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How To Make Your College Application Stand Out

how to make your college application stand out

If you are beginning to apply for college, you probably want to know what will be the most impressive things to include in your college application. Of course, each school evaluates different criteria, but all of them will be looking for students who are smart, ambitious, and passionate about life.

A stellar application showcases your interest in the college, your skills, and what you can bring to the table as an incoming student. If you want to make your college application stand out memorably, take a look at these 16 tips.

1. Choose Your High School Classes With Intention

Not surprisingly, your choice of classes in school is going to be an essential way for admissions officers to learn more about your high school experience. Colleges do actually care about the courses you have taken and how well you do in each. In fact, it is one of the key considerations for admission. While there are many other important factors at play, nearly every university is going to look closely at this one.

What does this mean for you? While you are still in the first two years of high school, you will want to formulate a solid four-year plan. If you are in your junior or senior year, now is the time to buckle down. When you have a general idea of what you want to study in college, this will obviously help you choose the most appropriate coursework.

Be Relevant and Realistic

For example, if you want to be an engineer, you will need to include calculus and advanced math classes in addition to geometry and algebra. You may even want to take some extra classes over the summer to give yourself some time to get it all in. If science is your thing, you should begin planning as early as possible. This will help you put together a plan for classes that will allow you to take advanced courses in your junior or senior year.

While it is not imperative to choose your career path this early, the more prepared you are, the better. It’s easy to overlook long-range preparations when you have just entered high school. Four years seems like a lifetime at this age. But the truth is that the classes you take now will affect your ability to choose courses that will match your college goals later on. It is definitely well worth it to set aside time to discuss a plan with your parents and guidance counselor earlier rather than later.

2. Strive for Good Grades

This seems obvious, but it is also one of the most critical acceptance criteria that college admissions officers look at when choosing who will attend. Once you have selected your courses, you need to do the best possible work you can. You don’t need to have straight A’s in all your classes—especially the most demanding ones. However, you should do the strongest work you can handle.

Making the most out of each class also means you should use all of the resources available to you. There are plenty of tools to help you learn better study skills. Discovering what works best for you now will help you when college rolls around too. Understand the strategies that work best for you when it comes to note-taking, memorizing, and reading. Don’t be afraid to employ a different method of learning. Test a variety of techniques to see what works best as everyone has different learning styles.

3. Tell the Story of Who You Are

Your life is truly a book with many chapters. Although it is only the beginning of your story, the start of any book can be compelling if the writer is creative enough. Whether good or bad, all of your experiences up to this point have shaped your perspective on everything from relationships to employment. In the admissions department, officers are interested in who you are and what makes you tick. They want to see how you have evolved as a person during high school. It interests them to see how you have handled any challenges that arose. You can reveal a lot about yourself by telling the story of who you are.

As you go through your application, take any opportunity to use additional space for writing. If you have lean sections, further explanations may help complete the picture and work in your favor.

Think About Your Reader

The reader of your essay and short answers will appreciate you writing about specific times in your life and how they affected you. An example would be a friendship you developed with an unlikely person or the time a stranger paid for your coffee. The homesickness you had for your family when you were away at summer camp or the first time you set eyes on your puppy are slice-of-life moments that are real. Interesting bits that show the kind of person you are will be better received than a broad and impersonal essay.

Your resume may show a long list of achievements and terrific grades. Where you have been, who you know, your SAT scores and your work experience are all just data. Taking the time to reveal who you are inside takes some effort, but the time spent writing will be well worth it.

4. Participate in Extracurricular Activities

College admissions reps look for students who have unique perspectives about the world around them. They like to see independent thought, innovation, and creativity. However, to have those qualities, it is imperative to participate in activities beyond what might typically be expected.

For many students, new experiences of the world at large don’t truly open up for them until they are in their 20’s and beyond—ironically when they begin college. Getting a jumpstart on personal enrichment can be a vital tipping point when it comes to being accepted into the college of your choice.

