have early decision and early option deadlines as early as October and November. Post says if her students haven't gotten their college applications out by Halloween, she tells them they're late.