After you've selected a college, the next step is gaining entrance. Some advice from the gatekeepers: 1. Plan a rigorous high-school schedule...

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After you’ve selected a college, the next step is gaining entrance. Some advice from the gatekeepers:

1. Plan a rigorous high-school schedule and keep your grades up

Colleges like to see transcripts filled with science, math, social studies, language arts and foreign languages — especially if many are honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes.

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“We like a person who’s an academic risk-taker, someone who seeks challenges and rises to meet them,” says Michael McKeon, dean of admissions at Seattle University. “We’d rather see a B in an AP class than an A in a regular class.”

And beware senioritis: Colleges get concerned when they see math and science courses give way to study halls and jewelry-making. They also like to see grades on an upward trend and have even revoked admissions offers to seniors whose grades plummeted.

2. Follow your passions

outside of school

“Admissions people aren’t necessarily interested in students who’ve belonged to 20 different clubs,” says Linda Jacobs, who runs a private college-placement service in Seattle. “They’re looking for people with a passion for something” — whether it’s keeping bees or learning Swahili. “They like to see signs of hard work, initiative and commitment — that a student can stick with an activity and get better at it.”

3. Don’t count on high SAT scores

to make up for poor grades

Colleges often steer clear of applicants with low GPAs and high test scores, figuring they might be smart but lazy. Grades are the most important criteria for most schools.

4. Get organized

Once your name ends up on a few mailing lists, the college brochures will begin to pour in. Before the flood starts, set aside space in a filing cabinet or even a large box to store them. Or invest in a tabbed organizer designed for this. If you haven’t already, set up a calendar that you check weekly — if not daily — to track admissions offices’ addresses, deadlines, exam dates and more.

5. Take time on your essay

The trick is not to pontificate (look it up) but to be yourself. Write about your roots, the things that excite you. Do you make comics? Love soccer? Live on a farm? What makes you unique?

“The essays that really touch us are the ones that are deeply personal,” says Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford University. Ask an English teacher or other trusted resource to proofread.

6. Think carefully about Early Decision or Early Action

Some schools hope to nab top applicants by letting them apply early (usually by Nov. 1) and giving them an early answer (usually by Dec. 15). Many accept a higher percentage — sometimes a much higher percentage — from the pool of candidates for early admission (who must attend if admitted) or early action (accepted early but with no requirement to attend; one new variation, single-choice early action, limits you to applying to one school this way).

The plus: a less stressful, more enjoyable senior year. The minuses: The systems are criticized for discriminating against less-sophisticated applicants and those who must wait to compare financial-aid offers from colleges. And you may get a flimsier offer as the college doesn’t have to compete against other colleges’ offers. Locking in means less time to research choices and no option to change your mind if you get new info.

Private counselor Linda Jacobs says many students would be better off applying for regular decision and using the extra time to raise their grades, retake the SAT or craft better applications.

7. Be sure of your teacher references

Your references should be enthusiastic and cite examples of how you stand out. Ask teachers if they feel they know you well enough to give you a great reference; that allows them to find a graceful way to bow out if they can’t.

8. Show your good character

Colleges have become increasingly vigilant about student behavior. Hints of aggression, social insensitivity in your essay or record, and plagiarism, never mind lawbreaking, can put the kibosh on your chances, notes author Don Dunbar, a former college counselor for Phillips Academy, Andover.

And that can extend to your MySpace or Facebook page, too. Most colleges do not make a point to ferret out student pages but often do take action if they come across problematic information.

Seattle University’s McKeon says most students would be surprised to discover how much background information colleges can tap into. Nearly 3,000 schools use National Student Clearinghouse to exchange and confirm details about a student’s previous college enrollment, and many majors — from education to health care — require a criminal-background check after acceptance.

9. Show the college what’s in it for them

When so many other deserving students are applying, why should you be chosen? Say what you will contribute to the college’s community, such as a special talent, or examples of your leadership.

10. Show ’em your love

Private colleges, in particular, want to admit students who’ll show up if accepted; that helps their “yield,” which is a mark of their status in the hypercompetitive admissions world. So if a school is your top choice, say so, and show you’ve researched the college and how you’d be a good fit.

Times staff and Suzanne Monson contributed to this report.

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