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NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- As summer hits the dog days of August and autumn leaves beckon, millions of high school seniors -- and their families -- will shift their search from a decent summer job for junior to a good college.

According to the U.S. Census, about 2.94 million high school seniors made the move to college in 2009, the last time the government took a good look at the data.

The college application process, meanwhile, is often a game based on hedging the bets laid out on the table: 21% of college freshman in 2011 applied to at least eight schools, so if the worst case scenario materialized, they still had some options, according to a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

With the cost of college education skyrocketing and now well beyond the ability of most U.S. families to comfortably pay without some help or in the least a huge dent in the family budget, getting into the best college has never been more important. It’s not an easy process to game, but one major college admissions officer has revealed some secrets for students and families trying to choose the right college, and get into it.

Martha Allman, the admissions director at Wake Forest University, says in her recent tell-all (OK, it's just a press release, and ostensibly part of the university's own marketing effort to get students) that demand for good information on college admissions is rampant. So rampant, in fact, that the college admissions director has been hunted and hounded when running around town (Winstom-Salem, N.C.) on daily errands.

“I often find myself cornered in the produce aisle at the grocery store or the waiting room in the dentist’s office," Allman said. "Everyone always wants to know what we’re looking for in prospective students. I’ve often referred to the admissions selection process as more art than science. However, there are a few gold standards we regard as strong measuring sticks and ways students can help themselves.”

Here are four of Allman's most important tricks for getting the attention of the powers that be in the college admissions office(s) of your choice:

Don’t underrate extra-curricular activities

Allman says that grades almost always count for more than extracurricular activities, but don’t sell those activities short. If a student has talent and accomplishments in the fine arts, athletics or other areas which are sought after by a particular college, this can become a significant factor in the college admissions student selection process. In general, colleges seek depth of involvement, not breadth, so focus your time and attention on a few activities in which you excel and enjoy and skip the resume builders, Allman advises.

Colleges want risk-takers

High school students who show that they reached high and took tough courses tend to get a longer look by admissions officers. Allman notes that the “rigor of the curriculum” is important to colleges, as is the quality of the high school attended by an applicant.

“There are great students at less demanding schools and there are marginal students at superb schools,” she says. “The students that we seek are those that have 'bloomed where they are planted,' taking the most challenging curricula afforded them, going beyond expectations and exhibiting real motivation and intellectual curiosity,” Allman says (in a note that should get the attention of students thinking of skipping AP courses or physics and calculus to goof off once the core requirements are reached.) 

Students with International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme and Advanced Placement (AP) programs fare especially well, Allman notes.

Labor over your essay, and don't have your local Shakespeare (or mom or dad) write it

College admissions officers have developed a trained eye when reviewing college essays, and any attempt by a candidate to enlist adult help, or professional help, with the essay won’t go over well with admissions managers. She advises making the essay your own, write with your heart, and write clearly and compellingly. That will give you a leg up in the admissions game.

Be careful with LORs

Letters of recommendation are a great way for high school students to make their case, but you need to be careful about who you choose to write the letters. Allman says that the ideal LOR writer is a high school teacher who knows the student well. Any LOR from someone who doesn’t know the student personally will be a red flag in the application. 

Even with these strategies in hand and taken to heart, there is something a little frustrating, and nebulous, about Allman's comment that colleges choose students “based on their own institutional needs.” That means selecting students who bring something to the table, add value to the college and the community, and who bring a “different perspective” to the campus culture. And lots of money and/or access to student loan providers (did she forget to mention that?)

High school seniors should keep all of these thoughts in mind when applying to the colleges they value most, and in particular focus on the factors that are under their control. Now that you know what colleges want, it’s up to you to deliver what admissions officers like Allman are looking for, preferably not while she is grocery shopping or having a root canal.

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