It’s summer, which means it’s time for beach, pool, sleeping in, vacation, road trips, afternoon movie marathons, summer jobs, and….college applications. If, in about a year from now, you are dreaming of clutching an acceptance letter to your dream school in your triumphant fist, then it’s time to start thinking about your applications (if you haven’t already) right now.
Here are our top three tips for a college application that will stand out from the pack.
1. Know Your Schools
It’s blindingly apparent to admissions offices when you have sent them a canned essay copied over from a template on your computer with “insert college here” strategically sprinkled throughout the text. Trust me on this. I could spot them a mile away. Make sure to take the time to get to know each school you are applying to. Visit the campus if you can, and take notes on specific academic, research, extracurricular or service opportunities you are interested in. It’s easy to get caught up in how beautiful a campus is or how much fun the students look like they are having, but remember the college wants to hear your thoughts on it as a place of learning. If a visit is not possible, spend some quality time on the website. Pro Tip: Go to the “Current Students” page for the best information on classes and other opportunities offered at the school. The “Prospective Students” page is a good starting place, but it often doesn’t get into the nuanced details on specific opportunities you can tell colleges you are interested in. Another good page to check out–that hardly any prospective students frequent–is the “Mission” or “About Us” page. This is where a college tells you point blank what it values in itself and in its students. Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of this information to show a college how you fit right in with its ideals?
2. Consider How You Present Yourself
Most applications include various sections to fill out with honors, classes, test scores, activities, and interests. Whenever possible, take a “top-down” approach to listing information. Highlight your best stuff at the top where it will get noticed. For example, rather than listing your courses in the order you attend them (which is what most students do), put your APs or IBs first, then Honors, then other academic subjects, then electives. Just because you have gym first period doesn’t mean gym should be first on your list.
Take every opportunity you have to tell the college about yourself. Don’t skip over optional “description” spaces: seeming as if you have too much to say rather than nothing at all to say always looks better. So, for example, rather than just writing “Soccer, Grades 9-12,” let colleges know you were the “Recipient of the student athlete award and chosen as a mentor for the freshman players.”
Also, remember that some information IS optional. If your SAT or ACT scores are less than stellar, and you are applying to a test-optional school, remember that you don’t necessarily need to fill out the test score section. This gets a little tricky, so make sure you consult with your college counselor.
Be thoughtful about your applications. The best applications tell a story and give a college a sense of who you are and how you will contribute to its campus. Are you an artist and a filmmaker? A budding chemical engineer? Make sure your “identity” comes across on the various parts of your application.
3. Don’t Forget about All Your Supplemental Components
College applications can be pretty complex. There are essays, recommendation letters, transcripts, official test reports, maybe art portfolios or music supplements, and more. Create a spreadsheet early in the process to keep track of everything you need and the deadlines. You don’t want to hold up your applications and miss early deadlines because you are waiting on a recommendation letter or need to scrape together some art samples. Also, don’t forget that all of your friends (and their friends) are going to be clamoring for recommendation letters from the same teachers. Ask your teachers early (the spring of Junior year is ideal) and give them whatever they need to write a stellar recommendation. When I advised high school students for college admissions, I rarely allowed them to skip any opportunity to tell the schools more about themselves. So if there is an optional essay asking you to describe yourself in an acrostic poem, think twice about brushing it off; completing the optional essays shows the colleges your investment in going above and beyond.
There’s too much competition out there to throw an application together at the last minute! You’ve invested so much in your high school life so far, so put some thought into how you present yourself to colleges, so they don’t miss just how special you are.
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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