By Harrison Cheng, Stratford Preparatory College Counselor 

Preparing for college is akin to training for a sport. My students will often hear me refer to college admissions like the Olympics. Many sports from diving to figure skating have two components to the score: difficulty and execution. Similarly, college admissions have two main components: academics and co-curriculars. The winner in each case is the person with the highest combined score. An athlete with an incredibly difficult routine, but messes up the execution will not win gold, nor will the athlete who executes a very easy routine perfectly. As we translate this to college admissions, it means that a student with perfect grades but no co-curriculars won’t see many acceptances, nor will the student who takes on too many activities and is spread too thin to be successful. Therefore, it is a balance of these two components – academics and co-curriculars – that is essential for college admissions success.

Planning is the Secret Sauce
Recently, as we get closer to the first day of Stratford Preparatory High School, I’ve been thinking about my most successful students over the years. What did they all have in common? What activities? Grades? Talents? In essence, what was the secret sauce? There wasn’t a single activity they all did. They didn’t all have 4.0 GPAs or 15 extra-curricular activities, and many had fewer AP classes than you’d think. Ultimately, the answer was planning. Colleges see the same effect, students who apply earlier (Early Decision or Early Action) are admitted at a much higher rate, as much as 400% more often than a regular decision candidate. While part of that is attributed to their willingness to commit to the school, even when you’re not bound to attend, students who apply earlier are more prepared. They finished their standardized testing and essays because they started planning for college years in advance. Think of the college application process as a marathon over four years, not a sprint in just Grade 12. To make the most of this journey, we must set milestones, prepare a college checklist, and learn to make decisions with confidence.

Explore Your Interests, Discover Your Passions
It’s important for parents to be attentive to their student’s abilities and interests. Pay attention toChess Club is a prime example of a co-curricular to explore for inclusion in college essays. what your child naturally gravitates toward, what they talk about, and try to give them opportunities in those areas of interest. From the student side, self-advocacy is key. You must be willing to take ownership of your education, be an active learner both in terms of seeking feedback on how you can improve and searching out new areas of interest.

The keyword here is balance. Colleges are looking for students who found a few things they are interested in and have pursued that passion beyond just having fun by building depth of skill, growing capacity, and evolving as an individual. So how do you find that passion? Your high school co-curriculars should look like a pyramid. In Grade 9, you should explore and try everything that interests you. If you already know what you want to do, great! But keep in mind that there are a ton of new activities that often start in high school or new clubs that you’ve never been exposed to until now. Each year, you should narrow down and focus on the activities that you enjoy, that you’re doing well in, or ones where you’ve earned leadership roles. I find that students try harder and are more successful when they love what they do. By the time you start Grade 12, you’ll be left with a couple of well-developed options.

Preparing for College Essays

Preparing for college Remember that there are only 2-4 essays for most colleges, which means you can only talk about a couple of activities. Anything not covered in the essays won’t carry much value in the admissions process, so focus on quality, not quantity. 

College application essay prompts are fairly consistent. Here are a few major themes that students should be prepared for:

  1. Leadership – How did you lead a team to success?
  2. Diversity – How do you support diversity or add to our school’s diversity?
  3. Community – How do you give back to your community?
  4. Career – What do you want to do in the future and why?
  5. Creativity – How do you express yourself?
  6. Talent – What is something you’re good at? What have you won an award for? Remember team awards count!

You should draw from your passions to explore each of these areas. For example, you may be the captain of the soccer team where you had several exchange students from Europe. You may also spend time volunteering as a referee for a youth soccer league, maybe you like coming up with unique plays demonstrating your creativity, and along the way discover that you want to be a sports coach as a future career. A single activity could be used in many ways, but you also don’t want soccer to be the answer to every essay you write. Ultimately, through a combination of all of your co-curricular activities, make sure you’re ready to answer all of these questions before you start college applications because not every college will let you choose which prompts to answer. This means you’ll need to diversify your activities, so plan accordingly. 

Keeping An Open Mind is Key
Regardless of what you want to major in, it’s important to sit down and talk as a family about yourDiscussing College Admissions goals and interests. Be open-minded to new opportunities and ideas, explore and try new things. Keep in mind that it’s not only okay to change your mind, but you should regularly reflect on your decisions and reorient yourself as you grow. Be strategic and intentional with your choices. Discover your passions and then pursue them to the fullest extent possible. Most importantly, remember to enjoy your self-discovery journey throughout high school. Through co-curricular activities, you will have many opportunities to find and explore new and interesting sides of yourself that will ultimately lead you to a more fulfilling experience in college and beyond.

Are you ready to start preparing for college?
Click here to learn more about Stratford Preparatory’s College Counseling program and our college preparation timeline. Stratford Preparatory High School is currently accepting applications for Grade 9 through January 21, 2022, for Fall 2022.

Harrison Cheng talks about planning ahead to prepare for college admissions.About Harrison Cheng
Harrison Cheng loves getting to know each student and helping them to discover their own strengths and abilities throughout the college admissions process. Harrison is a seasoned college admissions counselor with over 18 years of experience from both the applicant and university sides of the process. His former students have gone on to all the Ivies, Stanford, and have been Regents and Chancellor’s scholars at all of the University of California campuses.

Prior to Stratford, Harrison ran his own education technology startup company and worked in admissions at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. While the majority of Harrison’s students choose to pursue majors in healthcare, business, and computer science/engineering, he is also a lifelong musician and educator and supports students with a variety of interests.

Harrison holds a B.A. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley, an MBA from UC San Diego, a certificate in college counseling from UCLA, and an M.S. in Software Management from Carnegie Mellon University.


Join us for an upcoming webinar event with Mr. Peter Wilson, Assistant Vice President, Enrollment and Student Advancement and Deputy Dean & Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Chicago.

Learn How Top Universities Evaluate High School Programs & Applicants
Thursday, January 20, 2022
6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
The University of Chicago is a highly selective university, which only admits 7% of applicants, making them among the most selective universities for college admission — more than most of the Ivy League schools (including University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell), as well as MIT.  Mr. Wilson will discuss how elite schools approach the admissions process for high schools, such as Stratford Preparatory, and what they are looking for from students in the admissions process. This unique opportunity is an excellent chance to hear from a leading educational expert on how to prepare for the college admissions process.