Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a college admissions officer. You’ve got your huge stack of college applications whittled down to just two. You have exactly one more open spot at your university. Both of these students have a 4.0 GPA. Both scored high on the SAT’s. Now what? How do you decide who gets in, and who to send the brush-off letter to?
All things considered, how do you make your college application stand out from the sea of other equally qualified applicants?
If you know what you want to study in college, make sure you’re enrolled in challenging courses that are relevant to your area of study. For example, if you want to get a degree in engineering, make sure you have plenty of advanced math classes planned for your high school career.
If you can’t swing an A in every class, especially the challenging ones, make sure to do your very best. Never fall too far behind in the learning process. If you see that you need help, speak up quickly and get whatever additional tutoring you need to keep that grade high.
If you have terrible stage fright, signing up to be in the school play probably isn’t your best bet. However, figure out what you are comfortable with, and then start joining the fun! Colleges like to see that you aren’t afraid to collaborate with others for a greater cause. Whether you join a couple of clubs at school, start a small business, play sports, or become a teenage political activist, just do something! In fact, do a few somethings! It looks good on an application, but it’s also great life experience, and a way to make lasting friendships.
You’ve probably heard that volunteering looks good on a college application, but do you know why? It’s because colleges want to see that you’re a quality person who thinks of others, not just of yourself. They imagine that once you have your degree, you’ll be willing to give back to whatever community you live in, helping that city to grow and thrive. Picking a field that relates to the major you’ve got your eye on is a bonus, but not altogether necessary.
Whether you use a good old-fashioned notebook and folder, or do something more edgy like creating a personal website, find a way to keep track of all of your accomplishments. This is where you would keep awards, certificates, newspaper articles you were featured in, letters of significance, etc. You may think you’ll remember all of your big achievements, but when it comes time to apply to college, you’ll be busy and could easily leave something important off the list.
The last thing you want is for your application to actually be one of only two or three in a stack on a college admissions director’s desk. That is when he or she could easily decide to look at your social media accounts to help make that final decision on who is best for their university. If you have vulgarity, scandalous pictures, offensive posts, or anything controversial, you may want to clean that up now so it doesn’t come back to bite you later.
Work on your letter now. See where the gaps are, and build it from there. It might help you see which areas are lacking in your life. For example, do you get fantastic grades, but nothing really interesting has ever happened to you? Maybe you need to put yourself out there more. Do you play five different sports well, but you’ve never volunteered? This could look to a stranger like you only care about yourself. Read some examples of admissions letters and start thinking about which story you’d like to tell, one that represents who you are as a person and what’s so unique about you.
If need be, take summer classes to give you an edge. Whether it’s a course you’re not very good in, and could use extra help, or just something advanced that you wouldn’t have the study time for during the school year, consider working this into your summer schedule.
Ask that person to look over what you have so far, see if anything stands out (good or bad) to them. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes on your academic and personal file can shed some much-needed light on the situation. He or she could guide you toward adding in (or subtracting) something significant that will help you stand out on your application.
If you don’t play an instrument, it might be time to consider adding this to your repertoire. I once read that some schools (including elite universities) are in dire need of certain musicians such as obo and harp players. Think about it: Most people choose something common like the clarinet or violin. But if it really does come down to you needing an edge, imagine if you said, “Hey, guess what? I play the bassoon?” Since so few students play certain instruments, colleges are intrigued when an applicant has that to offer.
Now I could have listed things like “apply early” and “take a class or two at the university you’re interested in,” but a lot of that information is readily available online. I tried to include ones you might not have thought of to get your wheels turning. It’s never too early or too late to get yourself on the right track for college!