By Maya JumanWhen I was applying to colleges last fall, several of the schools on my list were considered “reach” schools, even for the most qualified candidates. These are colleges like Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford, which grace the college lists of many driven, competitive high school seniors across the world. The truth is that there is no formula that will guarantee you admission to top colleges with low acceptance rates. But there are several things you can do to maximize your chances and ensure that you send in the best application possible.1. Grades are your first priorityGrades matter on any college application, but especially for highly-selective top colleges. Students often get caught up trying to balance five extracurricular activities, perform well on standardized tests, get excellent letters of recommendations, and ace interviews, all at the same time. While these are all extremely important, none of it matters if you lose focus on your grades. A college application is like an ice cream sundae — you can go crazy perfecting the right combination of toppings, but it’ll never work without the right base. In the same way, your grades have to serve as your foundation for everything else on your application. Don’t forget about them!2. Prioritize your timeIn addition to focusing on your grades, you still need to find ways to spend your time outside of classwork and homework effectively. Spending twenty hours a week preparing for a single standardized test like the ACT or SAT is probably not a good use of your time. Of course you should study for these tests, but consider creating a list of priorities so you don’t feel pulled in every direction all the time. Your grades come first, then rank your extracurricular activities in terms of time commitment. It depends on what you feel is most important to your life and your application, and what you’re most passionate about. If you can organize your time, not only will you be more focused on each of your tasks, you’ll likely be less stressed out about performing well on everything.3. Write killer supplemental essaysImagine this: hundreds of applicants with the same grades, test scores, interview ratings, and even similar extracurricular activities. That’s what the desk of a Harvard admission officer looks like around January. I’m not saying this to stress you out, but to point out something that can help you stand out from the rest of the applicants: your writing! Don’t waste the opportunity of the supplemental essay by playing safe and writing generically. Write a unique supplemental essay for each college and make sure your writing sounds like you, not anyone else. Put your heart into it. If it feels appropriate, be a little light-hearted or humorous, but make sure you convey why you’re serious about the school. Give yourself plenty of time to compose your supplemental essays — before summer and fall applications take over your entire life. Believe me, it will pay off.4. Demonstrate interestAnother way to stand out from the crowd is to make sure the admissions office knows about you before your application arrives. Email your admissions officer directly with a specific question, making sure to introduce yourself. Request an interview with the admissions officer and/or with alumni in your area. Attend information sessions and go on a campus tour. Many schools keep track of these displays of interest, to see which applicants are really invested in the school. Although demonstrated interest can’t get you into a school on its own, it doesn’t hurt to introduce yourself to the admissions office in addition to turning in a strong application.5. Consider applying earlyWhile the overall acceptance rate for a competitive school can appear shockingly low, these colleges admit a much higher percentage of students in their Early Decision/Early Action rounds. If you really love the school, feel good about your grades at the end of junior year, and have your application together by mid-fall, it may be worth applying early. Early Decision is binding, which means that if you’re admitted, you must attend. Early Action works similarly, except you’re not bound to attend. If you’re sure a college is right for you, sending in an early application in November is arguably the best way to boost your chances. For example, Yale admits around 6% of overall applicants, but 17% of Early Action applicants are admitted. Cornell has an overall acceptance rate of around 14%, but 28% of Early Decision applicants are admitted. This pattern holds true for most selective schools — and statistics are available online. Find out whether the schools on your list offer early application options, and decide if it’s the right choice for you.For many students, the biggest obstacle in the process of applying to selective schools is their own panic. The truth is, top colleges do offer excellent programs and opportunities, but there are plenty of great schools out there that may not have the brand-name appeal of an Ivy League. Approaching applications like they’re life-or-death is a surefire way to stress yourself out. Your application will be a lot more genuine and confident if you take the pressure off yourself a little bit, and actually enjoy the process. Have fun with your essays. Savor your senior year of high school. You’ve come this far, so congratulate yourself and stay open-minded about your college choices.Is a top college right for you? Find out with our College Match.About the authorMaya is our 2015 Top Ten List Scholarship winner. She attends Yale University, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, and is a fan of whales, baseball, and classic rock.