Being genuinely curious about your classes in high school by participating in projects and essays related to the subject can help. Involving yourself in class discussions and even mulling things over with your instructor or teacher after school can expand your knowledge. However, equally as important is what happens during your free time.

Make Sure You Like What You Do

Devoting your own energy and time to activities that are interesting and enjoyable to you is a way to demonstrate some of your most favorable qualities to admissions representatives. You may already have developed some special interests even before attending high school. Sports, hobbies, art, music, dance, horseback riding, and activities related to your church or community are all included when it comes to extracurricular activities.

The key here is that these pursuits are things you are genuinely fond of. Don’t participate in something you will dread simply because you think you must. Find out what makes you happy and do that. Even something as unglamorous or common-place as knitting, taking long walks, or writing poetry counts.

With extracurricular activities, your own unique style is important. It is of little value to the campus as a whole to enroll only students interested in snowboarding. Colleges look for variety in the background and interests of prospective students, and they are not looking for a specific extracurricular activity. They are more concerned about who you are and what is important to you.

Showing commitment to your personal enrichment activities is more important than what they entail. Your involvement in them will be examined. Focusing on just one or two and even taking some leadership roles within these clubs or classes looks excellent on your resume.

Paid Work Counts Too!

Don’t forget about employment, which falls into this category as well. Your commitment to any jobs you have held shows an incredible amount of hard work and dedication compared to the majority of your peers. A few years back, it was unheard of not to have a part-time job during high school. The people that will be looking at your application likely recall their own experience with this as well. Showing experience with some good old-fashioned paid work—no matter what it is— conveys to them that you possess self-discipline, responsibility, and motivation.

5. Volunteer

how to make your college application stand out

Volunteering is an activity that shows you are willing to share your talents and time in a way that benefits the world at large. People who do unpaid work behind the scenes truly hold a community together. Even small tasks can make a big difference in the lives of others and will help you connect with your community in ways you never dreamed.

There are many opportunities for community service. You can work at your local shelter walking dogs or help with building projects through Habitat for Humanity. Assisting with planting and maintaining a community garden is a great idea too. There are plenty of organizations that will welcome your efforts. All you have to do is choose something you like.

Colleges view participation in community service to be an essential factor when it comes to admissions. Why? It predicts your level of participation in community service on campus. If you are actively involved in your community, you are likely going to be involved with the student body, as well.

The volunteering you engage in should not be something you need to do to complete high school, as that is not really selfless. You should look for long term opportunities that demonstrate a level of commitment and devotion to making the world a better place. Volunteering is a personally satisfying activity that can also help to increase your support network and broaden your list of contacts.

6. Keep Accurate Records

You have a lot going on right now, and the idea of documenting all of it might seem like too much of a chore. However, when it comes time to start applying to colleges, you are not going to remember all of your accomplishments. There are several ways to keep track of your extracurricular activities. Keeping a notebook is the simplest thing to do. You can write everything down and use a folder to hold any awards or certificates you receive. You can also keep a digital list on your laptop or tablet.

Many students will create a professional website or social media profile to highlight their accomplishments. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you keep it up to date and record all the things you’ve done, no matter how small. If you are planning to submit a personal resume, you will want to include your professional web address on that and the activities section of your application.

7. Manage Your Social Media Presence

how to make your college application stand out

While it would be time-consuming for admissions officers to dig deep into every prospective student’s social media activities, it is becoming more common to use social media as a recruiting tool. If a university is on the fence about whether to accept you as an applicant, posts that show questionable character and judgment are not going to look favorable.

Take the time to go through each of your social media accounts and clean up any excessive vulgarity, personal drama, and potentially offensive posts. Build your social profiles to reflect a variety of interests and world views.  Don’t forget to highlight your most positive experiences like traveling or volunteering.

8. Get to Know Everything You Can About Your School

A surprising number of incoming students know little about their school. Just as you would research a prospective employer, learning everything you can about the school you wish to attend will work in your favor. Find out about the school’s history, values, and mission statement. Know the number of students who attend and learn the names of key faculty members.

