Making Your College Application Stand Out--Focus on What Makes You Unique

(Post also found on the Baltimore Fishbowl here: http://www.baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/making-your-college-application-stand-out/)

It used to be that GPA and SAT scores dictated where a student would be accepted into college. Now high scores and top grades only get a student considered at selective colleges and universities. The admissions office at Harvard, for one, reports that over 70 percent of its applicants are more than prepared to succeed there.

On the other hand, I have been told by admissions insiders at several large universities that applications with numbers that aren’t up to snuff are read by part-timers who only suggest a second look to admissions when other intangible aspects of an application appear especially unique and impressive. In other words, they stand out.

The take away? Academic and standardized testing records are a great resource for formulating a college list, but, aside from safety schools, they are far from a guarantee of success in admissions.  Extracurricular profile, application essays, and letters of recommendation have become the de facto means of differentiation in a pool of otherwise very similar, competitive applicants.

So, as you meet with your junior’s college counselor this spring to craft a college list, think beyond whether each school is a good fit and consider whether your son or daughter’s application will stand out among applicants at a given school. Let’s take a look at each facet of the application to give you a head start on how your college-bound student can improve his or her chances, beginning with the extracurricular profile.

There are three primary ways in which admissions officers evaluate an applicant’s extracurricular activities (ranked according to level of importance):

1. Level of commitment: How long has your student been involved? How has his or her leadership roles expanded? What has he or she accomplished?

2. Uniqueness: How different are your child’s activities than those of other Baltimore students? Is your child a trail blazer, or does he or she simply follow the crowd?

3. Ripple effects: More time devoted to extracurricular activities means less time to study. Admissions officers take this into consideration, too.

What does this mean for Baltimore students? Well, lacrosse players come a dime a dozen, so unless your child is recruited, that shouldn’t be a focal point. That goes for all sports, actually. Like it or not, sports are the most common activity and also consume the most time, which, from a college admissions perspective, would be better spent exploring passions in more unique ways.

If your student doesn’t have a list of activities that would stand out on an application, consider this summer as the perfect opportunity to try something different. The college application essay also affords applicants a unique opportunity to shine—a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. According to Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, the essay is “the one part of the application where [applicants] completely control the voice, and that makes it a really valuable document for us.” Unfortunately, relatively few application essays make a difference because they succumb to clichéd themes and insights. I remember speaking with a Vanderbilt admissions officer who said that fewer than 10 percent of essays make a positive difference; the rest remain either a neutral or negative contributor to an applicant’s chances.

In my experience helping students gain admission to the most selective colleges and universities, I’ve found that effective essays tend to fall into one of three general categories: the “overcoming a challenge” essay, the “I’m unique” essay, and the “pursuit of a passion” essay. Of course, essays that fit these categories can all go horribly wrong. The challenge essay can be whiny or culminate in a clichéd insight. The unique essay can focus on attributes that are too clearly a product of wealth. The pursuing a passion essay can lack the extracurricular experiences that make the essay’s claims compelling and credible. In short, I can’t stress enough the time and effort that need to go into writing the best essay possible.

Finally, teacher recommendations are one of the least discussed yet most important aspects of an application. I address this at length in one of my previous posts about making teachers your best advocates, but I want to emphasize how teachers are uniquely positioned to reinforce other aspects of a student’s application in a compelling way. For example, a future engineering major whose application essay focuses on the challenges of creating a robot with a team of classmates might have a physics teacher discuss the student’s insightful and enthusiastic contributions in class. In fact, the most successful applications are those whose facets build on one another to create a thematic unity.

Sound like a lot for a high school student to accomplish? Of course, it can all go away with an eight-figure donation to a beloved college or university. I’ve seen that work, too. Otherwise you might want to hire some outside help.