How to Be a Competitive College Applicant

More and more students are applying to college. With a larger applicant pool, students have to work harder to stand out. Here's how you can do just that.

Being a competitive college applicant is becoming increasingly more difficult as the number of students wanting to continue their education beyond high school continues to rise—not to mention the number of over-achievers with killer high school résumés that impress college admission committees. When it seems as though fewer and fewer spots are available every year, many prospective freshmen wonder how they’re supposed to make their application stand out. The good news is with a few tips from the experts, you can get your application to rise to the top with just a little extra effort and be a competitive college applicant. 

Exceed the admission requirements

When it comes to college admission, meeting the requirements is the minimum standard. To be a competitive applicant, you need to exceed expectations while maintaining the quality of your transcript. For many students, this translates to taking Advanced Placement courses, squeezing in an extra year of a world language, and filling elective spots with additional academics. It also means maintaining a good GPA and participating in extracurricular activities. With that said, you also need to remember balance. If you take on too much, everything will suffer, so make sure you’re matching up what you want to do with how much you can do.

Related: College Prep for Each Year of High School: What to Do All 4 Years

Take your academics to the finish line

Just because your application is due in the fall doesn’t mean you get to breeze through your senior year on autopilot. “Often times, there is the appeal to take your senior year as an easy year,” explains Carrie Thompson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Clarion University. While electives show your diversified interests, she reminds students not to forget the importance of academic, college prep, Advanced Placement, or dual-enrollment courses. "Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses particularly show your preparedness for college-level work and provide you the advantage of receiving college credit,” Thompson adds.

Focus on your college application early

Ideally, you shouldn’t start thinking about your college applications during your senior year. “You need to prepare for college starting your junior, sophomore—even your freshman year,” explains Thompson. This means you need to have a clear focus on your academics from the moment you start high school. Beginning your freshmen year with this mindset can help set you up for success and gives you the best chance of providing a transcript that shows a solid academic student who would be a great addition to any college campus.

Showcase involvement in your school and community

While academics are a large part of your college application—and you want to spend your high school career focusing on a solid GPA—Thompson says it’s also important to understand that the academic component is just one aspect of what makes you a competitive college applicant. “Colleges look for well-rounded students, and a high school student who can make the grades but has also taken part in extracurricular activities, service organizations, or even a part-time job is a student who can showcase time management, commitment to their community, and the ability to be a strong student,” she says. This type of student becomes a strong leader on a college campus and eventually a successful alumnus.

Related: An Easy Navigation Guide to High School Clubs and Activities

Explain any hiccups on your transcript

Very few students submit a flawless transcript. That’s why Stefanie D. Niles, Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, says if you have any blemishes on your high school transcript, such as a low grade in a particular class, you’ll definitely want to take the opportunity to explain what happened and what you learned from the experience. Additionally, if the teacher of the class is able to comment on how hard you worked and how you persisted, that information can be particularly useful to the admission committee.

Write an essay that the admission committee wants to read

The admission essay is your chance to tell an authentic story that’s not already explained through your transcript or test scores. Use this opportunity to give the college a glimpse into who you are and what would make you an excellent addition to their school. The goal is to get them to continue reading after the first paragraph and, when they’re finished, to want to get to know you even more.

Reach out to the college admission office

If you really want to be a competitive college applicant, take the initiative to connect with the admission office prior to submitting your application. Call to set up a college visit, then ask to make an appointment to meet with an admission counselor or advisor. Thompson says when you have questions, make sure you’re calling the admission office to ask them—avoid the temptation to allow your parent or guardian to take control of the situation and lead the conversation. “These may seem like simple steps,” she says. “However, allowing your personality to shine through and taking the steps to be in control of your college journey makes you a memorable student during the admission process.”

Related: Top Questions to Ask College Admission Counselors

Applying to college is nerve-wracking, especially when you feel as though you don’t meet the standards for your colleges of interest—but with a little extra effort, you can be a competitive college applicant! Be communicative, be proactive, and be intentional, and you’re sure to catch the eye of the admission committees. And remember—you’re never in this alone! The CollegeXpess community has answers to most of your questions and your school counselors are always only an email away. Use your resources to your advantage to help you get into the school of your dreams.

For more great advice on how to present yourself in your college applications, check out our College Admission section.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now


About Sara Lindberg

Sara Lindberg

Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer and former secondary school counselor. She has a Master of Education in Counseling and 20 years of experience working with middle and high school students and their parents. 


Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Fernando Ponce

Fernando Ponce

High School Junior

College is a way of life that helps us find out who we are as a person, and CollegeXpress is a great way to stay connected with our future, even for students with little time on their hands due to the challenges of high school we face.

Elizabeth Stafford

Elizabeth Stafford

High School Class of 2021

As a UK student moving to California due to my dad's job in the military, when I first signed up for CollegeXpress a few months ago, the college process ahead seemed daunting and incredibly stressful. That all changed after I started to explore what this website had to offer. Not only was I helped by the vast array of resources available to me, but through being a CollegeXpress member, there have been so many more benefits. There have been emails with college tips—all of which I found incredibly helpful—as well as invitations to events and notifications of scholarships that'll make college possible for me. Overall, I'm very grateful to CollegeXpress for all of these things and more. Not only have they helped me grow my understanding of the college process, but they've also helped me to grow as a person, giving me new skills that I can take with me through life.

Dani York

Dani York

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress helped in my journey by comparing multiple colleges for my final decision. While looking at different colleges, I was able to compare the tuition expenses and that landed me with the college that I’m currently enrolled in, Western Kentucky University. Thank you!

Nazira Abdelkhalek

Nazira Abdelkhalek

$2,000 Community Service Scholarship Winner, 2014

I am very honored to be this year’s recipient of the Multicultural Student Community Service Scholarship! This scholarship is vital to helping me achieve and fulfill my dreams, and gives me confidence and motivation as I begin my college career. The CollegeXpress website has been invaluable over the past year as I planned my educational and professional goals. I highly recommend it to all students as they begin to focus on their college and career interests. The website is a wonderful guide to schools and scholarships.



High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress really helped me by letting me know the colleges ratings and placements. They gave me accurate information on my colleges tuition rates and acceptance. They even let me know the ration between students and faculty and the diversity of the college. Overall they told me everything I needed and things I didnt even think I needed to know about my college and other colleges I applied for.

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

SUNY Cortland

Cortland, NY

Agnes Scott College

Atlanta, GA

Seattle University

Seattle, WA

Thiel College

Greenville, PA