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How to Make Your College Applications Stand Out

How can you make your college applications rise to the top of the heap? Read on for expert advice from an admission insider that helps break the process down.

All that soul searching to find the perfect college has come down to this—your application for admission. But what actually goes into that mythical document? How do you write the application essay? Who's responsible for your standardized test scores? What do admission counselors want from you?! It's a lot to consider, but, luckily, we asked an admission insider to break it all down. Keep reading for expert advice on how to make your college applications rise to the top of the heap.

How are admission decisions made?

Before diving into your college applications, it’s good to think about how they will be used by the admission committee at the college(s) you’re considering. The college application process is largely the same as it has been for generations; there are still application forms and fees, essays to be written, and transcripts to be sent. The process for submitting applications, of course, has changed dramatically, with most of it now done online. Although, when the process is complete, students still generally receive their decision letters the old-fashioned way—that classic “fat envelope” in the mail! 

Each college has its own criteria for making admission decisions. However, all colleges look for strong students they believe will return each year, succeed in their particular environment and culture, and ultimately graduate. Though criteria vary from school to school, here’s the basic breakdown of application elements and what admission counselors are looking for:

  • Grades/GPA and rank in class. They speak for themselves. However, many high schools are choosing to no longer report rank in class; in that case, many colleges look more closely at GPA.
  • Standardized test scores. Test scores that are consistent with your high school grades, that is. A great test score won’t make up for a mediocre GPA—just like a mediocre test score won’t wipe out years of strong grades. Also, some colleges may be SAT/ACT optional. In those cases, they may request additional documentation, such as a graded writing sample, if you decide not to send your scores.
  • The application essay. Your admission essay gives admission reviewers important insights into your personality, goals, and values that no other piece of the application provides.
  • Personal meetings/interviews. Some colleges and universities require an admission interview. But even if yours don’t, they’re often valuable experiences for both the student and the admission interviewer. Again, insights are gained on both sides of the desk.
  • Letters of recommendation. These should always come from people who know you well. Your letters should provide additional information from teachers or counselors who are able to comment on your academic highlights and special achievements, as well as your character.
  • High school curriculum. Admission counselors are looking for academic rigor. Have you challenged yourself to the best of your ability, based on the classes available at your high school? Have you displayed genuine intellectual curiosity?
  • Extracurricular activities and achievements. Admission counselors are looking for quality over quantity here. Your hours of community service, special talents, leadership qualities, athletics, and other activities all enter into the admission decision.
  • Demonstrated interest. Admission counselors want to enroll students who actually want to attend their institution, and you can demonstrate that with every campus visit, admission interview, and even request for information or emailed question. (They keep track of those things!)
  • The little things. Intangibles such as timeliness and meeting deadlines, quality of the overall application (admission staff can tell if it’s a rush job), and the feeling that you really would like to attend the college are taken into account. Demographics, legacy relationships, and other factors may also be considered.

Although the academic cutoffs at certain colleges may be impossible to maneuver around, many colleges look at more than grades and test scores. They look at the whole student. They want to know about your personality, academic interests, and extracurricular passions. They’re looking for grit, curiosity, and determination. And they’re hoping their school is a good fit for you—and vice versa.  That doesn’t mean grades and test scores are not important—they are still the most important factors in the admission decision. But it does mean that there are other considerations, such as the essay and the personal meeting/interview, that might make up for weaker areas of your college application.

Get organized

The most important part of the application process may be organizing your application materials. Once you have the final list of schools to which you will apply, get your facts together. Make sure you know each school’s requirements, and don’t be afraid to call the admission office if you have a question about an application element. A few more organizational tips to keep in mind:

  • Start a college search spreadsheet tracking as much info as you can, including dates of your involvement/communication with each school (e.g., when you visited the campus, met a counselor at a college fair, had an admission interview, requested your high school transcript, sent a thank you card, etc.). This may seem like a lot of work now, but you’ll be glad you have a record—especially if the school informs you they’re missing a part of your application.
  • Always make sure you know what’s required of you, in terms of a complete application: Which standardized test scores are required? How many recommendations do you need? Etc.
  • Use a calendar to keep track of important dates and deadlines. Make sure you know the deadlines for all of your schools (you can keep track on your spreadsheet too). Then be sure to submit your app and additional materials, like test scores and transcripts, at least a week or two in advance. Submitting a little early will give you a buffer, just in case something gets lost in translation. Speaking of which…
  • Once you’ve submitted, check the status of your applications online (or via phone or email) to make sure your schools have everything.
  • Create a physical or digital folder for each school you’re applying to and keep any relevant documents in there: applications, essays, brochures, or other correspondence.


