7 Tips to a Stand Out College Application

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: April 7, 2022

Competition for seats in the country’s most selective colleges is more fierce than ever. In last year’s admissions season, colleges like Harvard, Brown, and Yale saw record applicants. The Common App, used by over 900 member institutions, received over 6 million first-year applications, an 11% increase from the previous year. Stanford had the lowest acceptance rate at 3.9%. Even state schools that in years past–students considered safeties–were also competitive. In New York: Binghamton University, the top public state school in the northeast, had a 40.5% acceptance rate. With these stats, how will y you go about making sure to create a stand out college application?

As scary as these statistics may seem, don’t worry. There are still plenty of colleges that admit half of the students who apply. But if you’re looking to attend a selective college, you’ll need to start preparing to make a stand out college application. There’s a college for everyone, and a wise student once said, “If I apply to at least 15 schools, I’m sure to get into at least one.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but I loved her positive thinking. I feel strongly that if you put positive vibes into the universe, it’ll get you half of the way to an acceptance letter. However, no amount of positive thinking beats action. You’ll need colleges to see your value, and there are things you can do to prepare for college applications. Avoid waiting until senior year. That’s too late. 

If you’re unsure what to do, we’re here to help. Keep reading this post to learn how to get an edge in admissions by creating a stand out college application.

girl stand out college application

Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

Know Your Value

One of the best ways to stand out to colleges and universities is to showcase your unique strengths and passions. This can include highlighting your extracurricular activities, volunteer work, or any special talents or skills you have developed. Admissions officers are looking for well-rounded students who will contribute to their campus community, so make sure to emphasize what makes you unique and how you can add value to the school. Additionally, consider pursuing leadership roles in your extracurricular activities or starting your own project or initiative to demonstrate your initiative and drive.

Get to know yourself and how to best present yourself to college admissions officers. For your application to be authentic, show that you know who you are and your value to colleges. Spend time getting to know your academic interest, what subjects you enjoy, career paths you’re interested in following. Beyond academics, you want to get involved in projects at school and find opportunities outside of school to explore your interests and new ideas. High school is a great time to discover things about yourself that colleges will value. Once you uncover these gems, you’ll be able to stand out in college applications, essays, and interviews.

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Grades Are Important

Grades are the most important factor in the admissions decision. While there’s no doubt that you are more than a score, and many colleges adopt holistic admissions, grades are still the number one data point they will use to assess if you’re prepared for college. As you plan your high school curriculum, keep in mind various points to ensure you get the highest GPA possible and make a stand out college application.

Choose the Right Classes

The average high school unweighted GPA is 3.15. If you achieve this average, you will likely have no problem getting admitted into most schools in the United States. For more selective colleges, you will need above an unweighted 3.7 GPA for your best chances. With that in mind, choose classes where you challenge yourself but still get good grades. Don’t load up on Advanced Placement and Honors classes, only to barely make it through with Bs. On the flip side, if you’re capable of taking Advanced Placement, Honors, and IB classes,  your GPA will increase if your school weights GPAs. 

Learn to Study

Good grades come with hard work. In the age of social media, it’s easy to become distracted. Reported on CNN, teens are spending more than 7 hours a day on social media. If you are glued to your phone, you won’t have much time for studying. It’s hard to be may, so you’ll need to get good at studying for exams!

How to study. First, make sure you take notes during class lectures. The Cornell Note Taking system is an excellent format to follow. Next, go through your textbook to fill in concept “holes” or places where you can build on definitions with examples. When you’re done skimming or reading the chapter, answer the reviews questions on the last page of each chapter using your notes. If for math class, solve the problems and check the answer with your teacher. Before tests and quizzes, make a quick study guide for each chapter from your notes to review each week. When you follow these steps, in addition to your regular homework, you’ll know how to study and will master course concepts quickly.

teens studying stand out college application

In 2022-2023 admissions cycle, more than 1,900 had test optional policies.

Take Standardized Tests

Since the pandemic, most schools have adopted test-optional policies. In the 2022-2023 school year, Fairtest.org reported over 1,900 colleges had test optional policies for the 2022-2023 fall admissions cycle. This trend is not going away and is important to understand to succeed in making a stand out college application.

>More: Applying Test Optional? Pros and Cons.

Test optional admissions policies have their merits. Many students can apply to colleges they never thought they’d have a shot at without worrying if their scores are high enough.

But are students really getting admitted to top test optional colleges?

According to a Washington Post article, data shows otherwise. In 2020, applications to top schools reached record heights, yet admit rates plummeted. The students who benefited from test optional policies are test optional schools targeting students representing underrepresented groups at the college or geographic regions, a small subset of the college-going population.

Therefore, standardized test scores matter. You should plan to take standardized exams and prepare early. Take your school’s PSAT. Take a practice SAT. Many local libraries offer low-cost test preparation classes or look for the best options in your community. Also, use resources like Khan Academy to learn strategies to help you do your best on the SAT or ACT exam. For all schools you apply to, even test optional schools, ideally, you want your SAT or ACT scores to fall in the middle 50% range of last year’s incoming first-year class for the best chances.

