Originally Posted: Jun 19, 2019
Last Updated: May 28, 2020
No one wants to be just another piece of paper when it comes to the college application process—but unless you're partaking in college interviews, it's easy to succumb to that. There are plenty of articles on how to make your college essay stand out with original language and powerful stories, but how do you make the rest of your application pop too? After all, if writing isn’t your strongest asset, it’s daunting to have such high stakes resting on the admission essay. So if you're not a writer, what other things can you highlight to show your worth in paper and ink? The good news is there are plenty of ways to make your college applications stand out other than writing a Pulitzer Prize–worthy essay. Here are just a few.
A top-notch portfolio
If you’re planning to major in Art, Graphic Design, Film/Photography, or Creative Writing, chances are you’ll be asked to provide a portfolio of work for review. Put your best foot forward for this requirement. Don’t overdo it—if the school asks for five pieces, don’t give them 10—but make sure those five pieces are the best they can be. Make sure your portfolio submissions are true to you. If your favorite subject to draw is office supplies, don’t submit drawings of flowers because you think that’s what the admission council wants to see. You’re choosing this major because you’re passionate about the work and your content. Don’t cheat your passions because you’re afraid they’re unusual. Maybe the professor reviewing your portfolio loves drawing office supplies too!
When you’re preparing your portfolio, don’t be the only one to look over your submissions. Pick out your top 10 works and ask a trusted teacher or mentor to help you choose which ones they think are best. Also ask them to help you improve those top choices. Nothing is perfect, but you want to make sure these are as close to perfect as possible. Also, if you have a piece that won an award of some sort (schoolwide, statewide, or nationwide) but you feel like it doesn’t fully showcase your ability, you don’t have to include it. But if you do think it’s a testament to your abilities, then you’ll definitely want to!
Related: How to Make Your Art Portfolio Pop
Speaking of awards, make sure to include these on your application too. There are two places in the Common Application you can mention awards: either the “Honors” subsection in the Education section or in the Activities section. According to CollegeVine, you should list achievements that aren’t directly related to an activity in “Honors” and list activity-related awards in the Activities section. For example, if you won a national poetry contest your sophomore year, that would go in the “Honors” subsection of Education. But if you placed first in a dance competition with the team you’ve been on since you were 10 years old, that would go in Activities.
However, be aware of certain “honor societies” that allude selectivity but make you pay an exorbitant price to join the club. According to College Confidential, including societies that aren’t selective as long as you can pay the right price isn’t worth it. Colleges are well aware of which societies are highly selective and which aren’t, so make sure you do your research before you sign up to join strictly for a résumé builder. And do plenty of research to make sure these groups aren’t scams.
In short, if you’re in the National Honor Society or won a prestigious fellowship through your school, put that on your application. If you get a random email inviting you to join the self-proclaimed prestigious Red-Headed League, it might not be worth mentioning. Also, don’t do it.
One of the easiest ways to stand out to colleges is to get unique work experience. There are plenty of interesting jobs out there, and you don’t need a college degree to get most of them. And these jobs don’t even have to be related to your major. Extra bonus: not only can working a unique job make you stand out on your application, you make some money too!
From being a carnival hawker to leading historical tours of your city to working as an ice cream scooper, there are tons of interesting part-time jobs out there. And if you’re worried about work interfering with your grades, look for seasonal positions to keep you busy during the summer or places that will let you work on the weekend. Also, if you received any certifications for your job, such as PSIA/AASI (ski and snowboard), ISA (surfing), or ASA (sailing) certifications, make sure to mention those the same way you reported your other awards in the Activities section. It may not feel like an award, but with all the hard work that went into getting it, that little piece of paper or pin is practically a trophy!
This might seem a bit tougher because most jobs related to your potential major will be built for students who are already in college. An obvious option is being a counselor at a camp with a focus on your intended studies. If you’ve attended computer, Bible, basketball, music, or another type of camp, there might be an opportunity for you to participate from the other side now. You need to be 18 or older to be a camp counselor, but many camps have junior counselor positions available to high school students. It never hurts to ask about these opportunities, especially if you’re a camp regular.
Outside of summer camps, cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Boston provide job opportunities for resident students. These cities partner with local and national companies to place students in internships for the summer, and students are often placed in positions based on specific interests. For example, if you’re planning to major in US History, you might be able to work at a nonprofit focused on historical preservation.
Taking on one of these positions shows colleges you’re dedicated to your potential major outside of academics. If you’re not sure what programs are available to you locally, do a simple Google search for “high school internships,” talk to your guidance counselor, or ask your parents if their company provides these opportunities.
You can even volunteer in ways that support your potential studies. See if you can be a peer tutor in your favorite subject at your high school or for students in middle and elementary school. If you’re interested in teaching, see if you can help out during summer school or summer bridge programs.
Outside of volunteering at school, try to find ways to help out in your own backyard. Go to your community center or the local YMCA and see what opportunities are there for you to improve your community. Children’s hospitals, nursing homes, and group homes typically look for volunteers for a variety of purposes. Don’t dismiss your religious affiliation either. Speak with the leader of your family’s church, synagogue, temple, or mosque and see how you can be active in the community. Ask if you can assist in teaching younger students in religion classes or help with planning or setting up for events.
Never forget about non-school clubs, especially if the activity is something you’ve been involved in for a while. Obviously, you wouldn’t leave out your Gold Award or Eagle Scout merits, but don’t forget to include the five years you’ve spent in sailing and the 15 you’ve spent taking dance lessons. If you’re a member of a less traditional club like the National High School Rodeo or American Youth Circus, those should find a place in your Activities. If you’re trying to stand out and you’re worried your essay might not help you do that, your offbeat extracurricular activities will certainly make you memorable (in a good way!).
In recent years, video essays have been gaining popularity at colleges across the country. Many schools give the option to submit a video essay in place of the standard application essay, while even more accept it as supplemental material. A superb video essay not only puts a face to your name but can successfully assert your professionalism and dedications in a genuine voice.
Be aware that first impressions matter exponentially with your video essay. According to U.S. News & World Report, most counselors will have a strong opinion on the candidate within the first seven seconds of a video. Even though it’s a change of format, consider some of the same advice for the traditional college essay. Make sure you have a strong, original opening. Keep your tone casual but professional. Follow the directions; if they ask for a three- to five-minute video, don’t send in a seven-minute clip. In general, be clear and concise with your language. Make sure the content is targeted to the specific college, especially if it’s a supplemental piece.
Additionally, try to minimize the amount of times you say “um” or “like.” You should have a neutral background, such as a plain wall or quiet outdoor space. And make sure you’re dressed professionally. You can show you’re dedicated to geology in business casual attire—you don’t need to wear your faded “Metamorphic rocks are gneiss!” T-shirt.
Though the application essay is an important part of your college application, it’s not the only way to stand out as the individual you are—though experiences like these do make great topics for your essay! You still have plenty of time to take advantage of unique opportunities that can make you stand out, so go out there and find them.
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