Shh, don't tell anyone, but here is the secret to going to college:
The colleges that will admit you, and even offer you some merit-based aid, are out there, and looking for you. There is a college out there that is looking for someone who earned your grades in high school. There is a college out there that is just the right fit for your ACT or SAT scores, or may even disregard scores altogether. You'll find a college that is looking for someone who was involved in exactly the quality and quantity of activities, volunteerism, and leadership that you pursued during your high school years. There is even a college that will admit - lo, value - you, despite or even because of the setbacks you've experienced.
All you need to do is make decisions.
If you choose to spend 7-15 hours per week outside of school working on homework and studying, you're likely to earn grades better than Cs. If you choose to spend your time away from school on Facebook and watching TV, Ds will be acceptable and Cs will feel amazing. Earning As will get you into one group of colleges, Bs will get you admitted to another group, and Cs would be a good fit at some colleges. Accepting Ds will not prevent you from going to a four-year college, it will just mean taking a slight detour of 1-2 years if you're successful at community college.
Do your best on standardized tests.
We can't avoid the inevitability of standardized tests, and it is common knowledge that some of us score higher on them than others. Practice and some coaching may have a slight impact on your score, but these interventions are unlikely to raise your SAT by more than 300 or your ACT by more than 5 points. The reality is that the larger the college you apply to, the more emphasis they place on these tests. Many colleges will consider your test scores, but not nearly with as much emphasis as your essays and letters of recommendation.
Get as involved as you want to be.
The larger schools really just concern themselves with your grades and test scores. However, the goal is more about college completion than college admission, and you are more apt to be successful in the long-term if you can demonstrate academic proficiency while balancing numerous responsibilities. Consider this as the colleges doing you a favor by ensuring that you are ready to handle the multitasking that is so necessary in the professional and adult world.
The most competitive colleges assume that you have the best scores and grades in your school, and any of the 90% of applicants who are rejected could probably be successful, but there is a greater chance of admission (and definitely a great chance at a scholarship anywhere) if you have done something remarkable with your time outside the classroom, like founding your own philanthropy, single-handedly raising your own siblings, or have a recording on the Billboard top 200.
Take your pick.
As unique (based on your socio-economic, racial, sexuality, parents' education, ethnic, religious, academic, geographic, or even political background!) an individual as you are, there are quite a few options available to you, many of which you may not have even heard of... yet. The trap is falling prey to societal pressure to pursue a college that is a brand name, either because of US News & World Report's or Newsweek's college rankings, the BCS Top 25, or the NCAA basketball tournament. In reality, there are hundreds of colleges (at least one in every state) where you could be successful, many of which may even offer you financial incentives to bring your unique perspective background to their classrooms and campus cultures.
Meet with your school counselor early and often.
It is very important to come to your school counselor's office when scheduled to do so, and to schedule your own appointments proactively. This helps us get to know you in good times and bad. In ninth grade, this will give us a chance to hear your goals and advise you in ways to achieve those goals. In tenth grade, we'll give you feedback on your ninth grade performance and push you to advance your own agenda through challenge and rigor. In eleventh grade, we'll give you a copy of your transcript, listen to your priorities for college, and offer you a starter list of schools that might offer a good fit. In twelfth grade, we'll help you keep your sanity amid the chaos that is inevitable among applying to colleges and scholarships. We can't get you into a college that is not interested in offering you admission, but we can help connect you with one that is.