The University Network

How To Make Your College Application Stand Out

Each year, colleges and universities across the United States receive thousands of applications from eager young applicants, just like you. To stand out from the crowd, you need to submit an application that is strong enough to catch and sustain the attention of admissions officers. 

A strong application gives admissions officers a full glimpse into who you are, not only as a student but also as a person. When admissions officers admit you into their university, you aren’t just joining a class, you’re joining an entire community. They want to make sure you’ll be a good fit. 

For advice on how to make your application as strong as possible so that you can stand out and leave a good impression, check these following tips. 

Take demanding courses 

If you’re reading this article with a college application pulled up on the tab next to it, it’s likely too late to change your high school curriculum. But for those of you who still have some time before you start filling out applications, make sure you take classes that will challenge you. 

“By taking the most academically demanding courses you can find, you can improve both your chance of admission to a selective college and your performance during the first years of college,” Harvard explains in a guide for high school students. 

Clearly, not everyone has realistic aspirations to go to Harvard. But, the point is, admissions officers at all types of colleges and universities like to see difficult classes on applicants’ transcripts. It demonstrates ambition and capacity for college courses. 

Additionally, if you already have a clear idea of what you want to study in college, it would benefit you to take classes related to that major. If you want to major in political science, for example, take all the AP political science and history classes you can. If you score high enough on your AP exams, you might just be able to earn some college course credit. 

Keep your grades up 

Demanding courses are very important. But, if you can’t keep your grades up in those courses, you should reconsider taking them. 

“We don’t want to see a student persisting with AP courses if they’re getting Cs and C-s,” Judith Burke-Berhannan, dean of admissions at Stony Brook University, told The University Network (TUN) for a previous article

“If they’re consistently performing at an average or below average level, then potentially the choice of APs or the number of AP courses they’re taking needs to be considered and adjusted,” she added. 

If you’re a high school senior, any grade dips you may have had are already cemented in your transcript. Although there’s no changing the past, most college applications, including the Common App, have additional information sections that give you plenty of space to add any context you want to your application.

Use this space to explain the cause of your academic slippage.

Maybe a relative passed away during your junior year of high school and the grieving process took a toll on you. Maybe you were sick and had to miss an extended amount of school. Or, maybe your family was going through a tough time financially, and you had to pick up an after-school job that limited the amount of time you could spend on homework or studying.

And if there’s no justified cause for your poor grades one term, admit that you made a mistake. If your grades have since risen since they dipped, you’ve clearly learned something and grown. So, take time to explain what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown on your application. Admissions officers may consider this to be a sign of determination and ambition.

Transparency with admissions officers is key. More often than not, admissions officers are looking for reasons to admit applicants as opposed to looking for reasons not to. 

Ace your admissions test

When it comes to impacting your chances of admittance, the SAT and ACT don’t carry nearly as much weight as they used to. All across the country, institutions have phased out admissions tests requirements. There are currently more than 1,000 colleges and universities, including all of the institutions in the University of California system, with test-optional policies. 

So, you don’t need to stress. But, it would still benefit you to take an admissions test and dedicate as much time as you can towards preparing for it. That way, you can keep your options open. 

“I’m advising (my students) to try to take it one or two times before applications are due,” Joe Korfmacher, a college counselor at Collegewise told TUN. 

If you have not taken the SAT or ACT yet, the first step to maximizing your score potential is figuring out which test to take. Although the tests serve the same purpose, there are notable differences that may make you more suited to take one instead of the other. 

For example, the math section in the ACT covers a wider range of topics and focuses more on trigonometry and geometry than the SAT math section does. The SAT math section focuses more on algebra. 

And although both tests ask science-related questions, the ACT has an entire section dedicated to science, full of scientific language and terms. So if you struggle with science, it may be best to steer away from the ACT. 

To learn more about SAT prep, check here. For ACT prep, check here.

Do your research

Colleges and universities tend to differ slightly in terms of the qualifications they are looking for in applicants. So, it’s pivotal to research the application tips or information offered by each institution you’re interested in applying to. 

Many schools, such as Stanford University,  the University of Texas at Austin, Yale University, and others have blog posts written by students, alumni, or admissions officers available online. The posts often go into detail about how you can maximize your chances of being admitted. And the best part is, all this information is a quick Google search away. 

Additionally, if you’re applying to a selective institution that administers interviews as a part of the application process, you’re going to want to do extensive research on the school. 

Conduct a thorough investigation, like you’re being tested on it. Going into the interview, you should know the majors the school offers, the most storied alumni, the campus locations, and even the mascot! You get the picture.

You want to be able to provide detailed and honest answers to every question you’re asked and be able to prove to your interviewer that you’re passionate about the institution. Make the interviewer believe that this school is the only one you’re interested in.

Tell your story

Admissions officers aren’t your mother or your best friend. They only know you based on what you put in your application. So, use all of the space available to you, both in your essay and elsewhere in the application, to explain who you are, not only as a student but also as a person. 

The essay section provides you with an opportunity to describe your passions and interests, explain how you’ve overcome the challenges in your life, and relay to admissions officers what it is that drives you — what makes you tick. 

“Pick topics that will give us an idea of who you are,” Yale explains in a message to applicants.  “It doesn’t matter which topics you choose, as long as they are meaningful to you. We have read wonderful essays on common topics and weak essays on highly unusual ones. Your perspective – the lens through which you view your topic – is far more important than the specific topic itself.”