If you have a particular faculty member that interests you, there is no harm in reaching out and making contact. This way, you can engage in a little bit of name dropping when filling out your application.

Introducing yourself to your regional admissions representative can also be helpful. They may be able to offer some useful advice that will give you an edge over the competition. Stay in touch with them throughout the process using handwritten notes or friendly emails.

The same goes for the admissions office. Some colleges track each time a student contacts the college to see just how interested they are. Talking to representatives at college fairs and checking in with the admissions office are perfectly acceptable things to do, provided they don’t become excessive.

9. Apply Early and Follow the Application Instructions to the Letter

Applying in the fall for the college of your choice will put your application in front of decision-makers faster and make you stand out, so make sure you get all of your materials submitted as far in advance as possible.

Allow yourself an ample amount of time to complete your entire application and make sure you review it several times for spelling and grammatical errors. If there is a maximum word count for your short answers and essay, don’t go over it. Avoid sending any supplementary materials unless the university explicitly invites you to do so. Don’t include gifts or gimmicks.

10. Don’t Try to Over-Impress

Most people tend to exaggerate their achievements, and when it comes to your college application, it can be tempting to come across as impressive as possible. It’s only natural, especially if the competition at the college of your choice is stiff. Awards and accolades are all well and good, but honesty is something that stands out even more.

Your life experiences themselves, what you learned, and even the mistakes you have made along the way show your process of becoming an adult rather than a list of accomplishments. Writing about how you overcame personal struggles can be more beneficial to you in the long run. How your achievements have shaped you are more critical than these activities themselves.

11. Use a Little Humor

This tactic is something you should use sparingly as not everyone will share the same sense of humor as you do. However, if you are someone whose personality is prone to dry humor or sarcasm, sometimes infusing a bit of that into your writing can be helpful.

There is no rule saying that you have to write a serious answer to each writing prompt. You can answer questions in a lighthearted way to add a bit of pizzazz to an otherwise dull answer. Taking about the time you accidentally got your mother a sympathy card for her birthday or how you used salt instead of sugar when baking a cake can be entertaining and engaging.

If you are worried that your jokes aren’t funny, have other people read your statement or essay. Ask them to critique you honestly and judge their reactions. Then, fine-tune it or tone it down until you get the desired results. If you feel confident in your ability to pull it off, then go for it. Just be aware that for some people (including an admissions officer), humor is an acquired taste. When in doubt, skip it.

12. Including Supplementary Materials

how to make your college application stand out

Every college is different when it comes to supplemental materials, so be sure that you check the policies and procedures for each school you apply to. If they don’t accept them, you absolutely must not include them.

However, if your college does accept them, they can be a terrific way to demonstrate an achievement that would be impossible to do on the application. Some examples of supplemental materials include:

  • Musical scores
  • Short films
  • Art or photography portfolios
  • Academic Papers and Writing Samples
  • Audio Recordings
  • Dance Videos

Although the admissions committee generally places more importance on things like test scores and your essay, in some cases, additional materials might be helpful. Just don’t go overboard.

The guidelines will typically be listed on the website and will include acceptable file formats, how many pieces can be added, and how you should submit them. There may even be a fee involved. You won’t receive these materials back, so never send originals. If you have questions, you should speak with a college counselor who can help guide you through the process.

13. Take Advanced Placement Courses

Students usually will have their first opportunity to take AP (advanced placement) courses in their junior year of high school. AP courses can earn you credits and result in accelerated placement when you enroll in college. Because these courses are the equivalent of college-level classes, they are more demanding and rigorous than regular high school courses.

AP classes can definitely help improve your odds of a college accepting your application because they show you are ready for the pressure and challenges of college coursework. Plus, over one-third of all universities look at AP achievements when making decisions about distributing scholarships.

