How to Stand Out in College Applications

Tips on standing out on college applications
June 6, 2024
7 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/17/24

Looking for college application tips? Learn how to stand out in college applications as well as tips and advice from experts on how to make your college application unique here.

Your college application is an excellent opportunity to show why a school should offer you acceptance. It takes a lot of research and polishing to ensure your application makes a good impact on the admissions committee. 

Your best chance at standing out is to show the admissions team that your credentials align with their expectations and make you a good fit for their institution. Schools want to see you holistically: your academic abilities, your experiences, your short and long term goals, and overall personality.

Make sure your application is unique; it’s a sure-fire way to stand out amongst other applicants. Here are some tips on applying for college and on how to make your application shine to boost your chances of getting into college.

How to Stand Out in Your College Application: 15 Expert Tips

This list will give you various ideas for making your college application stand out to your dream schools. We delve into what looks good on college applications and offer examples of what makes a good impression and conversely, what does not. 

1. Choose Your High School Classes Appropriately

It may feel like typical advice, but taking the right courses to help ease you into your college program is a necessary step to college admissions. Colleges want to see the classes you take as well as your academic standing in each. Your grades are one of the most crucial considerations in admissions decisions. 

Going into your senior year, you should have an idea of what you want to study in college so your courses can coincide with that program. For example, if you wish to get into the medical field, consider taking biology and an advanced science and mathematics course. You may even choose to take summer courses in order to get more experience.

2. Earn Good Grades

Good grades are one of the top criteria to meet when college admissions review your applications. After selecting your courses, it is paramount to get the highest grades you can. That does not mean you have to overwork yourself to get straight A’s, but you should do your best, study hard, and look for help in areas you are struggling in. 

Doing your best in each class means taking advantage of all the resources available to you. Develop better studying, reading, and academic skills and try to style a strategy that best suits you. This will also help you once you reach college as well; note-taking, memorizing material, and reading are crucial when it comes to excelling in post-secondary institutions. 

3. Use Your Personal Statement to Tell Your Story 

One of our top college application tips is to focus on your personal statement. Imagine your life as a book and getting into college is your next chapter. All your life experiences, good or bad, have shaped you into the person you are now, and you can use them to write the personal statement on your college applications. 

College admissions committees want to know what makes you tick, how you evolved as a person in high school, and what you hope to achieve in the future. Telling the story of who you are in relation to why you want to go to college looks excellent on college applications.

In your personal statement, admissions officers appreciate reading about your life and how certain experiences have affected you. You could talk about an unlikely friendship that left a lasting impact on you, a situation where you had to take charge, or your first time playing a sport, going on a trip, or learning a new skill. 

The possibilities are endless; these slice-of-life moments reveal the type of person you are and have a more positive reception than a formal, impersonal essay.

    4. Participate in Extracurricular Activities

    Extracurricular activities are one of the extra special things that look great on college applications. They are not only fulfilling, they can also strengthen your chances of getting into your dream school. Colleges believe that participating in clubs, sports, or any extracurricular activity shows that you have creativity, innovation, leadership skills, and independent thought. 

    Be sure you are doing activities you like, not just picking what you think would look good on your application. Devote your time and energy to your talents and hobbies. Whether it be cooking or soccer, dancing or acting, volunteering at your local church, library, or medical clinic, participate in activities that make you proud.

      5. Volunteer

      Volunteering shows your willingness to help those in need and contribute to the greater good. Colleges see community service as responsible and generally positive; they can see how your service aligns with the campus culture. However, avoid volunteering just to fill a requirement; engage in long-term opportunities that you feel passionate about. 

      Many opportunities are made available to you, from local ones, such as a pet shelter or hospital, or more wide-scale charities, such as Habitat for Humanity or Red Cross.

      6. Focus On Your Standardized Tests

      Your SAT and/or ACT scores play a central role in the review of your application. Make sure to allow yourself plenty of time to prepare for the SAT or ACT and enough time to retake your test if necessary.

      7. Manage Your Social Media Presence

      Some college admissions officers look at social media profiles when recruiting students. Social media offers additional insights into your life: your opinions, extracurricular activities, beliefs, and more. 

      Your posts reflect your characteristics, so make sure to monitor your social media accounts for inappropriate posts or vulgar content. Try highlighting your most positive experiences, like traveling or volunteering.

      8. Learn as Much About Your School as You Can

      Just as you would research a possible employer, do a background check on your target school to learn about its history, values, and culture. You can chat with faculty members or admissions representatives and get to know more about the campus to see if it would be a good fit for you. 

      They can also provide more information or useful advice about the school. Some schools will track a student’s communication with the school to see how interested they are in the program. It would not hurt to attend the school’s luncheons, college fairs, or other public events. 

        9. Write Thoughtful, Well-Written, Captivating Essays

        Whether it is an essay or a personal statement, students often undermine the importance of their application writings. Your personal statements and essays are a chance for you to stand out. Essays humanize your application and put a face to the GPA, test scores, and activities. The best college admissions essays are captivating, engaging, and creative. 

           10. Get Optimal Letters of Recommendation

          Having strong letters of recommendation help boost your application by showing the admissions committee another person’s perspective of you. Letters of recommendation are meant to illustrate your skills, accomplishments, and personality in a way that grades and test scores cannot. 

          Colleges value these because they get to see other people’s interpretation of you as a person. It would help if you talked with teachers whose classes you have excelled in. The list does not stop there; you can ask tutors, job supervisors, or other authority figures you have worked with in a professional or academic setting.

          11. Have a Top-Notch Portfolio

          This is more tailored to those interested in majoring in arts or literature programs, but it can be applicable to anyone, regardless of their program of choice. Usually, you would be required to provide a portfolio of your work for review. That means a collection of your best work on the subject. 

