5 Ways to Stand Out When Applying to College

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

Every year, more than two million high school graduates apply to college. With so many students vying for a limited number of spots, it is crucial to find ways to shine. The college application is the means by which applicants introduce themselves to schools,  but applying to college involves so much more. It begins well before students submit their materials and involves many intangibles. With so much competition out there, admissions decisions often ride on the tiniest distinctions. This has caused a great deal of anxiety among high school students (and their parents), though alongside that stress there are some very real opportunities to be seized. Students can distinguish themselves by starting early, becoming informed about the nuances of the college application process, and taking some basic but important steps. Here are five tips to help you stand out from the pack:


1. Show each college the love!

Colleges don’t just want your application, they seek evidence of your genuine interest in their school. Admissions offices are tracking applicants before their applications arrive. They routinely capture and analyze data to target students who have “demonstrated interest,” helping to ensure that the students they accept are most likely to attend their school. This boosts their yield, which, in turn, helps their ranking. Schools watch who is searching for them online, who is following them on social media, and who is visiting them in-person for on-campus tours. Again, colleges want to invest in students who are genuinely interested. There are various ways to demonstrate that interest in the schools on your list. Make sure to do your homework by visiting colleges’ websites, talking with alumni, communicating directly with admissions offices, and setting up visits to campus. If you are unable to travel to the school, look into doing a virtual tour online. You can reach out to the regional admissions representative for each college to which you are applying. Introduce yourself, tell them why you’re interested in their school, stay in touch, and update them on any achievements that come after you’ve submitted your application. “Showing the love” to potential schools might just give you the leg-up you need.


2. Colleges pay attention to social media

For better or worse, social media is an integral part of twenty-first century life. Students keep up with friends through Instagram, chat with them on Snapchat, and watch their Stories. We are more connected than ever–which also means that we give the world access to some of our most private moments and our innermost thoughts. It is important to curate your social media, particularly those posts that are or could become public. Be authentic and be honest, but make sure to put your best foot forward. Just as potential employers often look into the social media presence of job applicants, colleges might look into students’ social media before accepting them into their college. Prior to applying, make sure to clean up your accounts, deleting any post, tweet or image that may raise a red flag. Also check your social media settings to control who can and cannot see certain posts. You do not have to keep your profile private, but make sure that when strangers view your Instagram profile, for example, they only see what you want them to see. Even after you have been accepted to your dream school, keep your profile clean. In 2017, Harvard rescinded admissions to 10 students after they posted offensive Facebook memes. After working so hard to get accepted, do yourself a favor and use social media responsibly.


3. Keep your resume up-to-date

It may seem like a hassle to log all of your various activities throughout high school, but it is important to take note of them while they’re fresh in your mind. It’s always harder to remember important or intriguing details later. If you play sports, for example, keep track of any conference recognitions or noteworthy wins. Participated in the spring musical? Document that. Are you a musician or involved in community service? Write those down as well. Include any part-time jobs, internships, or volunteering you have done. If you receive an award or are inducted into the National Honors Society, make sure to include that. You do not want to pad your resume (keep it to one page), but this is an essential component of your application, providing colleges with an overview of your interests, activities, and accomplishments. Don’t skimp here!


4. Challenge yourself academically

Many parents think that it is better for students to receive straight As on their report cards than to take a rigorous course-load. Whereas good grades are certainly important, it is also vital that you push yourself academically. What this looks like can vary depending on a student’s academic level, but all students can show evidence of challenging themselves. If your school offers Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or dual-enrollment college courses, take advantage of these upper-level classes when possible and if appropriate. Honors (or Accelerated or Advanced) courses are also very helpful in this regard. College admissions will take your grade point average into account, but they will also be looking at the sorts of coursework you have completed in the past four years, looking for signs of rigor. A grade of B in AP Chemistry will be more impressive than an A in regular Chemistry. Taking rigorous classes demonstrates to colleges that you are pushing yourself on a higher level academically.


5. Nurture your passions!

Are you an editor of your school newspaper? Have you studied violin seriously since you were in elementary school? Do you like volunteering at a local senior citizen center or community garden? Nurture your passions and abilities through extracurricular activities! Colleges and universities want to see that prospective students are active and productive members of their community. Evidence of this can include community service, part-time jobs, or volunteering for organizations. And the more initiative and leadership you can show, the better. If your school does not offer drama but you have always been interested in acting or directing, get involved with your local theater. If you want to go into a health care profession, find opportunities at a hospital. When you seek opportunities outside of school, you not only foster your own growth, but benefit the greater community. Above all, be authentic. Colleges look for sustained, focused, genuine commitment.


These five tips can make a real difference. Remember: the college admissions process has changed dramatically in recent years, becoming more competitive and more complicated–and more stressful. Schools are looking for students who stand out from the pack, who have developed their passions in authentic ways, showing initiative and leadership while challenging themselves both inside and outside of the classroom. Colleges are also seeking applicants who seem most likely to attend their school. You can set yourself up for success by staying on top of the process, understanding how it works, and being proactive. College admissions offices are flooded with thousands of worthy applicants every year, and they will look closely at each applicant before deciding whether or not he or she is a fit for their school. It is up to you to show them your potential and make the case for why you would be a perfect match for their school.