Staying organized will also ensure you submit your applications before the deadlines roll around. All of your application elements, including test scores and transcripts, should be in well before the deadline. Classes and certain programs may fill up early too—don’t be left out because of procrastination.

There are several types of application deadlines. The most common are Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action, Regular Decision, and rolling admission deadlines. Most students choose the Regular Decision deadline, which usually falls between January 1 and March 1 of the year they plan to enroll.

  • If you apply Regular Decision, you should receive a response in April. You then have until May 1 to accept or decline any offers of admission. You may also apply early, but the early admission options can get confusing, so make sure you know the differences between them.
  • Early Action deadlines generally fall between mid-October and mid-November, depending on the school. You should receive a decision in December. Early Action applications are non-binding, so you may apply to as many Early Action schools as you would like and choose among all that admit you.
  • Early Decision applications are not to be taken quite so lightly. The due dates are similar to Early Action, but Early Decision applications are binding, which means you must attend if the school admits you (and also withdraw all other applications submitted to other institutions). You should only apply to a college or university Early Decision if it is your absolute top choice. Another warning: you may be committing to the school before you receive your financial aid package.
  • Single Choice Early Action is non-binding, but if you go this route, you cannot apply to any other schools early; you can apply to other schools Regular Decision, but not Early Action or Early Decision. You are then guaranteed a prompt admission decision, and you will still have until May 1 to accept or decline.
  • Schools offering rolling admission do not have an official deadline, per se; students can submit their application materials throughout the year. Admission decisions are then normally made in just a few weeks. However, students are also accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, and positions can fill up quickly. Modified rolling admissions may include a submission deadline.

College application elements

Again, though they’ll differ for all of your schools, most colleges and universities require the application pieces below. Be sure to read the additional recommended articles for more in-depth advice.

Application basics

In addition to providing your basic identifying information—name, address, birth date, citizenship, etc.—you will also likely be asked to share your family’s college experience (like where your mom went to college and when), extracurricular activities, your high school, languages you speak fluently, and more. (College apps are typically not very short documents!) Having your own up-to-date résumé can help streamline this process, as can reviewing your applications in advance, so you’re familiar with them when you start filling them out for real. In addition to the big, bad application essay, you may also be asked some short-answer questions, perhaps discussing your contributions to an activity or why you want to go to college.

You may also find you are able to submit the Common Application for one or more of your schools. It’s accepted at nearly 700 colleges and universities, and it can definitely streamline your college application process, because you only submit it once! However, keep in mind that some schools will have their own Common App supplements, which often consist of a few short-answer questions.

Standardized test scores

Colleges use the SAT, ACT, and other standardized test scores in different ways, some in the admission process and some for placement. While the application essay is an important sample of the student’s writing ability, the SAT and ACT writing sections demonstrate other writing skills. The test sections are timed and show the student’s ability to write a cohesive, intelligent first draft. Since writing skills are crucial to succeeding in college, the writing test score is helpful in the admission process.

If you take the SAT multiple times, you may choose which score you send to your colleges and universities. However, if you do not highlight a particular score, the College Board will report all your scores to your schools. It takes the College Board five weeks to send your test scores, but you can request “rush reporting” if necessary, which takes two business days and costs extra. Keep in mind not all colleges and universities accept rush reporting.

Some schools, particularly selective institutions, also require SAT Subject Tests, which focus on specific areas like world history, literature, mathematics, and foreign languages. Colleges and universities will typically ask for two SAT Subject Tests, and you should take the test in your strongest subjects. Make sure you know which schools do and do not need to see your SAT Subject Test scores.

You may also encounter some test-optional schools, a growing list of colleges and universities that do not require standardized test scores. (For a full list, visit the National Center for Fair and Open Testing at However, these schools may still “recommend” you send in your scores or may require supplemental materials in lieu of scores.