          Be sure to include the works you enjoyed creating and the ones where you put your heart in, not just your highest-graded pieces. Including pieces that received gratifications or rewards are especially a great addition. Follow each schools’ requirements; if they request ten pieces, make sure it is your top ten pieces of your portfolio.

          12. Showcase Your Awards

          In a college application, there are usually two places you can mention your awards; the honors subsection or the activities section. You can mention achievements that are not directly related to academia, for example, being vice president of a club, or participating in your neighborhood's local election. 

          If you won an award at summer camp, that would be under your activities section. You can also list any annual awards that your school gives out, academic (like winning the spelling bee) or non-academic (voted best hockey player on the team).

          13. List Relevant Work Experience

          It is not usually required, but if you have worked part-time during high school, you can add your employment history to your applications, especially if the relevant job or internship correlates to what you wish to study in college. 

          Adding your employment is beneficial to your application because it shows maturity, responsibility, work ethic, and strength. These are qualities that are ideal for college admissions. If permitted, you can give a brief description of the job, why you took it, and what skills you learned from that job.

          14. Go the Extra Mile

          Here is an opportunity to show your sense of motivation for colleges. Please take advantage of option steps or resources that colleges provide; it tells them that you are willing to go above and beyond to provide them with additional information. 

          You should always give supplemental information to colleges if the option calls for it; if they want an optional interview, do it. If there is a special luncheon for prospective students, attend it. The more involved you get, the better. 

          15. Challenge Yourself Academically

          Your college application should illustrate the best version of yourself. Admissions committees evaluate your readiness for college and your ability for academic success. Applications should show achievements, merit, and previous accomplishments. 

          If possible, take A.P. or honors classes to give yourself an advantage on your application. A B+ in an honors program looks more favorable than an A+ in standard high school courses. Some of your local community colleges may offer courses for high school seniors in which they will receive college credit, which also looks impressive on college applications.

            FAQs: How to Stand Out in College Applications

            Have some more questions? That is normal. Refer to the FAQs about applying to college, the applications, and other common concerns.

            1. How Do I Know My Application Is Unique Enough?

            If you have concerns about your application, you can always request help from your high school advisors or even past college students to help you create proper college applications.

            2. I’m Not Sure How to Organize My Application. Where Can I Find Help?

            There are local workshops around your high school, community centers, or in your area that can offer college application how-tos for high school seniors. You can also ask your high school faculty to help or direct you to the correct services.

            3. Is It Okay to Take an Extra Year of High School if My Grades Are Not Good Enough?

            Of course! It is better to take an extra year of high school to work on your grades if you feel it is necessary. You have to make sure to earn your high school diploma.

            4. Does Paid Work Look Good on an Application?

            Yes, as it does showcase your hard work. Commitment to employment displays an incredible amount of dedication as compared to your other peers.

            5. How Do I Know Which Colleges to Apply To?

            If you are not sure even which colleges to choose from, it always helps to ask yourself these questions in order to research schools before you make your dream list:

            • Do you want to go to a big college or a small one?
            • Would you like to live in a different climate, location, city, town?
            • Are you willing to live on campus or commute?
            • What is important to you in a college: school spirit, school clubs, best programs

            6. How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

            There is no set answer to this question; the range is usually from four to ten. Try aiming for six schools, but do not apply to so many out of fear of being rejected by your top choice.

            You can categorize each school by desire: your top choice, your second choice, and your last choice—research on each school’s criteria, like SAT or ACT scores, GPA, and acceptance rate. In the end, compare and see which schools you have the best chance in, a good chance in, and unlikely. Do the order of elimination until you get to about six choices left.

            7. Should I Apply Early?

            Yes, you can if you feel prepared enough. Colleges tend to have three major admission categories: Early Decision, Early Action, and Restricted Early Action.

            Early Decision is the early round of application. Getting accepted Early Decision means you must enroll at the school that chose you, so make sure the school you apply to through E.D. is your top and only choice.

            Early Action is the non-binding round of application. You can apply to E.A. to multiple schools, and you will not be required to attend once accepted. If you are applying with Early Decision, you must withdraw any Early Action applications.

            Restricted Early Action is a binding round of application, and like E.A., you must attend if accepted. The difference is that with REA, you cannot apply in early rounds to any other schools. 

            Some colleges have different variations of these categories, be sure to do a background check on them and read their admission rules thoroughly on their website. 

            8. What do College Admissions Committees Look for in its Applicants?

            Colleges look for students who are motivated, committed, and interested in their school. Before applying for college you should build up your applicant profile by doing extracurriculars you enjoy, do plenty of college research, and practice writing your essays/interviewing. Good grades are also a key aspect of demonstrating your level of commitment to academia. 

            9. What is the Most Important Thing for a College Application?

            College admissions committees typically take a holistic approach to admissions and consider all of your submitted materials when making their decisions. Grades carry a lot of weight, but things like your essays, your interview, and your overall ability to demonstrate why you’d be a good fit for the school all play a part in the final admissions process.

            10. Do Sports Look Good on College Applications?

            Sports look good on a college application because they demonstrate teamwork, leadership, and your ability to create a balance between school and your other interests. However, you should only do sports if you are interested in them. Avoid picking something up because you think it’s what colleges want to see, staying true to who you are is the best course of action.

            Final Thoughts

            There is no one-size-fits-all tool to create the perfect college application. However, sorting, planning, and organizing your application, as well as researching your dream colleges, will help you get into your target schools. These 15 tips are here to help you make the best version of yourself to colleges.

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