AP courses can also save you money since they are free to take when you are still attending high school. The additional credits can help you get a jump start on your college education and ensure that you can complete your degree in four years. This can help you avoid the financial burden of adding additional semesters once you are in college.

Don’t Bite off More Than You Can Chew

While considering AP courses, you should keep in mind that they often involve a heavy workload of reading and additional studying. Ask yourself honestly if you have the time and energy to meet this challenge. If you are already involved in many other extracurricular activities, you might have a hard time fitting in the extra work.

If, for any reason, taking an AP course will lower your overall GPA, you should avoid it. While colleges like to see students who are prepared to take on sizable challenges, strong grades are more critical.

14. Take Honors Courses

If advanced placement courses are out of the question, you can still make your college application stand out with some honors courses. These courses cover more material, are more in-depth, and typically are faster-paced than traditional high school coursework. If you have strong academic performance, your teachers and guidance counselors may have already suggested you take them. If they haven’t, let them know you are interested.

When you avail yourself of the honors program at your high school, you are sending a clear message to college application officials that you are academically inclined and serious about the educational challenges that lie ahead. Another advantage of taking honors courses is that they will prepare you further when it’s time to buckle down in college.

Like taking AP courses, honor level coursework is challenging and time-consuming, so make sure you have the schedule to accommodate the extra work. You will not do yourself any favors if you score low in honors classes, and it will appear to college placement officials that you don’t have the chops to succeed.

15. Take International Baccalaureate (IB) and College Courses

The IB program is even more rigorous than AP classes. It consists of a two-year curriculum during high school, along with six very challenging exams. Social studies, mathematics, culture, experimental sciences, language, and community building are all part of the coursework. While it is extremely demanding, it may allow you to test out in specific high school classes and even graduate early.

Offered through private schools and some public schools, the opportunity to complete the IB program is not available to everyone. The application process is different from school to school, so you should talk to your guidance counselor about how to proceed.

If the IB program is not available to you, you can also pursue college classes through a local community college or attend summer programs at a nearby university. Doing this will demonstrate to college admissions officers that you have put in the effort on your own to challenge yourself academically and it can look terrific on your application.

16. Obtain Some Solid Letters of Recommendation

Colleges will typically want to see a few letters of recommendation from those who know you well. Written by people who can accurately describe your accomplishments and skills, they can show things about your personality that other data cannot. Not only do they offer some personal opinions about your character, but they also show that someone is willing to vouch for you and believes in your reputation highly enough that they will speak on your behalf.

Request the letters several weeks in advance of your deadlines so they can be completed promptly. If you are applying under an early action plan, make sure you ask for them well before your senior year begins. Teachers have a lot of other paperwork to complete and will do a great job for you if they aren’t rushed or pressured for time.

Make sure to follow the specific instructions for each school you apply to. Some college applications ask for letters of recommendation from instructors within a particular subject. Others will want to see a letter from a school counselor. In some cases, they may want both.

Ask for Help Outside of the Classroom

You may want to solicit other adults, as well. Coaches, community or youth group leaders, employers, and other people who understand your strengths and weaknesses as well as who you are as an individual are excellent choices. Make sure that the person you ask is enthusiastic about writing a letter of recommendation for you. To avoid a weak message, ask the person first if they are comfortable writing it for you. This way, they can politely bow out if they don’t feel up to the task.

It helps a lot if you already have an established relationship with the person you are requesting a letter of recommendation from. Spend a little time with them now and again. Doing so will make it easier for them to talk about your potential and your most positive aspects.

Make sure to provide your references with instructions and pre-addressed, stamped envelopes for each of the colleges requesting the letters. Also, let them know when the deadlines are for each school. Follow up with them to make sure they have sent the letters. You may want to follow up with the admissions office as well to ensure they have been received. You have the option to waive your right to review each of the letters, which can show admissions officers they are genuine.

Making your college application stand out among scores of other applicants takes work. Keep in mind that not all students put in the extra effort to complete these additional steps. Even doing just a few things from this list will put you ahead of the game already.

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