Related: Top 3 Smart Tips for Stress-Free Test Prep

Recommendation letters

Recommendations are another facet of the college application that enable admission representatives to see the person behind the GPA and test scores. When it comes to recommendation letters, you won’t be doing the writing. However, you do need to put some time, consideration, and effort into coordinating the people who will be. You may need only one recommendation, often from your high school guidance counselor, or as many as three. Ask professors, employers, or organization leaders who know you well and can speak to your character. Even if you have access to a “notable person” (your aunt works for a state senator), you are much better off with a letter from your pastor who led your sophomore year service trip to Central America—someone who knows from experience just how great you are. (Please do not ask Mom or Dad to write a recommendation, as it may be somewhat biased! Believe it or not, this happens on occasion.) Make sure you give your recommendation writers ample time to compose their letters; a month is usually sufficient, but it’s helpful to give them a “heads up” several months in advance. And don’t forget to send them a thank-you note when all is said and done.

Application essay/personal statement

When admission staff members read your application, they’re looking for a glimpse of your personality in addition to all the facts and figures, the classes, and extracurricular activities. That’s where your essay may distinguish you from other candidates for admission—this is your opportunity to stand out among other applicants. If two students have equal GPAs and test scores, your essay can help you immensely, tipping the scales in your favor. Use the essay to explain why you think the institution is a good match for you. Or convey your views on education or careers or politics or literature. Give the application reader some insight into your life, your personality, and your values. Make sure you do not, however, hurt your application by making spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors or by failing to adhere to the given word count.

But where do you even start? First, make sure you respond to the statement given and/or answer the question that is asked. This may seem obvious, but numerous students submit misguided application essays because they fail to take the time to truly understand the prompt. And don’t forget that the essay should always be about you. If the prompt asks about “someone you admire,” your essay should not be a biography of that person, but a reflection of his or her influence on your life.

Spend time on your essay, think about what’s important to you, brainstorm ideas, and outline possible options. Have other people, including your professors, read the essay and listen to their feedback. You’ll only have a few hundred words to make a lasting impression, so choose a topic that’s specific, unique, and memorable. Above all, be genuine.

Related: How to Write a Great College Admission Essay, Step-by-Step

Extracurricular activities

Whether or not you played three varsity sports, volunteered 20 hours each week, or played Evita in the senior musical, extracurricular activities are not going to make or break your college application. That being said, they are definitely considered and help admission representatives see the student behind the test scores and course work. Again, they want to see your personality and get a feel for what’s important to you. When listing extracurricular activities, remember that it’s about quality, not quantity. Don’t stuff your application with extracurriculars you joined for a week and then abandoned. Or, if you really are a member of a dozen different clubs and committees, highlight those in which you were most involved. Leadership roles, like editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, are great, but you can also discuss projects you led or sub-committees you were a part of.

Admission interviews

As noted above, admission interviews can benefit you and your admission chances, even if your colleges do not require them. They give your admission counselor a face, voice, and personality to go with your name and application. They demonstrate a considerable amount of interest on your part, which in turn can strengthen your bid for admission as a highly motivated candidate. And you can get yet another glimpse at the inner workings of the school and the people representing it. Your conversation might shed a valuable light on school for you, whether it illuminates wonderful qualities you had yet to consider or puts into stark relief some aspects of the school you don’t really like.

RelatedThe Hardest Admission Interview Questions

Wrapping things up

Before sending in your forms, double-check the application checklist of all the necessary elements. It is your responsibility to make sure that all required documents have been submitted so a timely decision can be made. Again, you can call and ask if you have outstanding materials or check your application’s status online if you receive instructions to do so. A phone call or an email can often kick-start an overlooked item.

Take care of the things that are in your control. Make sure you read and follow the directions completely and that there are no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Check again. Save copies and mark the dates that you sent each application, fee, and supporting documents in your spreadsheet. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone, like a family member or trusted friend, review your application for errors as well.

Yes, the waiting is difficult, and sweating the details of your college applications can be frustrating, but the end result is often exhilarating. And you’ll breathe a very big sigh of relief when that big acceptance packet comes in the mail! 

Did we miss any part of the college application process? Any tips you'd like to share? Any questions you'd like to ask? Follow us on Twitter @CollegeXpress and let us know, or keep exploring our content on college applications!

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