What Looks Good on College Applications? 6 Tips to Make Your Application Stand Out

What do colleges look for in applicants? How can you make your college application stand out? Read this article to learn about six ways to strengthen your candidacy and get into your dream school.

Posted May 10, 2024

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Table of Contents

1. Be yourself

You may go into the application process thinking you have an idea of what the admissions committee wants to hear. Whatever it is, ignore it. It is much, much better to be genuine, honest, and true to yourself than to play a game of “appeal to the adcom.”

Nowadays, schools are more interested in filling their classes with diverse opinions and ideas than ever. Your unique background can be a great strength. What are you passionate about? What do you want to do with your life? What are your hopes and dreams? Who are you outside of the classroom? Show the adcom these things.

Having some tangible experiences that are connected to your passions can be especially beneficial. For example, it’s good if you’re passionate about community service and the judicial system. It’s great if you’re passionate about these things and have volunteered at the local youth detention center, worked in a state government pushing favorable legislation, and/or spent time building a library for the county jail. This shows the admissions committee that you have interests and are willing to put in work toward making an impact.

2. Take challenging courses and do well in them

This tip is especially prevalent for underclassmen. Most schools–especially top ones–consider the difficulty levels of classes as well as the grade earned in them. Many of them would prefer to see a student that took AP classes and got Bs than someone who coasted in only base-level courses. This demonstrates that you won’t shy away from a challenge and will thrive in the more academically challenging environment of a university.

AP classes will not only give you a chance to waive future general education requirements, but will also potentially increase your weighted GPA dramatically. Also with AP classes, it’s okay to play to your strengths. If you’re better at mathematical subjects than reading or writing, then stack your AP classes in those areas and stick to honors or regular classes for English. While applications are not solely reliant on GPA, it does matter and will often be one of the biggest factors in screening the first round of applicants. Start pushing yourself academically early on, and you’ll be well prepared for your college courses.

Interested in getting credit for AP scores? Read this article from the Leland Undergraduate Library

What AP Test Scores Do Colleges Accept?

3. Do well on standardized tests

Like GPA, the SAT/ACT scores are used to “filter” applicants. The key to getting a good score is to dedicate enough time to studying and improving your weaker areas. Many students will only study for a short amount of time or won’t study at all. In some cases, this may be enough to get you into a mid-tier school, but not a top one. Take practice tests, use ACT/SAT-prep textbooks, take a course, or work with a tutor.

Even if the school doesn’t require an ACT or SAT score, it’s usually better to submit one anyway, especially if your GPA or other academic records aren’t as strong. Ideally, you should take the test during the first half of your junior year. That way, you have a buffer and will have the time to study, improve, and retake it if you’re not satisfied with your score.

Before you begin to study, take a full-length practice test for both the ACT and SAT. Then, compare the scores that you got in each as well as your performance in individual sections. Typically, students who are stronger in English and reading skills will perform better on the ACT while those who prefer math will do better on the SAT. However, the ACT also includes a science section that students should take into account while making their decision.

For more information on the SAT and ACT, read:

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4. Write a cohesive and compelling personal statement essay

Many of the parts of your application will have been decided before the time comes to submit it. You will already have received the majority of your grades and your standardized test scores. The essay, however, is one area where you have complete control. Choose your prompt wisely, start early, and write several drafts. Your essay should tell a story; make it cohesive so that each part flows together smoothly. This will also help keep you on topic and prevent tangents and fluff.

For essays in particular, it can be especially helpful to work with a coach or mentor for a third-party perspective. You want to tell a story that is unique and compelling. Imagine that your essay is the 50th one that the admissions officer has read that day; how will you make yours stand out?

Here are a few essay-specific tips to think about as you draft yours:

  • Show growth: How have you changed? In what ways have you made an impact? Learned something? Become a better person?
  • Be specific and get to the point: Vague, meandering thoughts will not lead to a good essay. Use specific examples and descriptions when demonstrating a point. Furthermore, don’t spend time warming up, the adcom will recognize it as fluff and you only have a limited number of words. Make each one count.
  • Read it out loud: After you’ve got a polished draft, read it out loud to yourself. By doing so, you’ll get a better sense of how well it flows and how it will sound to the admissions officer reading it.
  • Write an intro and conclusion with pizzazz: Think about writing your essay as if you were a journalist. You need to grab the reader’s attention, give them a reason to stay interested throughout, and then finish with a bang.
  • Be personal and write about things that are unique to you: You do not want your essay to be one of a million, you want it to be one in a million. Write about the things that make you unique, that no one else could include in theirs.
  • Read: 4 Tips to Elevate Your College Essay

5. Demonstrate interest in the schools that you are applying to

Colleges care about “fit” or how well you align with the university’s core values and interests. If you can demonstrate in your application that you actually care about going to that specific school, it will make you stand out from the crowd.

This reason should not be “because the school is good.” Take the time to research the programs, classes, and professors that you’re interested in. Take an in-person or online campus tour. Talk to alumni and current students to learn more about the culture. Is there a great career center? What about the availability of mental health resources? All of these things are factors that make a college unique and doing the research will show the adcom what admission would mean to you.

6. Get really good letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation are powerful because they tell a story of an applicant from a third-person perspective. For this reason, it’s important to choose your recommenders wisely. They may not be the professor of the class in which you got the best grade. Instead, choose the people that know you the best and have seen you grow and overcome obstacles. Put yourself in the recommenders’ shoes and think about what they could say about you.

To set your recommenders up for success, it’s a good idea to prep them ahead of time. Send them a letter with the deadlines of the schools you’re applying to, as well as an outline of the content. You can also include examples of times you’ve demonstrated the qualities you want to show the admissions committee. As with most things regarding college applications, start preparing early. Cultivate relationships with teachers and school counselors so that when the time comes to ask for recommendations, they already know you well.

Get Into Your Dream School With the Help of an Expert

Personalized, expert guidance is the best way to make sure you're compiling the strongest possible application. An admissions coach can help you with any part of the application process, from picking the schools to apply for, to essays, and more. Below are some of our top coaches, but you can see them all here. (Also need help with ACT/SAT studying? We've got you covered: SAT Coaches/ACT Coaches.)

The college application process may seem daunting at first, but you’ve got this! Here are several other resources to help you get started:

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