Considering studying computer science in college? You’re not the only one! As job opportunities for computer scientists of all kinds continue to multiple (and continue to pay very well), more and more students are setting their sights on CS.
So how do you set yourself apart in a highly competitive field of highly accomplished college applicants?
Don’t wait until the summer after your junior year to start thinking about how you’re going to distinguish yourself in the college application process. Waiting until the last minute to get serious about your academic and extracurricular interests is never a good idea, but it’s especially important for students hoping to study CS in college to get an early start.
Admission rates for CS applicants have plummeted in recent years as a result of the popularity of the major. If you’re hoping to get into a top program, you’ll need more than near-perfect grades and test scores.
You’ll want to come up with a plan for taking the most advanced science and math courses your high school has to offer. This may require gaining additional course credits over the summer so that you can fulfill any prerequisites for classes like calculus.
Starting early is also important because it will help you focus your interests throughout high school. You may find that you’re all about robotics, or building apps, or teaching kids about technology. The earlier you can determine what exactly makes you tick, the more time you will have to focus your energy on one or two things.
Remember: top colleges aren’t looking for well-rounded students. They’re looking for applicants with the passion, focus, and stamina to make a real impact in one specific intellectual pursuit.
Seek intellectual challenge
Once again: for students who want to pursue degrees in highly competitive fields like CS, stellar grades and test scores alone aren’t going to cut it. A 4.0 unweighted GPA won’t help you much if the majority of your classes aren’t at the honors/AP/IB level.
Make sure that by the time you graduate you will have taken the most challenging courses your school has to offer, particularly in STEM. Also seek intellectual challenge beyond what your school has to offer: if your school does not offer one or both of the AP Computer Science classes (AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A), consider self-studying for one, and signing up to take the exam. Remember, you do not need to be enrolled in AP classes to take AP exams. Test experts recommend self-studying for the Computer Science A exam, rather than the Computer Science Principles exam.
Finding ways to pursue your intellectual interests beyond what your school has to offer is an excellent way to demonstrate your passion as a student. Admissions folks place a great deal of importance on a student’s willingness to seek out challenges.
Become a leader
In addition to academic rigor and a love of intellectual challenge, top schools want to see leadership. They want to know that the students they accept are going to do more than simply meet their deadlines in college. They want students who challenge themselves and others, who identify problems within their communities and develop creative solutions to address them.
The best way for you to demonstrate leadership is through your extracurricular activities. I cannot stress enough the importance of beginning to develop your extracurricular profile early on. It’s essential to show commitment to your activities over time in addition to spending meaningful time on your activities every week.
Starting early will also allow you to advance to leadership roles in any school clubs you join. Again: colleges don’t want followers, they want trail blazers. Your activities list on the Common App should demonstrate your abilities and experience in leading and inspiring others.
At some point during your high school career, you might consider starting your own club. Cultivate your entrepreneurial spirit: get in the habit of paying close attention to what’s lacking in your school and community and of brainstorming solutions to the problems you identify.
Your school doesn’t have a coding club? Create one! Do the middle school kids want to learn how to build apps? Teach them! Maybe there are elderly folks in your community who could use help setting up and using their smartphones? Go lend a hand.
Of course, creating a club, or leading a workshop is just the beginning. Make sure you continue to build and develop the activity and that you devote some serious time to it every week. Not sure how to start? Ask us—that's what we're here for.
Finally, don’t forget that you can and should demonstrate leadership in the classroom as well. When you help to promote thoughtful discussions, and when you help your fellow students (through tutoring and mentoring, for example), you’re showing your ability to be an intellectual leader. You’re also making your teachers’ jobs interesting and gratifying, and they will reward you with stellar recommendations for college.