In this article, former admissions officer and Head of Advising at CollegeAdvisor.com Lauren Lynch shares how students can showcase their unique traits and stand out during the college application process. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
If you are wondering how to stand out in the college application process, you are not alone. It’s hard to know how to distinguish yourself enough from other applicants that you might be one of the lucky few to gain acceptance to the school of your choice. Maybe you are concerned because you haven’t (yet) cured cancer. Or climbed Everest. Or won a Nobel Prize.
But maybe you are a loving big sister to an adoring little brother. Maybe you are a passionate musician who dedicates endless hours to practicing your craft. Maybe nothing makes you feel as good as a well-placed hit to drive in the winning run at a softball tournament.
Whatever you do, whoever you are, the college application process is a great opportunity for you to share your story with Admission Officers. And despite what you may fear, you do have a unique story to tell, as well as a way to connect with — and impress — the Admission Officer evaluating your application.
Who stands out in the college application process?
So what does it mean, really, to “stand out” in the world of admissions? Contrary to popular belief, it does not mean you must have achieved something remarkable or done something extraordinary. Often the most memorable candidates are, instead, the ones who have chosen to be honest, to share thoughtful experiences that may even — gasp — show the reader some weakness or vulnerability.
While every application should lack any grammar or spelling mistakes, the more human (ie: warm, kind, funny, smart, honest, imperfect) the application is, the better. Listing off accomplishments will not necessarily make a good impression, but communicating why these accomplishments matter to you likely will.
How will my application be evaluated?
In peak reading season, Admission Officers read approximately 30-40 applications a day. Applications get evaluated very quickly, and the myriad achievements of multiple applicants can start to bleed together. The holistic college review process is one that enforces the adage “more does not equal better.” Instead, the what and why aspects of the application can really set the candidate apart.
To help you identify areas that may distinguish you in the application process, I will review each component of the Common and/or Coalition Application and why every section is important.
1. Demographic Information
Why do colleges need to know about where you live, who is in your family, and what your background is? In their efforts to create an entering class of diverse individuals, it’s important that colleges learn more about you. Are you a first generation college student? Do you have six brothers? Do you speak multiple languages at home? What have your resources and opportunities been?
All of these questions (and answers) help the reader learn more about who you are, where you come from, and what distinguishes you. Share accurate and thorough information. The more the reader knows about what has shaped your formative years, the more likely you are to make an impact.
2. Grades and Testing
Yes, good grades and testing are really important. They can tell the reader about your intellectual interests, innate curiosity, aptitude for a particular subject matter, or work ethic. You can distinguish yourself by illustrating that you have taken an appropriately rigorous curriculum and have sought more academic opportunities (electives or specific tracks or programs, for example) in areas that interest you.
Testing, while important, will not compensate for a poor academic performance. Admission Officers try to see the best in each applicant, so if outside factors may have affected your academics or access to opportunities, let the reader know.
3. Activities and Awards
Describing what you do is essential in the college application process. Despite what many believe, not every student needs to do community service or be a leader in their activities. Community service is only meaningful if it’s a genuine interest of yours, and, since each college hopes to build a diverse class, they certainly do not want to only admit students who are leaders.
Far more important is the depth and passion you bring to your extracurricular activities, and why they matter to you. Another myth is that activities only “count” if they are organized and at school. You can stand out by telling your reader about your part-time job, or the fact that you look after your younger siblings after school, or that you are an avid bird-watcher who spends hours in nature. Whatever you do is a window into your life, helping the reader to get an evolved sense of who you are.
4. Letters of Recommendation
The most useful letters of recommendation will emphasize your intellectual curiosity, work ethic, classroom engagement, and attitude towards learning. Many teachers and counselors will ask students to fill out a “brag sheet” for their use in crafting letters. Sometimes this is because they teach so many students that they need a reminder of their experience with you, and sometimes it’s because they are writing robust letters of support which will include a lot of useful details. It may be hard to write in glowing terms about yourself; however, doing so will ensure detailed and useful letters of recommendation. Remember, your goal is to stand out in the admissions process. Having a third party sing your praises is a great way to do so.
5. Personal Statement
This, for many, is the hardest part of the application. Remember, though, that to distinguish yourself in the admission process means to be memorable, not perfect, or extraordinary, or groundbreaking. Choose a topic that truly reflects you. Ask yourself continually what you aim to communicate to the reader of your application. Will this topic advance their knowledge of you? What does the topic say about you, and your values, experiences, beliefs, and personality?
To really make an impact, you must ensure that your essay is a genuine reflection of you. Make sure it’s polished and perfect, but it also needs to be true to you and retain the unique qualities of your own voice. (Hint: Admission Officers will be able to tell immediately if you did not write your own essay. Don’t even try.)
The topic you choose is ultimately less important than how you communicate, as well as the detail and depth of your story. People often ask me which essays resonated most with me and what they were about. The truth is, regardless of topic, the best essays helped me feel like I was getting to know someone I would like to spend time with and could see making a positive impact on the college community. There’s no right essay to write: there’s only the story you choose to tell, why you chose it, and how you tell it.
6. School Specific Supplements
To really connect with the Admission Officer through school-specific supplements, focus on the word “specific.” Avoid descriptions and phrases that could come straight from a guide book. Instead, answer each prompt such that the reader will connect with you and imagine you on their specific campus.
Ask yourself why you are applying to a particular college, and keep that in mind while answering their essay prompts. (If you don’t know why you are applying to a particular college, that’s a whole different issue and one we can help you with!). The best responses to school-specific prompts achieve two things: 1) you are telling the reader something important about you, and 2) you are also helping the reader get a sense of how you will impact the learning and living experience of the school in question.
Working in admissions, I often reflected on the many lives I had the privilege of getting to know through reading applications. While the applicants were universally impressive, those who most stood out to me were the ones who had managed to communicate their warmth, humor, passion, caring, beliefs, or even pathos and loss, through the materials and stories they shared. Standing out in the application process is often dependent on making a connection with your reader. In order to be truly memorable, you have to be truly, genuinely, yourself.
This informational essay was written by Lauren Lynch, Head of Advising at CollegeAdvisor.com. If you want to get help writing your personal essays or with the college application process in general, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.