Test Optional Colleges for the 2022-2023 Academic Year:

Amherst College

Adelphi University 

Babson College

Barnard College

Baylor University 

Boston University

Bucknell University

California State University System 

Case Western Reserve University

Colgate University 

College of Charleston 

College of William and Mary 

Davidson College 

Drexel University

Elon University 

Hamilton College

Haverford College

Indiana University – Bloomington

Oberlin College and Conservatory 

Oglethorpe University 

Middlebury College

The University of Notre Dame

Pepperdine University

Penn State University

Rhodes College 

Rhode Island School of Design

St. Louis University 

Stanford University

Trinity University 

Tufts University 

Tulane University 

The University of California System 

University of Connecticut 

University of Maryland

University of Southern California

Vassar College

University of Vermont 

University of Virginia 

University of Wisconsin-Madison 

Williams College 


Test Optional Colleges for the Foreseeable Future:

American University 

Bard College 

Bates College

Bennington College 

Bowdoin College 

Brandeis University

Bryn Mawr College 

Bucknell University 

Clark University 

Colby College 

Colorado College 

Connecticut College 

Denison University

Dickinson College 

Earlham College 

Franklin and Marshall College 

Furman University

George Washington University

Gettysburg College 

Hobart and William Smith Colleges 

Knox College 

Lawrence University

Lewis and Clark College 

Macalester College

Mount Holyoke College 

Muhlenberg College 

Pitzer College 

Sarah Lawrence College 

Scripps College

Skidmore College 

Smith College 

Trinity College 

Union College 

University of Chicago 

University of Delaware 

University of Puget Sound

University of Rochester 

University of San Diego

University of Washington

Wake Forest University

Wesleyan University 

Wheaton College 

Whitman College 

Willamette University

teens playing sports stand out in college application

Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities

Colleges are concerned about more than academics when they build an incoming class. They want to create vibrant, happy campuses where students are happy, involved, and contribute to goals to build community. No evidence is better at supporting your ability to participate than your extracurricular activities in high school. 

Find things you enjoy at your school such as sports, language clubs, National Honor Society, art, music, school spirit, to name a few. But don’t stop there, or it will be hard to differentiate yourself from your peers when creating a stand out college application. The best activities are those outside of what your school offers, like NHS, French club, and key club. Seek out volunteer projects in your local community. If there aren’t any that interest you, start your own based on what bothers you.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Walk dogs for your neighbors
  2. Deliver groceries to elderly neighbors
  3. Serve food at a local soup kitchen
  4. Distribute food at a food pantry
  5. Write letters to elderly nursing home residents
  6. Tutor school children in math
  7. Read books to preschool kids
  8. Babysit for family and neighbors
  9. Fundraise for a local church or nonprofit
  10. Send holiday cards to active duty military personnel
  11. Sell old clothes on Poshmark and donate proceeds to a cause
  12. Volunteer at a local hospital, library, or nonprofit
  13. Teach kids in underserved communities a sport
teen social media

Check Your Social Media Profiles

According to a survey by Kaplan Test Prep company of around 300 college admissions officers, 33% said they Googled candidates and visited their social media pages to learn more about the student. In other words, you can expect some of your colleges to Google you. If you’re on Instagram or Facebook, these will be the first to show up. So this is not to scare you, but to say that may it’s time to clean up your feed, so the person you’re portraying on your college application is consistent with who you’re really like in real life. Instagram and other social media accounts are a good benchmark for that.

In a recent interview, I asked social media expert Jamie Schaer of Hype Girl Marketing if students should keep their Instagram accounts private. She said:

“It all depends on what’s on your Instagram account. If there’s a lot on there you’d be embarrassed by, then you should make it private, so they can’t see it. However, I highly recommend they clean up their profiles and be mindful of what they’re posting because a college-curated profile can be impressive and improve their chances of getting admitted into college. Also, Instagram is a great place to connect with colleges proactively. And if you send college admissions a DM, they’re going to look at your profile.”

Teen girl at computer

Do Your College Research

Applying to colleges that fit you best, where you have the best chances. It is tempting to apply to the same colleges as your friends, but that’s a bad idea. What works for them may not work for you. You’re a unique person. Do the work to find schools for you, and it will be a lot easier to make a case for acceptance of the school is a good match.

Ask the Right Questions

Questions to ask when researching colleges :

  • What majors are offered?
  • What are class sizes like?
  • Can I change my major?
  • Can I study abroad?
  • What’s the school calendar?
  • What is the weather like?
  • What activities are offered?
  • What are the Covid-19 policies?
  • Where can I live on campus?
  • Can I Keep a car on campus?
  • Is the campus safe?
  • What GPA do I need to get in?
  • Is the school test-optional?
  • How far from my home
  • How much does it cost?
  • Is the college affordable?
  • What are the costs?
  • What’s the alumni network like?
  • Do students look happy?

College Websites

You can answer some questions by visiting the college’s website. Answer other questions using third-party sites like cappex.com or niche.com. Last year, I had a student avoid college websites altogether and only used YouTube videos from currently enrolled students to decide. When I pushed back, she walked through her process, and by the end, I was impressed that she had found a way to learn about schools. What you choose is up to you. Just spend time as much time learning about colleges as you can.

