What will it take for you to stand out?
It’s a list most of us know – the things high school seniors should collect, complete, turn in and recall as they work through the college application process.
Admissions officers who review applications expect good recommendations, good grades, a memorable essay, and, in most cases, and good standardized test scores. A track record being well-rounded outside of the classroom helps, too.
But what else do those folks look for when they are wading through applications to find the best candidates for their campus? How do you stand out in the admissions office of your favorite college choice?
Well, if we give it some thought, some of it may be obvious. They want a student who will succeed, who will benefit from their academic program and, who will both appreciate and enhance their campus. Sometimes, experts say, students and parents need to step back from the spin of the college search and application process, breathe, and just think logically about what will appeal to a school.
According to Steve Smith, director of undergraduate admissions at D’Youville College in Buffalo, that starts with simply processing the required application material correctly and on time.
“I’d have to say that the biggest mistake is simply not being aware of the requirements. Deadlines go overlooked and supplemental requirements are missed all the time,” he says. He and other experts recommend students have a planner or excel spreadsheet where they keep track of all required paperwork and note upcoming deadlines.
Beryl Jeffers, a director of enrollment services for the State University of New York, says she worries about what might seem to be obvious mistakes – spelling and grammatical errors or even fabrications.
And Stephanie Tengelsen, associate director of admissions at University of Denver, says not only should applicants double-check that they have included all material, they should add one thing: a one-page resume sheet. It should highlight all their accomplishments and quickly summarize their record.
Another seemingly obvious tip about the process – get yourself known in the school’s admissions office. The officials there have a name for that: demonstrated interest.
“This means that a student has toured a campus, attended an event, contacted the admissions counselor and shown they are serious about attending,” says Bryn Campbell, associate director of admissions at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. “Reaching out to your admissions counselor with appropriate questions or follow-up after an event is a great and easy way to show interest.”
“I highly recommend that students interested in the University of Kentucky reach out to our admissions staff,” says Cara Franke, associate director of admissions at the school. She also notes that signs of such contact is important to the admissions office, too. “We want to get to know students and their families. This interest in the school is important to us.”
Colleges now have sophisticated programs to track ways that you have been in touch and shown serious interest.
Related to that, Jennifer Hess Rosenberg, an associate dean for admissions at the State University of New York, says students should do their homework when it comes to college choice and career direction. “Find out details about each college, and how they’ll fit,” she says.
“Start early, ask questions, and keep an open mind,” she says, when discussing both the exploration of colleges and fields of study. “Talk to friends, family, and neighbors.” She notes that ideas about careers, no matter how preliminary, are an important consideration in college choice.
An understanding of interests and skills is important to us, but “choosing a major is just indicating an area of interest and will not restrict long-term career options,” notes Matthew Ogawa, associate director of admissions at Oregon State University.
So, besides those obvious (but sometimes overlooked tips), what other things do college admissions officials look for that might not be obvious. Here are 10:
1) Beyond the classroom. “Activities and experiences count, but make them genuine,” says Jeffers. “We look for growth in leadership. For example, being a cub reporter for the school newspaper as a freshman and by 12th grade becoming an editor – not belonging to 30 clubs where you quit after a semester,” she explains. “We are looking for someone who stays with it, showing commitment both in school activities and in outside endeavors.”
2) Test Stress. “Don’t overdo it with standardized tests, repeating them excessively.” Smith notes that often scores don’t significantly change with retakes. While results are important, lower scores sometimes won’t rule a student out of consideration. Also, an increasing number of schools are now test-optional.
3) But grades are still key. While colleges look for a well-rounded student, academic success is still a key priority. And schools look at senior year – even grades after a student has been accepted.
4) Hard work is important. “Grit” a popular word now in education – and in the application process. Show you’ve challenged yourself with advanced and AP classes – even a course at a local college. In your application, show you work hard and persevere. “Overcoming an obstacle in one’s life rather than giving up is key,” notes Jeffers.
5) And so is the essay. Several admissions officials point out that they pay close attention to the message in the essay and how it is written. “The essay can seem like a formality and some students brush it off, but, especially for scholarship consideration and top programs, the essay can make all the difference for an applicant,” says Franke. And Tengelsten says it should be restricted to covering the assigned topic. “Students shouldn’t use their essay to address their noteworthy achievements, for example. One moment or story is acceptable – but don’t name all the clubs and organizations or volunteer time.”
6) Choose references carefully. Think about a mix of people who can describe you well and spell out why you are a good applicant. “Note that a principal’s recommendation isn’t always the best, says Jeffers. “Choose people who really know you and can give good detail and examples in their explanation of you.” Build relationships that will allow for good recommendations. Also, give those doing recommendations clear instructions and plenty of time – and help them out with information about you that they would like to include.
7) Keep good records. As they explore schools, potential applicants should write down information about each school they explore, keeping track of the same information for each so they can do accurate comparisons. This will avoid, for instance, being swayed by one superficial attribute from a tour. It also makes students an expert about colleges generally, which helps them sound smart about a school in their communications with school officials.
8) Use judgment in queries. Students should be persistent and show an interest in the school, but avoid being a pest. They should do their own research and be patient with responses from busy admissions offices. Officials say they love to communicate with interested students, but not unnecessarily.
9) Make yourself human. From the submitted material, an admissions counselor should get a picture of the student as a person. “Genuine experiences and a student’s own voice are typically well received and add value,” says Hess Rosenberg. “Being anecdotal and rich in content in explaining experiences – in essays, interviews, supplemental applications, letters of recommendation, etc. helps colleges and universities better know an applicant.” Campbell also says students often understate their accomplishments or good qualities. Instead, Campbell recommends they aim high with how they describe themselves and ask for another person’s opinion about if they are being accurate. “What can you offer a college?” asks Jeffers.
10) Online care, of course. Nearly every admissions counselor says the same thing regarding online social media platforms. Don’t put anything online that you wouldn’t want them to see and judge you by.
Jim Paterson is a writer living in Lewes, DE