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Excel In High School—What it Takes to Get Into Top Universities

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Jason Kuma

Writer | Coach | USC - Physics B.S & Business B.A. | Fremont, CA

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High schools and college acceptances are becoming extremely competitive. Everyone wants the best results, but few achieve them. What sets those students apart?  In this article, we will talk about what top students around the country are doing to set themselves apart. Colleges love distinguished students, so here are the best ways to set your students up for success.


Over the course of the last 5 years, I’ve helped 100’s of Physics students climb their way to success. Most of these students went on to attend the nation’s top colleges.

This article will explain common activities that helped students standout in high school.

By the end of this quick read, you will be able to better help yourself or your student get ahead of the increasing competition. 

The Hard Truth…

High school is hard and becoming increasing competitive.

The median un-weighted GPA, for all newly admitted college students, is a 4.0. You read that right.

Getting straight A’s is not longer all you must do to get into a good college. 

High school is much more than grades and tests. Not all parents and students realize this until its too late.

How to Stand Out

First and foremost, you MUST figure out what you will be applying for on college application. What you apply for will be the “theme” of your college app. 

The truth is that picking a career path with little knowledge is difficult. It up to parents to provide their kids with guidance on what to do. Remember that you can always change your path once in college.

Pick for Now

For now, it just important to pick something, stick to it, and build a high school portfolio of activities around it. 

To ensure that colleges will give your application a good look, here are the main categories you want to focus on, in order of impact on college applications: 

  1. Internships and/or research
  2. Summer Programs
  3. Awards and achievements
  4. Sports
  5. Roles in clubs

The key is to start early. So if you’re reading this as a freshman you’re ahead of the game! This guide will help you succeed.


Finding internships in high school can be a tedious and difficult process.

If you ever find one that fits your interests, do not hesitate to take it. While there is no set method to go about this, there are some general things to consider:

  • Finding an internship requires having good connections. Talk to your parents, teachers, friends, counselors, and relatives and ask for their assistance in getting an internship.
  • Big and small companies alike tend to have links and resources for interns on their websites. If you need to, you can email the company’s human resource department and ask for assistance in applying as a high school intern.
  • NASA has an internship program for high school students, which can be found here.

Keep in mind, that you might not land a position at Google, Apple, Tesla, Amazon, or any other technology giants, and that is completely fine.

Instead, try to broaden your options to the choices around you: hospitals, libraries, and smaller companies and startups.

If internships do not work out, then you can always apply for a job related to the field you are going into. Not only will you make spare cash, but also might learn something beneficial.

Summer Programs

Most students do not find internships, so the next best thing are summer programs. In addition to enriching your knowledge, these programs will allow you to explore you interests in depth. There are hundreds of programs out there. 

Aim for prestigious summer programs such as those offered by MIT, UCLA, etc. 

For example, students that attend the MITES summer program have a 30% higher chance of getting into MIT than their peer. The program is free, but it is selective and you do have to apply. It is well worth it if you get in. 

Another summer program is COSMOS. This program along with many others are recognized by the UC Colleges and even have a dedicated spot where you can put it when you apply for their colleges.

Since a lot of the summer programs are provided by colleges themselves, you might find it a lot easier finding these programs directly on the colleges’ websites. Keep in mind that while some of these programs are free, some may cost you money. It is, however, a great opportunity to learn, expand your interests, and make new friends.



This is probably one of the more ambitious ideas on this list, but conducting research amongst college students and professors, is a great way to demonstrate your interests in a particular subject.

This is likey to be even harder than getting an internship position.

Students in the past have secured spots in the lab and even gone as far to publish their papers. Colleges don’t expect you to go that far, but it doesn’t hurt if given the opportunity.

If you are feeling ambitious, reach out to nearby colleges and ask to participate in ongoing research. It should correlate with a field of interest you will be applying for.

Generally, research opportunities, are limited to science orientated subjects. So if biology, physics, psychology, astronomy, chemistry, etc. is a burning passion for you, then this idea is suitable for you.



High school is all about seizing great opportunities, so if you have great ideas, shape them into a cash generating business or a non profit.

If you think your community will appreciate and benefit from your innovation or service, then go for it!

It does not have to be a big business or one that requires spending loads of capital. It can be as simple as a mini Starbucks-like stand or bake sales to raise money for non-profits.

If you’re up for it, you can build a larger, more technical business. You will undobutly need a larger skill set, so use the summer to learn and expand your knoweldge base.

