The college application process can be daunting for even the most prepared of students, and it has only grown more competitive. For instance, in 2016, Harvard University received more than 39,000 applications but accepted just a little more than 2,000.
Students with moderate engagement in extracurricular activities and an average GPA might worry that their application will get lost in the shuffle – and might also wonder how they can stand out.
- Determine your approach: Most students hope that their applications will stand out so that they can secure an acceptance letter to college. However, it is important to determine how you will approach your applications based on your underlying motivations and goals.
For example, Ginger Stanciel, a sophomore at Kent State University in Ohio, was passionate about fashion but felt it was crucial “to come across as a well-rounded art student.” She hoped to highlight her interests and strengths both in art and fashion and outside of it. Why? “The schools I was applying to specifically wanted well-rounded students to encourage a diverse art environment,” she said via email.
Motivations for wanting to stand out in college applications can vary by student. Katrina Wheelan, a freshman at Williams College in Massachusetts, tried her best to avoid doing anything specifically for her applications.
“I did what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do for getting into college,” she said via email. This mentality helped her focus on selecting experiences that were true to her interests and her personal and career development.
As you begin to build your college application, consider your goals and how they align with the selection criteria at your top schools. Are you hoping to demonstrate your growth from a low-C’s student to a member of the honor roll, or are you hoping to cast light on your passions? Once you outline goals and motivations, review your high school “highs,” and decide which you will highlight.
- Highlight your activities: No one activity is guaranteed to secure you a college acceptance letter. Instead, the key lies in linking your activities to your goals.
For example, Bryce Dellamano, a sophomore at Southern Illinois University— Edwardsville, let his passions speak loud and clear. “I volunteered after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays at a place called Homework Help and Hoops Tutoring. Basically, I helped tutor kids after classes on various subjects and then played games with them to reward their hard work,” he said via email. Dellamano thought this helped make his application stand out because it combined his enjoyment of sports with community service.
Sophomore at Indiana University—Bloomington Alexis Miller believes that simple participation in extracurriculars is not enough, though. “The more I poured over the many (essay) prompts, the more I realized that although the people who would be reading my essays had surely seen thousands of applications with similar activities, like National Honors Society or club volleyball, it was the unique experiences and lessons I learned that would distinguish my application,” she said via email.
Miller grounded her application with “a foundation in the connections I made with the people I was aiding.” She believes these relationships that she built during high school – both with organizations and people – made her application more personal and memorable.
Stanciel likewise devoted time and energy to extracurriculars, which included two internships and starting a ski club at her high school, and believes it is critical to learn how to properly discuss your activities on your application.
She realized this while reading the first prompts and writing her initial essays, which required a certain degree of storytelling. “One of my applications had a prompt asking about a strong childhood memory. I chose to include a memory that would touch on my strong sense of family, my love for travel and my appreciation for hard work.” Within that response, she called attention to travel experiences with her family.
Stanciel advises students to be creative and eloquent and try to “interpret these experiences, and use them to show growth and why you are a good candidate.” She encourages telling a story with your essays, “not just because it makes it more interesting and stands out for admissions officers to read, but because your life is a story.”
- Avoid overcompensating: All four of these college students agreed that it was possible for students to make their college applications stand out too much. Miller, for instance, cautioned against writing essays that aren’t genuine, like “an inflated and overly decorated essay.”
Stanciel added, “Remember that your application is supposed to be a reflection of who you are, not just a puff piece.” While an unusual experience can certainly distinguish your application, one with no connection to your academic or extracurricular interests and goals may draw the wrong kind of attention.
And be careful not to overload your application or resume. Dellamano cautioned, “It might get cluttered and/or bore the person reading it. Keep it concise and to the point.”
Finally, Wheelan offers a philosophy that she followed to build an authentic and engaging college application. “I feel like it’s cliché to say ‘be yourself,’ but the key is to live your life as if college didn’t exist,” she said.
As you begin the process of applying to college, prioritize your passions – your personality and applications will then stand out.