There is a ton of competition when it comes to getting into a university. Whether you are looking into getting into an Ivy League School or you want to quickly finish an Associate’s Degree, it takes some effort to stand out on your college application.
While every college and university has slightly different standards and requirements when it comes to the application process, in general, you can expect a similar procedure. Nearly all universities will require you to submit a transcript, test scores, and an essay. Since the Admissions department is reading the same structured applications over and over again, it can be challenging to be one of the students that really stands out.
That’s why this article is going to go over 15 things you can do to make your college application shine. Though this post will focus mostly on students who are currently enrolled in high school, there are also plenty of great tips and strategies for adults who are looking to go back to college, too!
Top 15 Tips to Stand Out on Your College Application
First things first - all of these tips and strategies are universally true. This means that whether you want to apply to a big-name university with an enormous campus or whether you want to comfortably get an online degree while staying at home, the application process remains the same.
But of course, make sure you tailor your application to the specific needs of the university you’re applying to (but more on that later). For now, here are 15 strategies you can follow to make your college application stand out:
1. Choose Your Classes Carefully
This applies to students currently enrolled in a high school. The first thing you need to do is choose the classes you want to take very carefully. Of course, it’s hard to think so far in the future, especially when you’re young, but try to take courses that you think will be beneficial to you later on in life.
For example, if you love science and you think you’ll want to be a doctor or a scientist, then make sure to take all the science classes that your high school offers. Not only is this beneficial to you because you’ll develop a strong foundation for when you head off to college, but also it shows the college that you know what you want.
The ability to be decisive and demonstrate to the world that you’re a go-getter is definitely an impressive trait to have. It will also show the university that you won’t be over your head if you do get accepted, so it’s a win-win.
You should also elect to take some more difficult classes if you can. If your senior year of high school you choose to take “easy” courses just to coast through your last year, the Admissions team will take that as a lack of initiative. On the other hand, if you’re taking AP courses or classes of a similar difficulty, then that shows the college that you are ready to take that next step in your education.
2. Research Your Major
This tip is also related to the first one, but you should definitely do some research into the major at your target university. Firstly, many universities will have specific requirements for students to enter directly into that major. For example, if you want to jump right into an Accounting degree, you might be required to take certain math classes in high school.
This isn’t always a requirement, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. If the Admissions team sees that you’ve been taking courses that are relevant to your intended major, you’ll be more likely to get in. Additionally, by researching your major, you might be able to reference it in the essay questions. One of the most common questions for college applications is “Why us?”. So if you have a firm answer that is relevant to your desired major, that will show that you’ve taken the time and energy to create a successful application.
3. Apply Early
Sometimes this step can be a dealbreaker for Admissions teams. Many universities will offer an “early application” time period for future applicants and you should absolutely take advantage of that. Not only is it showing the university right away that you’re interested, but it also means that you’ll have less competition.
Many universities have a specific cutoff limit, as well. This means that once 500 students have been accepted, student #501 won’t be accepted, no matter how wonderful their application is. So it’s to your benefit to apply as early as possible. Plus, you get it done early and won’t have to worry about it afterwards!
4. Do Your Best To Get Good Grades
This should come naturally as well, but your grades in school are one of the biggest factors for most universities. A university doesn’t want to invest in a student who isn't going to take their classes seriously. Since one of the biggest indicators of academic success is GPA, then it’s normal that universities will consider it an important factor in the application process.
Although, this isn’t written in stone. There are life circumstances that can make your application stand out even when your overall GPA isn’t very high. For example, if you did very poorly your freshman year, but then got straight A’s in your senior year, the Admissions team will look at that evolution favorably.
Likewise, if you’re heading back to school after joining the workforce for many years, you can make up for potentially poor grades by showing your ambition. Adults who go back to school typically have a higher graduation rate, so universities will look favorably upon motivated adults, even if they didn’t do great in their previous studies.
5. Follow Application Instructions
There’s nothing that’s going to make an Admissions reviewer throw your application in the (digital) trashcan faster than not following instructions. It’s as simple as that. If you aren’t able to read the instructions properly and follow the indicated steps, they won’t even consider your application.
So with that in mind, if you are clearly following instructions and answering everything that is required of you, then you’ve already passed the first test.
6. Show Who You Are
It’s incredibly important to show the admissions team that you’re not just a resume, you’re an actual person with goals, interests, and emotions. So make sure you express your humanity and make the reader understand who you are.
When it’s time to write your essay, make sure you’re letting a bit of your personality shine through. Don’t be afraid to show some personality in your writing. In the end, your personality is unique and that’s what is going to make your application stand out.
For example, if you’re working full-time and you’re looking to go back to school and get a Master’s, then show this program is going to personally affect you. Demonstrate your ambition and drive. Or if you’re a high school student and you’re passionate about business, then tell the team why you’re passionate - what is it that drives you?
You have to show that you are more than just a GPA on a piece of paper.
7.Take Part in Extracurriculars
Extracurricular activities are another great way to make your college application stand out. It’s great if you have a 4.0 GPA, but if that’s all you’ve done during your academic career so far, then the Admissions team will think that you’re not very well-rounded.
Students with extracurricular activities and engaging pastimes tend to perform better in a university environment because maintain a healthier lifestyle. Not only that, but it also shows the college that you are a passionate person that takes an interest in the different opportunities life brings you.
