What Makes an Applicant Stand Out?
Since long before the Common App, students have been looking to gain an edge in the college admission process. The problem is a simple case of supply and demand: each year droves of students apply for a finite number of seats at the best colleges and universities. Some get in; many more do not.
So what’s the secret? How can a student position him or herself to be one of the select few who receives a fat acceptance envelope instead of a flimsy one filled with disappointment?
It’s actually less complicated than you might think.
The Real Secret May Be That There is No Secret
Most college websites make their application process fairly transparent and straightforward. Harvard College, for example, has an entire webpage dedicated to helping applicants understand the University's admissions criteria. The page is literally titled What We Look For.
Sure, there are things like demographics that are beyond a student’s control; the reality is that cultural background, locale, native language, and family background certainly form part of an admissions decision. Most colleges make no secret of their goals of admitting a diverse student body. But let’s be honest, the ability to appeal to a college’s pursuit of diversity isn’t something a student can do much about.
However, there are plenty of ways students can make themselves stand out from the crowd, and they aren’t particularly convoluted. Using Harvard’s What We Look For page as a guide, the main areas for a college-bound applicant to focus on include:
- Growth and Potential
- Interests and Activities
- Character and Personality
- Contribution to the School Community
- These factors all essentially boil down to applicants that are balanced, driven, and poised to make a positive impact on both their communities and society at large.
Show Colleges that Your Stock Is on the Rise
Higher education is challenging academically, socially, and emotionally. Admissions offices are looking for candidates that will be equipped to handle the increased rigor and responsibility once they arrive on campus. Students that come to the table with concrete examples of how they have already pushed and challenged themselves will always get a closer look.
A successful applicant’s pre-college years should demonstrate an escalating trend of initiative, success, and growth. This can include things like rigorous high school course selections, increased responsibilities at work, or active support of a meaningful cause. Whatever the goals and motivations, a student that has some positive momentum going will be more enticing than one that has become stagnant and complacent. Demonstrating personal maturity and gumption should be a top priority.
As such, students should take advantage of the open-ended opportunities in the application process (like essays or interviews) to showcase any examples of growth they can. Schools like to see an ongoing pattern of improvement and enrichment in prospective undergraduates. Ideally, the college experience will prove to be an opportunity for an already successful student to reach even higher.
Remember: a college acceptance letter is ultimately an institution betting on your success. The hope is that, if accepted, you will eventually graduate and serve as a living, breathing advertisement for the school as a successful alumnus (and possibly make some donations to boot). Applicants must show that they are investments the institution cannot afford to miss!
A common misconception is that when colleges claim to be looking for perfect candidates, that means they are looking for perfect people. In reality, the only perfection admissions departments are looking for is a perfect match between student and school.
Teenagers make mistakes; sometimes really big ones. This is by no means a disqualification from attending a great school. Quite the contrary!
For students that have had some slip-ups along the way, expounding upon how those lapses in judgment transformed into learning experiences can demonstrate an impressive degree of maturity. An alluring, self-reflective anecdote about facing failure can go a long way in humanizing a candidate’s application.
In many cases, overcoming adversity can be more impressive than a flawless record of success. Everyone fails at some point; it’s how one faces and deals with that failure that defines his or her character. Trust that admissions officials know and appreciate this!
After all, there is an element of risk in accepting a student who has never had to face failure. Candidates that can show that they have already learned this crucial life lesson have a natural appeal over those who have never had their resiliency tested.
Extra Curriculars: Quality Over Quantity
Colleges aren’t just looking at what you do in the classroom. In many cases, what you do out in the world can be what makes or breaks your college application.
For some students, this creates a mentality that they need to stuff their schedules with as many after-school activities as possible. Being involved certainly looks better than spending free time on the couch or playing on a smartphone. However, the goal is not merely to keep busy.
There is some nuance in what the top colleges and universities are looking for in their prospective students. Things like leadership, commitment, and obligation all help paint the picture of a young adult prepared to thrive in the freedom and opportunity of college life.
For example, being involved in a bunch of social clubs isn’t as impressive as taking on a leadership role in one meaningful organization. Holding down a demoralizing minimum wage job can be more remarkable than an internship at a family law firm.
Joining, or better yet, starting an organization dedicated to a cause a student cares about is more impressive than going through the motions at every 5k, bake sale, car wash, and blood drive in a ten-mile radius.
It’s not just what a student does. It’s the commitment and purpose behind the actions that are actually more interesting.
A successful applicant’s extra-curricular resume is something that should demonstrate passions and initiative. Colleges are looking for students who will continue that type of drive in ways that will make their campus communities better.
Students that can show they have these qualities will find their ways closer to the top of the application piles. When all is said and done, pairing a well-rounded high school experience with academic success and solid SAT or ACT scores can help any student land a coveted spot in the college that is the perfect fit!
What advice do you have for students looking to put forth the best possible college application package? Share your advice and experiences with our readers in the comments below and on social media!