College Visits

College visits are critical in putting you on campus and seeing if you can imagine yourself there. Being in-person, you can walk around and feel the environment, audit classes, eat at the dining hall, and speak with current students and faculty. The college visit is a meaningful way to eliminate schools that are a bad match for you. The college visit also confirms the colleges you like best. Colleges also value the college visit as a way to tell who’s truly serious about attending since many are worried about yield.

If you cannot visit the campus, a virtual visit is your next best option. Read this post about How to Nail a Virtual College Fair, where you can meet many college representatives from the comfort of your home.

Getting to Know College Admissions Officers

Reach out to admissions officers. You should also build a relationship with the admissions officers at your top three prospective colleges. Start by reaching out to introduce yourself and provide a copy of your resume. The admissions officer is someone who will read your application and ideally make a case for why you should be admitted to the admissions committee. You will want them to know who you are before you apply. 

Here’s how to build a relationship with your admissions officer:

  • Send an introductory email. Attach your resume and reference any upcoming college visits
  • Stay in touch with your admissions officer and ask good questions. Try to write or call once a month until you apply.
  • Interact with the college’s social media channels.
  • Meet with the admissions officer at college fairs and events hosted by your high school or in your local community.
  • Follow up each interaction with your admissions officer with a Thank You note.

Craft a Stand Out College Application

A great college application is one that presents your academic and extracurricular records and captures your fit for the school. You will want your application to feature these key parts:

  • Clear theme and value proposition. In other words, who you are and what you have to offer the institution.
  • Details about your lived experience and how it has informed the person you are today.
  • Your goals for the future and how the college fits into your journey.
  • Who’s part of your community, the people who can vouch for everything you put into your application.
  • The data behind the story to support your readiness for the college education offered by the colleges to which you seek a spot.
The parts of your stand out college application are integrated into the written pieces of your application: application form, activities statements, recommendations, and college essays.
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Write a Good College Essay

The college essay is your chance to share your unique story with admissions officers. Since admissions officers read hundreds of student college essays, you’ll want to write something that captures their attention. When written well—once only characterized by numbers and statistics—a great college essay can show your potential as a student on their college campus next fall. 

Writing a great college essay. A great college essay is genuine, heartfelt, and reads like a memoir. Dig deep into who you are and who you want to become as you begin writing. 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 growth and how you are ready for the next journey in your life.

Common mistakes students make when writing college essays are:

  • Reusing essays from social studies or English class assignments.
  • Forgetting to check for grammatical and spelling errors.
  • Choosing cliche topics to write about, like the trip to Spain that changed my life or the time I failed my calculus test
  • Overly edited essay by an adult with years of life experience
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Get Great Recommendation Letters

Most colleges require at least two college recommendation letters. Your school counselor will write one, and an academic teacher will write another. If you need a third college recommendation letter, then a second teacher, coach, employer, volunteer coordinator, or someone who knows you can write it for you. Remember that the best recommendations are from someone who knows you well, not the person who writes the best. Don’t automatically default to English teachers. The most popular teacher is also someone to avoid. You’re competing with students at your high school, and that teacher may not write the best college recommendation letter among your peers. Think of it as an Amazon review. If you have Product A and Product B. Produce B, have a less good review, which one are you likely to go with? The same is true for colleges. If your peer gets a better recommendation letter from the same teacher, this can negatively impact your college application.

So be smart with who you ask to write your college recommendation letter. Spend time early in high school (or in the academic year if you’re a junior or senior in high school) building a strong relationship with teachers and guidance counselors who can write quality recommendation letters. The best college recommendation letter will speak about your academic performance, motivation, growth, and promise for college.

As you may now know, many people are involved in helping you create a stand out college application–the teachers who wrote recommendation letters, the admissions officers who read your application, your parents who fill out financial aid applications. Be sure to send a Thank You card to express gratitude to all who help you apply and make a stand out college application.

Apply Early

While it is unclear if colleges and universities tend to admit more students who apply early than those who apply during the regular admissions pool — applying early has other advantages. If you apply early, you can hear back a decision sooner. Months sooner. Early admissions processes have earlier deadlines, ranging from October 15 to December 1, and can return a decision in as little as six weeks.

In the 2021-2022 school year, Tulane University released decisions in three weeks. I was so confused when a student texted me: ROLL WAVE!!! Thank you so much for everything.” I consulted Google and found out she was right. Decisions had been released, and she was lucky that she only had to wait three weeks to get the good news.

Conclusion + Next Steps

After reading this post, you know how to stand out in college applications. In summary, you will:

  • Get to know yourself
  • Make mostly As in your high school classes
  • Weigh the pros and cons of test optional schools
  • Get involved in extracurricular activities
  • Maintain a squeaky clean social media account
  • Research the best schools to apply to
  • Get great college recommendation letters
  • Write a great college essay
  • Submit a well-crafted and thoughtful application, void of grammatical errors

Follow these steps and you will have no problem getting admitted into some great college choices. Be sure to download our 33-page guide that details further how to create a stand out college application. 

>>Download: Guide to Get Accepted into College

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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.