7 Tips for Creating a Stand Out College Application

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: May 29, 2020

Creating a stand out college application is important. Colleges receive thousands of applications every year. More than 80% of colleges accept half of the students who apply. The other 20% are selective schools that struggle to differentiate between students who have outstanding grades and test scores. Therefore, selective colleges will depend on you to help them decide. You can get an edge in admissions if you spend time early on showing them how you are an authentic and unique fit.

Here’s what you can do now to ensure that by the time you apply for college, you will have a stand out application.

1. Know Your Assets.

You have to aware of how to present yourself to college admissions officers best. Beyond academic achievements, you should be able to speak and write about your involvement in school and your community, your skills, interests, and career aspirations. Spend some time discovering these things about yourself. Once you know, you can present yourself well in your resume, essays, and interviews.

stand out college application

2. Get Involved.

Get involved in a range of activities throughout high school. You will list your high school activities on your resume, as well as in the activities section of the Common App. Some activities that you could include are sports teams, school groups, paid work, volunteer projects, and home responsibilities, to name a few. In the case of extracurricular participation, quality is better than quantity. You will be a more competitive candidate if you can show how they’ve engaged in your school and community at a deep level. In other words, joining dozens of activities and lightly participating does not demonstrate leadership.

Also, your resume and activities list should show the interests and the skills you’ve developed outside of the classroom. Your extracurricular involvement shows that you will likely be an active participant in campus activities, something that is important to admissions officers.

3. Build Relationships.

Most colleges require at least two letters of recommendation. Your guidance counselor will write one. An academic teacher will write another. If a third is needed, it can be written by a second teacher, an employer or someone who knows you well. This means that the best recommender isn’t necessarily the most popular teacher. Instead, you should spend time early on in high school (or in the academic year if you’re a junior or senior) building a strong relationship with teachers and guidance counselors who can write quality recommendation letters. Recommendation letters should speak concretely about your performance, motivation, growth, and promise for college.

Also important is that you begin to build relationships with college admissions officers. As you craft a college list, starting communicating with your area admissions officer. Each time you interact with the potential college, the admission officer makes a note in your file. As the first person who will read your application, in many cases, you will want to contact this person regularly to express your excitement for the school, or to ask questions. By the fall of senior year, the regional admissions officer should know you well enough to make a strong case for acceptance to the admissions committee.

Here’s a list of what you can do to build relationships with college admissions officers:

  • Send an introduction email to admissions officers. Don’t forget to attach your resume.
  • Stay in touch with admissions officers. Try to write or call once a month until you apply.
  • Follow, like, and comment on college admissions social media pages.
  • Meet admissions officers at college fairs and school events. See below the College Recap Sheet you can download for use after a college fair.
  • Follow up with a thank you note after every interaction.

4. Find Your Best-Fit Colleges.

Taking the time to research colleges is a crucial step in the admissions process. A stand out college application shows that you know you’re a great fit. It’s tempting to get a list of colleges from friends, colleagues, and guidance counselors, and let that guide your decision process. But a college that may have worked for them or another student, may not be best for you. Also, with regards to the college application, it will be easier for you to make a case for acceptance if the school is a good match.

Questions you should ask when looking for colleges and universities include:

  • What academic programs are offered?
  • What is campus life like?
  • Does the school offer activities that I am interested in?
  • What type of environment (rural, urban, suburban)?
  • How far is too far?
  • What level of selectivity (selective, very selective, etc.)?
  • How much college tuition can my family afford?
stand out college application
College Navigator

Use sites like College Navigator with you find and research potential college matches. Start with schools you both think are interesting and dig deeper into if they are truly a good fit for your student. When you discover colleges that fit your student, visit sites like Cappex or Niche to learn more about them, as well as find similar schools of potential interest.

5. Write Your Best College Essay.

The college essay is one of the essential parts of the application. In your essay, you will share your unique story with admissions officers. Since admissions officers read hundreds of essays, you’ll want to write something that captures their attention. When written well—once only characterized by numbers and statistics—you will turn into a real human being and potential future citizen of the college. A compelling essay is authentic and reads like a memoir. Read this article to learn how to write a college essay.

As you begin writing, dig deep into who you are and who you want to become. Admissions officers love stories, for example, that illustrate your persistence, ability to solve problems, negotiate internal conflicts, and manage complex relationships. Your essay should demonstrate evolution and readiness for the next step in your life journey.

Common mistakes students make when writing college essays are:

  • Repurposing essays from social studies or English class assignments.
  • Not checking for grammatical and spelling errors before submitting it.
  • Choosing cliche topics (e.g. the trip to Spain that changed my life) or topics that do not offer any new information about the student.
  • Having adults edit the essay so much that it reads like it’s been written by a 45- year-old.

6. Apply Early.

Early admissions programs involve earlier application deadlines (e.g., November 1) than the regular admissions process. By applying early, colleges will notify you of their decision around mid- or late- December. The most attractive aspect of early admissions programs is that colleges and universities tend to admit a higher percentage of students who apply early than those who apply during the regular admissions pool.

stand out college application
Steps for Applying to College

7. Say Thank You.

As you may now know, many people are involved in helping you create a stand out college application. Your teachers who wrote recommendation letters, the admissions officers who read your application, your parents who filled out forms and funded applications and test scores being sent. Don’t forget to express gratitude to all who help you apply to college.

You can thank them by email. But the most gracious thing to do is to get a greeting card and write a special note, showing your gratitude. For admissions officers, this will be a visual reminder of your enthusiasm for the school that may help your chances.

Conclusion + Action Steps

Students commonly ask me how they can stand out in the college admissions process. Following these 7 steps will put you well on your way to creating a strong college application.

If you need more information on how to stand out in college applications, be sure to download my free Ultimate Guide to College Admissions. It’s a 33-page guide that goes into how you can create a stand out college application.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.