Here’s a few technical ideas:

  • Make a brand and sell products online
  • Start a youtube channel
  • Build your own website
  • Start a photography agency
  • Build a digital marketing agency
  • Make a web or mobile application

The possibilities are endless. Find your passion, discover the problems, and sell the solution. 



Most high schools have athletic programs. Do not be scared to join a team, because you think it will negatively impact your grades. Most sports are seasonal, typically lasting three to four months. Depending on the rigor of your classes, playing a sport may be a challenge, but not likely to impact grades.

If anything, sports are great, as it forces you to dramatically improve you time management skills. Colleges are aware of this and definitely care a lot about it.

Playing a sport throughout all years of high school is recommended, as it shows true interest and passion in the sport(s).

Martial arts, ballet, dancing, fencing, etc are all forms of sports.

Technically speaking, playing the piano or musical instrument for multiple years is also a “sport.”

More importantly its shows a students commitment to a certain area. 



If sports are not your cup of tea then music just might suit you.

If you already play an instrument, consider joining your high school band.

Some schools will even drop the two year physical education requirement in exchange for 4 year in band.

Needless to say band requires a lot of time and commitment so be prepared to put forth effort.

For students with loads of other activities, keep in mind that joining band might not be the greatest path to follow. Instead, you can practice and preform outside of school, which colleges very much recognize.



Joining clubs are excellent ways to expand your knowledge and interests to new horizons.

The DECA Club, for example, is great for leadership and entrepreneurship.

If you’re uncertain of your interests, then try to join as many clubs as possible and gradually cut down to the ones you like. Just because you are signed up, does not mean you are bound to a club.

Aim not only to be a club member, but a team leader, such as the president or VP for the club. To attain these positions, you’ll have to show avid participation and commitment to the club.

Attempt to help lead and win regional, state, or national competitions. This will truly demonstrate to colleges that you are adept in leadership.

If none of the clubs at your school satisfy your interests, then do not hesitate to start your own club. I coached a several students about web design and business. Later that year they went on to for them web design club. All 6 students went on to get accepted by Stanford, Berkeley, and Princeton. 

Here are some clubs that you can join through your school:

  • Academic Oriented:
    • Science Olympiads (Physics, Biology, and Chemistry Olympiads)
    • Math Olympiad
    • STEM club
    • Quiz Bowl
    • Computer Science/Programing Club
    • Journalism
    • Yearbook Club
    • National Honors Society (NHS)
  • Intrest Based:
    • DECA
    • Speech and Debate
    • Mock Trial
    • Future Business Leaders of America
    • Chess Club
    • Robotics
    • Photography/Film Club
    • Drama
    • Dance
  • Volunteer Based:
    • Breast Cancer Awareness Club
    • Red Cross
    • LEO
    • KEY Club
  • Impact Clubs:
    • GSA Clubs
    • Amnesty International Club
    • UNICEF
    • Model United Nations
    • Black Student Union (BSU)



School leadership is known by variety of names such as student council, student body leadership, or ASB.

Joining your school’s student leadership program will be beneficial in countless ways. Mastering how to lead a group of people is a crucial skill to have in the real world and one that colleges readily check to see if students have.

Being the class president, treasurer, or holding any other leadership position is a great way to enhance your public talking skills, general communication skills, and leadership.

If you feel confident in your ability, check with your school to see if you have the opportunity to be district council representative.

Keep in mind this bears a large responsibility and does distract from academic and other possible extracurricular. If possible attempt to do the other opportunities mentioned in this article before pursuing school leadership roles. 

The main takeaway from this is that you should strive to be a leader in whatever you do. Be it the captain of a sports team, president of a club, or entrepreneur with a great idea, there are many windows of opportunity to lead the way.

The next steps

Hopefully this guide has proven that there’s more to high school than boring classes and difficult tests.

Make time for extracurriculars in you schedule. Discover your interests and apply them in the real world.

You’ll find that high school passes by rather quickly. Ideally, you want to start your journey early, but in any case, don’t over burden yourself with too many actives.

Spending time with family and friends, doing homework and studying, eating healthy and sleeping well, are NOT things to be sacrificed.

Picture of Jason Kuma
Jason Kuma

Writer | Coach | Builder | Fremont, CA


Units in AP Physics 1

Unit 1 – Linear Kinematics

Unit 2 – Linear Forces

Unit 3 – Circular Motion

Unit 4 – Energy 

Unit 5 – Momentum 

Unit 6 – Torque 

Unit 7 – Oscillations 

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