How to Stand Out to Colleges
Want to stand out to colleges, enhancing your admission chances? Learn steps you can take to do just that.
Applying to college is daunting—especially if you have your sights set on one of the many schools that admit far fewer students than they reject. While nothing is ever guaranteed, careful decisions about how you spend your time inside and outside the classroom can help you put your best foot forward and show your dream college why you’d make a perfect addition to their campus community.
It goes without saying that strong grades are essential to a competitive college application. However, college admissions staff aren’t necessarily just looking for a string of As. What matters is that they see you as a student who is genuinely engaged in the academic process and who has the passion and skills to succeed at the collegiate level.
Are you applying to college with your heart set on a pre-med program or with dreams of becoming a screenwriter? Show admissions staff that you’re committed to that path by focusing on the classes that will get you there. You don’t need to be your high school’s star in every academic area—instead, challenge yourself with coursework that fuels your passion, and work hard to demonstrate that your drive matches your interest. Of course, you can’t abandon other subjects entirely, but if you’re applying to an engineering school, your grades in art are less likely to make or break your candidacy than your outcomes in calculus and physics.
Once you’ve honed in on your academic area of focus, it’s essential to show admissions committees that you aren’t afraid to push yourself. If your high school offers Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or honors courses, enroll in those subjects that align with your plans. Though they may be more difficult to ace than standard college prep courses, admissions committees often look more favorably at a B in a more challenging course than an A in a class that doesn’t require as much high-level thinking. If your school doesn’t offer advanced courses, enrolling at your local community college may also be an option. However, be careful not to overload yourself. There’s no sense risking your mental or physical health or your overall performance to squeeze in one more AP class.
To stand out to schools, it’s important that your accomplishments go beyond the classroom. Admissions committees want to see evidence that you are a well-rounded person who will contribute to their community. That doesn’t mean you need to be an Olympian or discover the cure for cancer, but it does mean that it’s important to show your commitment to your passions, whatever they may be.
How do you spend your time when you aren’t in class or doing homework? Are you part of an athletic team, a writer for the student newspaper? Whether you’re a varsity team captain or prefer to spend your time conducting independent research, admissions committees will want to hear about it.
Don’t be afraid to look outside the standard sports teams and clubs at your high school, either. If you’re a passionate home baker, a self-taught graphic designer, or a knitter, share that in your application! The most important thing is that you can share a narrative about why your hobbies matter to you and how they fit into the story of you as a person. Has playing a sport helped you develop teamwork abilities? Have you learned persistence by studying a complicated computer program? Make sure to share those experiences.
Extracurricular activities are fantastic, but for many students, paid or volunteer work is also a major part of life. You may not think your job at a grocery store or a local restaurant is impressive to colleges, but that’s far from the truth. Holding down a job demonstrates time management, interpersonal skills, and work ethic, all incredibly important qualities to colleges. The same goes for long-term volunteering. Be sure that the lessons and skills you’ve learned from holding down a job shine through in your application, and they are likely to set you apart.
One of the biggest mistakes college applicants make is failing to personalize their applications. It’s not surprising—applying to college is a lot of work, and the Common App makes it easy to send out a lot of nearly identical applications. But if you’re serious about a school, it’s absolutely essential that your interest and knowledge shine through in your application. Remember, admissions staff read dozens of applications every day, and are likely to quickly dismiss generic applications that aren’t clearly tailored toward their college.
If you’re able to visit the school, attend a virtual information session, or sign up for an interview with an alumni interviewer, that’s a great start. Even more importantly, though, you need to be able to articulate the reasons that a particular college will be the best possible fit for you. The more specific you can be here, the better! Avoid talking about a college’s prestige or ranking; those factors are superficial. Instead, focus on the details of an academic program you’re drawn to, mention the clubs and extracurriculars you’d like to get involved in, and share your impressions of the campus community. Admissions committees want to admit enthusiastic, engaged students who are likely to enroll if offered a spot, so sharing the depth of your enthusiasm is always a good idea.
Applying to college requires hard work, persistence, and sometimes, a little bit of luck. While the many factors that go into each admissions decision can seem murky to applicants, there are a number of steps that you can take to give yourself the best possible chance of success. Challenging yourself in the classroom and beyond, telling a compelling story about your activities and passions, and showing admissions committees that you have a deep interest in their school are all sound strategies for getting into the college of your dreams. Most importantly, remember to let your own unique qualities shine through in your application.
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