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5 Tips For High-Achieving Students

Kevin McMullin

Development & Learning

When someone asks me to share advice for “a high-achieving student,” I’m usually reluctant because it often trends towards a discussion of “How to get into a prestigious college.”   So if you’re a high-achieving student, here are five tips that can help you maximize the benefit from your impressive work ethic, no matter where you want to go to college.

1. Focus on the big picture.
Yes, you want to go to college.  But I hope you have a bigger goal here.  You want to be well-educated.  You want to develop your mind and your work ethic.  You want to be well-prepared to succeed in college once you get there.  As you go through high school and plan for college, don’t just focus on what admissions advantage you’re getting. Think about the life advantages, too. There’s no guarantee anything you do will get you into one particular school. But everything you do gives you a bigger life advantage. Those bigger advantages guarantee that you’ll get in someplace and that you’ll also be more successful once you get there.

2. Drift towards your strengths.
High-achieving students often have a tendency to spend their time trying to polish up every slight, perceived weakness so they’re free of imperfections.  A better way to stand out and be happy is to focus on your strengths.  If you’re much better at math than you are at English, you could get a tutor for AP Lit.  But why not redirect that time to tutor students in math, or take a college level math class, or captain the math club?  The Gallup Organization’s research has showed that spending time building strengths is far more productive than logging countless hours trying to fix weaknesses.  You’ll be happier, you’ll be even better at something you like and are good at, and you’ll have more success when you apply to college, too.

3. Have a favorite subject and teacher.
Admissions officers want to see flashes of your academic interests.  And college interviewers routinely ask about your favorite subjects and teachers. The students who’ve thought about their favorite subjects and worked especially hard in them always have the best answers to those questions.  So have a favorite class and teacher.  If you don’t have one or both, what could you do to find a class and teacher that you really look forward to every day?  There’s no reason that school should feel like a job all the time.  A favorite class and teacher can show you just how enjoyable learning really can be.

4.  Be academically engaged.
It’s possible to get straight As and not necessarily be an engaged student.  If your only academic concern is whether or not you’ll get an “A,” you have a good work ethic, but you’re not academically engaged. Do you participate in class? Do you ask intelligent questions? Do you do reading outside of your history class, build a working solar panel in physics, or do an oral report in US history dressed up like Ben Franklin?  If you do those things, you’ll be an engaged student, you’ll probably enjoy school more, and you’ll be more appealing to colleges because of it.

5. Remember that if anyone should be able to enjoy the admissions process, it’s you.
I’m consistently surprised by how many high-achieving students (and their parents) are so unnecessarily anxious about the college admissions process.  The vast majority of colleges in this country will trip over themselves to admit a high-achieving student.  Yes, it’s obscenely competitive to get into about 40 colleges, and those may well be some (or all) of the schools you say you want to attend.  But if you step back and appreciate how hard you’re working and how much you care about your future, you’ll realize that everything is going to be OK, whether or not Cornell says yes.  Be happy and confident about your future.    Don’t believe that a prestigious college has the power to decide whether or not you’re going to be successful. You get to make that decision for yourself.

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Kevin McMullin

Kevin McMullin is the Founder of Collegewise, a national college admissions counseling company, co-founder of The Princeton Review and the author of If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted. He also writes a daily college admissions blog,, and has given over 500 presentations to discuss smarter, saner college planning.