For example, if you do things outside of school like join sports clubs, volunteer, work a job, etc., it demonstrates the fact that you know what you want out of life. So by adding some relevant extracurriculars into your college application, combined with a good GPA, it will show that you have drive, passion, and the ability to balance your life and your responsibilities.
8. Keep Detailed Records
This is something that you should start doing right away. Always take detailed records of everything you do. If you can calculate how many hours you’ve worked while attending school, then being able to accurately reproduce those numbers on the application shows that you are detail-oriented and organized.
It will also help you when it comes to filling out your resume and the application, as well. For example, if you know you volunteered at a food bank, but you can’t remember exactly when you did it, what will you write on your application?
Ultimately, having detailed descriptions of what you did, how long you did them for, and what results resulted from your actions is impressive to have on your application. It shows that you are someone who is actionable and can produce results. Plus, this will help you later in life, as well, as this is the same formula that Google recommends for CVs and resumes when applying for jobs.
9. Be Careful with Social Media
Social Media can be great, but it can also be your worst enemy. Considering the fact that nothing on the internet really gets deleted permanently, you need to be very careful with what you post on social media. This story from USAToday reports that 35% of Admissions officers will review a potential student’s social media accounts.
In some cases, social media can prove to be beneficial if you have a lot of positive photos and videos posted. For example, if you have pictures of yourself at volunteer events or of certain accomplishments, then that’s perfectly fine. And of course, it’s perfectly fine to have pictures of you and your friends but try to make sure you don’t have anything that could be potentially offensive or negative posted.
In truth, this is good advice for your entire life, not just during application time. But since universities are specifically looking at your personality and who you are as a person, they’re not going to want you to form part of their environment if they are finding unsavory images of you online.
10. Take Challenging Courses
This connects back to trying to get good grades during your time at the university. By taking challenging courses, you’re showing initiative and the willingness to push yourself to achieve academic greatness. This is something that will really help your application stand out from the rest.
In fact, it’s better to take challenging courses and get B’s than it is to take “easier” courses and get straight A’s. That’s because the Admissions officers understand that challenging courses are inherently more difficult, so they’re more lenient.
In others - it looks good to challenge yourself. As long as you aren’t failing your classes, taking challenging courses shows that you are self-driven and willing to learn.
11. Choose a Standardized Test
If you already know what university you’d like to go to, make sure you look into their preferred standardized test. Although many colleges accept both, there are still some that have a preference for one or the other.
Sometimes, this can also vary based on the degree program you’re looking to get into, so it’s always a good idea to take the time to do a little bit of research before taking (and paying for) a standardized test.
12. Ask for Recommendations
It’s also important to carefully consider who you want to write your letter of recommendation. It’s almost always a better idea to have it come from someone who knows you well. A former mentor or tutor, a teacher you’ve had several classes with, and an employer are all good examples of people who know you well and can speak of you professionally.
Avoid getting letters of recommendation from family members or friends, as well as from people who don’t know you very well. Sure, maybe it sounds great to get a letter written by the principal or a well-known community member, but if they can’t speak of you personally, then it won’t amount to much. That’s why it’s always more effective to get a letter of recommendation from someone who can speak honestly about who you are and why you stand out.
Remember how important it is to read the instructions? It’s equally as important to proofread absolutely everything you’ve written. Typos and misspellings will generate a sense of carelessness that a university won’t tolerate, so you don’t want to have your application discarded because of a small error.
A good habit is to write everything and save it. Then, two days later, go back over everything and proofread it. If you proofread immediately after writing, it’s easy to glance over mistakes.
Another good habit is to have someone proofread it for you. If you have a friend or a colleague read it for you, they’ll be able to find simple errors and also give you feedback in terms of the content. Since this application is your only chance to stand out, you really want to go through a few drafts and make it as effective as possible.
14. Avoid Clichés
Although it’s easy to fall into the trap of using a well-known cliché because it’s simple and you think it’s effective, they really aren’t doing you any favors. While a little tiny cliché won’t be the end of the world it's best to not have the crux of your writing be based on one.
For example, you absolutely want to avoid starting your essay with “The Oxford dictionary defines ambition as ...” - Stop. Don’t do it. Every single Admissions officer has probably read that so many times that they already have the definition memorized. Try to be more unique with your writing so that the reader doesn’t become bored.
That brings us to the last tip:
15. Be Yourself
The Admissions team wants to see who you are. More than the data and the numbers, they want to see if you will be a good fit for their community. So feel free to be yourself.
You can use humor sparingly and be honest with your writing. Don’t say things that come out unnaturally just because you think it’s what they want to hear. Expressing your true self through sincere and unique writing will be the best way to make your application stand out and really leave an impact on the reader.
The best part about this last tip is that it is relevant to every area of your life. When you apply for a job, the same concept applies. When you meet people for the first time, once again it is applicable. Be yourself and the rest will come naturally.
Get Out Those Applications
The best time to start preparing those college applications is right now. Whether you want to enter school for the first time or if you’re ready to go back and finish your education, today is the day you should start preparing.
If you’re ready to look at different degree programs, make sure to check out the many options offered by the University of the Virgin Islands. There are online 8-week intensive programs that will have you finishing your degree in no time.
So do your research and the university right now and start preparing your application.