6 Ways College Applicants Can Stand Out

College counselors have long urged high school students to find and focus on their passion. But developing it to create new opportunities for yourself and others can really grab the attention of admissions officers.

For many of them, there’s a certain sameness to the applications they read, so when prospective students carve out their own opportunities, colleges notice, says Maria Laskaris, former dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College and now a senior private counselor at Top Tier Admissions, a company focused on helping applicants navigate the admissions process. “We tell students to push beyond what the school offers,” Laskaris says.

U.S. News talked to experts to find out how to make your college application stand out

Build on your academic strengths. Schools are looking for students who have not only done well but who have also challenged themselves, as they are more likely to succeed in college-level courses. Reviewers also take into account the level of rigor available at a particular school.

The key is to plan ahead and start in eighth or ninth grade to build a foundation that will open doors to advanced coursework later on. For instance, being ready to get advanced algebra out of the way sophomore year puts you on track to take calculus before earning that high school diploma, which might set you up better should you apply to a program that requires it, such as engineering.

Get a handle on the tests. Of course, colleges have long relied on standardized tests to help them differentiate between students in a way that grades alone cannot. Increasingly, applicants are choosing to take both the SAT and the ACT.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina, suggests doing just that to determine which test better suits your test-taking style. You might opt to sit for your preferred test again, but twice should be the limit, he says.

Think outside your school’s extracurriculars. No matter what your interests are, find ways to use them to make a contribution to your school or local community.

Consider recommendations carefully. The ideal scenario is when you can ask an instructor who taught you more than once – such as during freshman year and again later on – because then they can speak to your growth and how you might have overcome any particular challenges.

Do a social media check. It’s not unusual for schools to be alerted by alumni, community members or others to social media that paints a student in an unflattering light.

Show up, to the extent you’re able. Visiting the campus shows the admissions office that you’d be likely to attend if accepted. Showing up is still a great way to reveal what schools refer to as “demonstrated interest,” a factor that some 70 percent of colleges say plays at least some role in their admissions decisions, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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