How do I give myself a better chance?Answered
During my freshman year of highschool I really struggled with switching from a religious, lax environment into a more harsh, irreligious setting where secular studies where held to a higher standard. Because of this, I only had a 2.8 GPA in my beginning year, and that really messed up my overall GPA. Since then, I've improved, getting mostly As in my classes. I've always aimed high for myself and I really wish to get into someplace nice like UCLA -- however, my chances are small due to my GPA being relatively lower than most from my freshman year. How do I raise my chances? What can I do to make up for my past mistakes?
Similarly, my mom is a single mother of three who struggles with money, so I work a job to help her with finances right after school ends everyday -- sadly, it stops me from doing E.C.s despite wanting to. Help or advice would be appreciated.
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These are great questions, and I'm sorry you struggled so much with your transition to high school. I'm not sure exactly what your unweighted GPA is, now, but even with a 2.8 GPA freshman year, you could still bring that GPA up above a 3.5 by the end of your first semester senior year. While this isn't the >3.8 expected by the most selective schools, admissions officers are typically understanding of students who had a rough transition into high school. Showing a positive upward trajectory throughout your high school career, as you have, is generally a very good thing. Furthermore, don't think that "someplace nice" means only top 20 schools (like UCLA). There are many, many excellent places that aren't quite that competitive.
In regards to your ECs, this is another thing that admissions officers will understand, so long as you share this information with them. Of course, if you are able to fit in any cool independent projects, find a leadership position in a club, or get an impressive job or paid internship, any of these things would look amazing. That said, there's nothing wrong with what you're doing, and, so long as you explain your after-school commitments on your college applications, admissions officers won't hold your lack of certain activities against you.
In terms of improving your profile overall, you'll want to take difficult classes and do extremely well in them. Every point you can improve your GPA will help you. Having a strong ACT or SAT score will also help you a LOT at test-optional schools (although it won't make a difference at the UCs and Cal State schools, where they no longer look at tests). Finally, you'll just want to make sure you adequately explain how difficult this transition was for you, why it affected your grades, and how you eventually overcame the challenges it posted. On the CommonApp, the "Additional Information" sections is made for this purpose. The UC App has space for it as well.
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