For examples of essays that work, check here.

Boost your activities list

Your grades and class choices are undoubtedly important. But, particularly if you’re applying to a selective institution, much of your competition will submit transcripts that are equally as impressive. So, along with your essay, what you do outside of the classroom is what will make you stand out from the crowded pool of applicants. 

Most applications, including the Common App, grant applicants the opportunity to list all types of activities, including arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and more. 

On your application, list every activity that has helped shape you, no matter how insignificant you might think it is. 

That after-school job at the local pizza shop, for example, has given you real professional experience and taught you how to interact with co-workers and customers in a work environment. 

And if you’re an upperclassman, know that, until you send your applications in, it’s not too late to add to your activities lists.

However, you shouldn’t do something you don’t enjoy, just because you think it will look good on your application. For the most part, colleges and universities want diverse student bodies, with ranging passions and interests. And your unique passion for dog walking or crocheting, for example, might just help you stand out more than that spot in the math club.

According to Yale, your activities outside of the classroom should “demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for what you spend your time doing. The joy you take in the pursuits that really matter to you – rather than a resume padded with a long list of activities – will strengthen your candidacy.”

Assemble a group of people who can help you 

College application season is an extremely busy time. It’s essentially like adding another class to your schedule. So, you’ll need all the help you can get. 

Lean on your parents, older siblings, and your school counselors during this busy time. Ask if they can help you keep track of your application log in information and important dates, such as application deadlines, standardized testing dates, and financial aid and scholarships deadlines. You’ll also need people to proofread your essays and other portions of your applications. 

Know when to apply

There’s often more than one way to apply to college. 

In addition to Regular Decision, which is the most common and typically requires applicants to submit their applications by January or February of their senior year, many colleges and universities — especially competitive ones — allow applicants to submit an Early Decision application by early November of their senior year. 

The benefit of applying Early Decision is that you generally will have a higher chance of being admitted. But, Early Decision application plans are binding, meaning, if you’re accepted to a college or university by way of Early Decision, you MUST attend that school and withdraw any applications sent to other colleges or universities.

Really, you should only consider applying Early Decision if you are confident in your transcript, have conducted a lot of research, thoroughly explored your college options, are positive the school you’re applying to is your first choice, and are certain you will be able to afford the tuition.

The other option you may have is Early Action. Like Early Decision, if you opt to apply Early Action you can expect to hear back from college admissions offices earlier than if you were to apply Regular Decision. However, unlike Early Decision, Early Action plans are not binding, so you can choose to keep your options open and continue to explore colleges and evaluate financial aid packages before making a final decision.

Although it varies by school, if you choose to apply Early Action, you typically have to send in your application by early November of your senior year of high school, and you can expect to hear back by early December.

The main benefit of Early Action is that you will hear back from colleges earlier. And if you’re rejected, you still have time to apply to other schools. 

You should only consider Early Action if you are 100 percent confident in your transcript and have a desire to attend the college you are applying to. 

Some students will make the mistake of applying Early Action just for the sake of putting an end to the college application process. But it is important to remember that rejection letters are irreversible, so you shouldn’t rush into the application process if you aren’t ready. 

For more detailed information about Early Decision and Early Action, check here

Obtain strong letters of recommendation

Some institutions will ask you to submit letters of recommendation as a part of the application process. Of course, you want these letters to accurately reflect you as a person and, more importantly, a qualified applicant. 

So, reach out to those who know you well — your teachers, coaches, employers or club leaders, for example. Sometimes, however, institutions will specify who they want the letters to be written by. So, you’ll want to pay close attention to that. 

If you have a couple of people in mind who you think would be a good fit to write your letters of recommendation, reach out to them months in advance. This will give them time to make an honest decision whether or not they feel comfortable recommending you, and it will give them time to write a clean, precise and well-edited letter. 

Follow the directions

Applications are designed how they are for a reason. While being unique and thinking outside the box can be a good way to stand out from a crowded pool of applicants, make sure you do so within the confines of the application directions.

When writing the essay portion, for example, try to stay around the suggested word limit. And don’t send a resume of your extracurricular activities to an institution when there is enough space to explain your extracurricular activities in the format of the application, Marcus Cooper, senior program director with College Advising Corps at Texas A&M University, told TUN for a previous article

If you must send extra, outside documents, such as additional resumes or letters of recommendation, to the college or university you are applying to, make sure you use your full name and that every document follows a similar format so that it can be sequenced to you, Cooper added. You don’t want to lose information that is important to your candidacy.

Proofread your application

It’s easy to make a couple of typos and grammatical errors in your college applications. And typically, admissions officers understand that fingers slip on the keyboard and that autocorrect can, at times, work against you.

But if there are typos and grammatical errors throughout your applications, particularly in the essay section, that doesn’t look good. So, in addition to proofreading on your own, make sure you ask a parent, sibling, or friend to look over your applications before you send them out. 

Conclusion

Filling out your applications so that you can stand out amongst other applicants is no simple task. It takes time, research, and patience. But, particularly if you’re applying to a selective institution, your efforts will be well worth it. Follow the tips in this article, and you’ll be able to put together some strong and memorable applications.