Your college application is the first opportunity you have to stand out to colleges and universities in a positive, memorable, and unique way, and a critical one given how many first-year applications colleges receive each year. But, really, you already knew that. The real question is, how do you stand out? Here is a list of dos and don’ts you need to ensure your college application has the best chance of landing in the accepted pile.
DO emphasize your best, most impressive qualities
Be sure to share what makes you truly unique and how you will contribute to the campus community. Look for opportunities to showcase examples of leadership, a willingness to take risks, demonstrations of initiative, social responsibility, commitment to service. You should also highlight special talents or abilities. Remember, your personal statement is not the only place to showcase these examples; your supplemental essays are as well.
DO showcase your sincere interest in the school
Your calendar may be packed, but do your best to schedule an in-person visit to your top-choice schools for an information session and campus tour (a virtual visit will work, too, but in-person is best for a variety of reasons). Demonstrations of serious interest in a school will be noted, scoring you additional “points” on your application. If you receive an opportunity for a college interview, be sure to prepare well for it. It is also a good idea to follow your top colleges on social media to familiarize yourself with the many facets of each school.
DO demonstrate that you are open to new opportunities and are willing to challenge yourself
Seek academic challenge in core subjects (history, math, English, lab science, and foreign language) and/or take courses colleges consider challenging (AP, IB, honors, and college courses at your local community college). Also, show examples of these qualities outside the classroom. For example, you can listen to podcasts on topics that interest you, watch video tutorials or attend conferences and webinars.
DO take a range of challenging classes through high school
Taking APs, honors and/or IB courses builds important skills that will shine on your application. Being successful in those classes requires strong writing skills, problem solving abilities, time management skills, discipline, and good study habits, all of which the colleges are looking for in their students. Of course, do not overwhelm yourself with more than what you can handle. Although grades are not the end-all-be-all, poor grades on these courses will work against you.
DO write sincere, specific, and well-written essays
Essays are one of the most important components of your application. It’s not just your Common App Essay that is critical, supplemental essays are also important as well as they provide colleges with additional insight into the specific qualities and experiences they want to know. Be authentic in your writing and give the readers an opportunity to get to know the real you beyond your statistics and credentials. Grab the reader from the start, focus on deeper themes, and remember to “show, don’t tell.” Make sure you take the time to write several drafts, read it aloud, and, if possible, end your essay with a “kicker.”
DO talk about a deep accomplishment in one of your extracurricular activities
Is there a hobby or activity that you have practiced for multiple years? For example, if you have been interested in creative writing since you were young, you can expand that into a strong extracurricular by taking creative writing classes, participating in an ‘open mic’ reading in your community, and developing a program or class that introduces kids to creative writing. Taking the initiative and leading a passion project speaks volumes to college admissions.
DO get a compelling letter of recommendation
Your letters of recommendation should provide key details about the relationship you have between you and the recommender while highlighting your positive attributes. It should also be written by someone familiar with your work, character, and accomplishments. So, be sure to develop relationships with potential recommenders early and avoid last-minute requests.
DO sign up for volunteering experiences with measurable impact
Motive is an important aspect of an applicant’s community service record and a solid record of volunteer service opens college doors. The admissions office gold standard for community service records is one where a student begins volunteering in middle or elementary school and settles into a pattern of service that is tied to personal skills, passions, and academic and career interests. However, if you are late to the game, don’t stress! Just be sure to sign up for volunteer opportunities that resonate with you.
DO include relevant work experience
Holding a job of almost any type emphasizes your sense of responsibility, maturity, and willingness to work for your goals. If given the opportunity, explain why you took the job and what values or skills it taught you.
DON’T try “impressing” admissions officers
The easiest way for admissions officers to get an accurate picture of you is to show your authentic self—and your authentic self is great. One of the worst things you could do is write what you think admissions committees want to read about.
DON’T lie, exaggerate or create misleading information
It’s a common trope that it’s okay to lie, or at least exaggerate a bit, on a resume, but it’s not true for resumes and it’s certainly not true for your college application. Integrity is paramount in this process. Be careful to accurately represent your weekly time commitments to leadership activities, athletics, work, and extracurriculars. Some applicants exaggerate their hourly commitment and when admissions committees calculate the total, they quickly find that the applicant is representing weekly commitments that are simply not possible. Lies and exaggerations can get your application rejected, so keep it truthful.
DON’T miss deadlines
A late application could affect when your submission is seen by admissions committees, or the school could note on your paperwork that you were late. Students who applied before you may even receive priority over you. As a result, you could lower your chances for admission, especially to your top choice schools.
DON’T make empty statements that could be said of anyone
Statements like, “I’m very passionate about attending your school” are not effective as thousands of other students feel the same way (and may say it as well). Keep the focus on you through sharing your unique experiences, qualities, and perspectives. If you really want to showcase your interest in a specific school, talk about how your values and interests align with the school and what you can contribute to the school academically and socially.
There is a lot involved in the college application process. But, remember, just as a college is trying to put together a cohesive, well-rounded, and diverse freshman class, you also want to go to a school that is the right fit for you and align with your needs. So, be yourself, be authentic, and take opportunities that let your light shine!
Master Your College Application and Succeed
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