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3 Smart Steps to Creating a College Application Strategy

The best way to complete your college applications is by having an application strategy. Here are three key steps to understanding and building your game plan.

Have you ever forgotten something? A fact for a test? A password? A doctor's appointment? Well, it happens. I once had a student mention an interesting research project he did after he was deferred from an Early Decision college. He forgot to mention it on his applications. Luckily, this story has a happy ending. The student emailed the school and elaborated on his summer experience, and he’s now a graduate of Pomona College. So, things worked out, but it made me wonder: How can I make sure this doesn't happen to students in the future? Now when I work with students, whether it be one-on-one or through an online course, I make sure they’re aware of all the steps and possible opportunities so they have a strategic plan when applying to colleges. Let's go through each step of developing a college application strategy so that you can put your best foot forward!

Step 1: Know your opportunities 

Identify all the opportunities you have to present yourself on your college applications. These include:

Now that you’re aware of all the opportunities to showcase yourself and your abilities, let's break down each piece of the college application. 

Related: How to Build the Perfect College Application

Transcripts and academic profile

Your high school transcript is the most important piece of your college application. It reflects your academic abilities, work ethic, and more. However, colleges are looking at more than your GPA and class rank. When reviewing your transcript, colleges will also consider how challenging the curriculum or the number of AP, IB, college-level, or honors courses you took. Colleges will know how many challenging courses are available to you through your high school profile, including information regarding your high school's academic environment. Admission officers will also use the information provided in your teacher recommendations to complete their analysis of your academic profile.

Standardized testing

The use and analysis of standardized test scores vary significantly in the world of college admission, especially right now during COVID-19. Most colleges will report their SAT or ACT scores as the "middle 50%," meaning if their average ACT score is 25­–32, 25% of admitted students scored below a 25, and 25% scored above a 32. However, if you’re applying to a test-optional school, the college may place more emphasis on your transcript. This is also true if a college decides they’re no longer considering test scores in their process (aka test-blind or test-free).

Letters of recommendation

Most colleges will require a letter of recommendation from your school counselor to understand how you contributed to your high school community. Your counselor may ask you to complete a questionnaire about your interests, achievements, etc. to help the process. You must also identify and build relationships with teachers who can speak to your intellectual curiosity and your performance in the classroom beyond completing assignments promptly. Lastly, you can also submit an additional letter of recommendation from someone else in your high school or community who knows you well (e.g., a coach, club advisor, clergy member, work or volunteer supervisor, etc.).

Related: The Top 5 Do's and Don'ts for Letters of Recommendation 

Extracurricular activities

For your activities, admission officers are looking for students who are committed to their interests. They used to want to see "well-rounded" students who participated in everything. Now, they want to see students focusing on one or two interests they’re really passionate about and pursuing those interests on a deeper level. This is an excellent way to show colleges how you have contributed to your high school or local community and what you can do when you’re driven to succeed.

Admission and supplemental essays

Your essays are perhaps the piece of your application where you have the most control. It allows colleges to see a side of you that may not come through on your transcript or in your letters of recommendation. Many students feel that their personal statement essay has to be "different" to stand out, but it’s more important that it's well written and authentic to you. Take the time to examine something personal, something you’re passionate about, to truly create a well-written piece.

Many colleges also require supplemental essays, which are often shorter than your main personal statement and are your opportunity to either show a college why you’re interested in attending or answering a particular question the college has posed to you. Supplemental essays can also be an opportunity to demonstrate your creativity or academic interests. Additionally, most colleges currently have a place in your application to provide information about how COVID-19 affected you or your family. This is an opportunity for you to provide the context of any pandemic-related challenges you’ve faced.

Additional information and demonstrated interest

Similar to the COVID-19 prompt, the additional information section of your application is where you can provide context regarding any other issues or challenges you’ve faced. This section is often used to explain low grades or why you didn’t continue with a sport. And while most colleges may not admit it, they want students they think will enroll. Some colleges don’t consider demonstrated interest, but many do. You can show colleges you’re interested by contacting the admission officer responsible for reviewing applications for your desired program. If you can’t visit the college, sign up for virtual presentations and online campus tours. Completing admissions interviews (if offered) is another way to show colleges you’re a real, interested human being. 

Related: How to Use Demonstrated Interest to Your Benefit

Step 2: List the details

Brainstorm everything you want to include in your college applications. This list can include but isn’t limited to:

  • Accolades from coaches, mentors, or teachers
  • Activities
  • Academic and research interests
  • Career interests
  • Personal characteristics
  • Values and beliefs
  • Interesting experiences
  • Job shadowing or internship experiences
  • Passions you can do for hours
  • Challenges or hardships
  • Family responsibilities
  • Goals, dreams, and aspirations
  • What's important to you?
  • How you've contributed to your high school or local community
  • What legacy will you leave behind at your high school?

Step 3: Plan and develop your completion strategy

Finally, identify where these details will be in your college applications and develop a strategy. You should map out the details of all your other application pieces before you complete your essays to help you find where the gaps are in your application and what you can focus on. For example, identify which personal characteristics will be highlighted in your teacher recommendations. Go through each item on the list and determine where it will be showcased on your application. Is there one you can't place? That should probably be the topic of your essay. 

Related: The 5 R’s of College Applications

This year, the details of your college applications are more critical than ever. Many students may not have an ACT or SAT score. Others are unhappy with their junior year grades since most of last year was hybrid or online. Showcasing all the other details about you in your college applications will show admission offices how amazing you are, even if you don't have all the typical application pieces. 

Hopefully these steps help you with your applications! But make sure you do these 11 Steps to Finalizing and Submitting Your College Apps before they’re out of your hands.

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