15 Tips to Make Your College Application Shine

When considering your high school accomplishments, big or small, accomplished over time or in a moment, you must also consider how they will play to your audience: college admissions officials. Furthermore, you must consider how they collectively contribute to an overall narrative that is appealing to that audience. To further complicate matters, what is appealing to one school may not be appealing to another. It goes without saying that MIT is in the market for a whole different type of student than is Brown. While each of these 15 tips is deserving of its own chapter in a college admission handbook, allow me to provide you with the chapter titles which I believe you will find useful. Each one comes with a brief explanation.

  1. Show a long and consistent record of excellent grades and test scores.

You’ll need four years of consistently excellent grades to be a strong candidate for a top college. If there is some inconsistency, it is advisable to have a solid explanation as to why it occurred. A trend upward from grades 9-12 is better than a trend downward.

2. Show a long and consistent record of taking challenging courses.

Academic rigor is one of the most important factors for top colleges. Take the most challenging courses your school offers if your goal is to apply to the Ivy Leagues or other top colleges

3. Show advantageous use of summers and free time.

Colleges want to know that you take full advantage of all opportunities you are given. Free time is considered to be such an opportunity. Prove to colleges that you do not waste time with frivolous activities or with activities that have no long-term benefit such as summer test-preparation courses or “hanging out” with friends.

4. Show a record of leadership and longevity of commitment to activities.

Colleges want to know that you stick with your activities and that you have an ability or tendency to rise to levels of leadership.

5. Provide evidence of successful collaborations (in projects or other activities).

Colleges like to see a proven record of collaboration with other students. Teamwork is a highly coveted attribute by top colleges, whether students are applying for science, humanities, or engineering programs.

6. Show proof of resilience, that you can overcome adversity.

Difficulty is a certainty both in college and in the real world. The ability to overcome adversity is an admirable trait in potential candidates.

7. Show a passion for community service and helping others.

Many colleges value the experience that students have gained in helping others. Some colleges even prioritize this as one of their most important admission factors.

8. Show a record of participation in extracurricular school and community activities.

With very few exceptions, colleges prefer students who will take advantage of the cultural and extracurricular activities on campus and in the community

9. Write deep, meaningful, powerful, personal essays.

Essays are critically important because they reveal characteristics about the student that other parts of the application do not. Students should be forthcoming in humanizing themselves, going beyond activities and into aspects of their personality, motivation, and general nature.

10. Make sure your personal essay reveals you as someone who is likeable and admirable.

Ultimately, the common application essay represents your best opportunity to reveal characteristics about yourself that colleges will find attractive. They are much more likely to select a candidate who is likable and admirable than someone who comes across as being self-centered and self-serving.

11. Demonstrate your concern for animals, nature, people, and/or our planet.

While many students are passionate about these issues, many others are much more focused on academics for their own personal interests. Generally speaking, top colleges like students who understand the nature of things on a global or universal scale and who will commit themselves to improving the world to the best of their ability.

12. When answering college questions, think big picture, not small potatoes.

Colleges are not interested in small thinkers. They are generally interested in students who have a much larger picture of the world, of their opportunities, and of their contributions.

13. Earn honors such as honor roll, National Merit, governor’s awards, congressional awards honor societies, STEM competitions, writing or music awards, Olympiads, Spelling Bees, local, state, national or international contents, recognition by politicians, professors, officials.

Prestigious honors are highly coveted by colleges. Students should seek out opportunities to earn honors or to win awards. Remember, you can’t win if you don’t play.

14. Earn excellent recommendations from teachers, counselors, coaches, and others.

Perhaps this is easier said than done. However, there are ways that you can earn excellent recommendations from teachers. Good recommendations simply will not move the needle. You need excellent recommendations from those who know you best academically, extracurricularly, or socially.

15. Show interest in the schools that you are most interested in attending.

Whether a school considers demonstrated interest as a factor in admission, you should nonetheless prove your interest in attending each and every school that is high on your list. Not only could this be useful in first-round admission, but it could also be useful if you get put on a waitlist or if you are deferred. One way to do this is to request information from the school. Another is to attend college nights where colleges you hope to attend are present.