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If you’re starting your high school career and intend on pursuing higher education, it’s time to get serious about your grades. The first three years of grades (GPA from your first six semesters) are what schools will primarily look at when determining if they want to accept you or not. Here are some pointers for getting into top-tier colleges.

How Much Do Colleges Care About Your GPA?

There’s no debate that a student’s GPA has a major impact on which schools he or she can get into. If you have a tough time adjusting to high school or your grades drop a little for some other reason, there’s no need to panic. Colleges are more interested in seeing that you can bounce back and get your grades up than they are in any one set or semester of grades. According to Study.com, “A student’s GPA is a major criteria that colleges and employers look at to evaluate a person’s potential. GPA indicates how hard a student has worked, how much he or she knows, and where his or her strengths and weaknesses lie.”  In addition to your grades, colleges also look at whether you took advanced placement classes or not (what we call “rigor of schedule”).

Senior Year is Too Late

Many students wait until their senior year to get serious about their grades: it’s too late. According to GPA Calculator, “If you are nearing the end of your junior year or are already a senior in high school, you might want to focus instead on standardized test scores. You have another chance to maintain a GPA once you get to college, but for now, there is little you can do to improve your score before sending off college applications.” After all, there’s no need to worry about what you can’t control, and you can’t control what grades colleges will see at this point. Instead, your focus should be on the ACT or SAT.

How to Prepare for the ACT/SAT

One of the best ways to prepare for these important tests is to start early. Understand the test structure. The ACT and SAT have no penalty for guessing, so go ahead and eliminate the answers that are not right. Then, go with your gut if you do not know the answer. Many students find it helpful to buy a study book or two to help them understand the structure of the questions. Others find it helpful to take a class with a qualified instructor. Many find one-on-one prep to be the best option.

Get Involved

In addition to grades, many colleges look at how involved a student is in the community. Over 66 percent of college admission recruiters say that it’s impossible to have too many community service hours, so get involved! Although far less important than grades and test scores, extracurricular activities at school shouldn’t be overlooked. According to FastWeb, “Keep in mind, however, that colleges are aware when you add a ton of extracurriculars your junior or senior year. Try to keep your participation limited to activities you actually enjoy and will keep pursuing – don’t just participate to have something on your application. It’s better to choose what you love, so you’ll benefit from the experience in more ways than just your application word count.” Students can choose to play a sport, an instrument, or participate in a club.

Younger students need to remember that it takes a well-rounded applicant to get into a top school. Test scores, grades, and activities are all important. Spend time concentrating on all three of these areas and when you graduate, you’ll have the pick of colleges waiting for you.