College application season is here, and you might be sweating about how to stand out to a stranger reviewing hundreds or even thousands of applications. (Or maybe you’re not sweating enough, according to your parents.)
Each year, high school seniors around the country go through the same rigmarole — taking tests, crafting essays, scrambling ahead of application deadlines and, of course, wondering what exactly colleges are looking for.
It’s an annual ritual that causes many students to stress (and sweat). To help ease your mind, we checked in with five admissions officers for their best advice. Here are 10 tips, touching on both the big picture and the nuts-and-bolts details.
1. Aim for the best fit, not the most prestigious
Reflect on your needs and wants so you can focus on the best colleges for you. What do you really want? “In other words, don’t be driven exclusively by things like prestige or rank or cost, but rather, things that are particular to your learning style, interests and preferences,” says Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan University. Do you imagine yourself sitting in a large lecture hall, or would you prefer a smaller student body and more personalized relationships with professors? Do you care about Greek life, or would you rather avoid it?
Remember that there’s no one perfect school out there, says Lisa Przekop, director of admissions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Apply broadly and apply with an open mind.”
2. Mind the test score policies
Many colleges went test-optional or test-blind during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now some are permanently test free. The UC campuses don’t take test scores, for example. Make sure you understand individual college policies — specifically, which schools require them for admissions and which don’t, and which require them to award merit-based financial aid. If you have strong test scores (read: ones that are above average for the colleges you’re applying to), they could help your chances of getting in, or boost your chances for merit aid.
3. Focus on honesty and consistency
It’s natural to want to strategize about how to get an edge over other applicants. But it’s actually more important to be honest and consistent in the way you present yourself in your applications, Gonzalez says. Admissions officers can sniff out when a student isn’t being authentic.
“By ‘consistent,’ I mean [that] the essay aligns with the description of the student in their recommendations, and what comes through in interviews aligns with their activities, interests and performance — so the admissions officer feels they’re meeting the same student at every turn in the process,” Gonzalez says. For example, if your essay pops with a story about being an outgoing leader, but your recommendations describe a more muted character, admissions officers will wonder about that, he says. (For many colleges, students don’t need to worry about interviews.)
Here's another way to think about it: Admissions officers are “looking for evidence and trends in a student’s application,” Przekop says. “If I have a student who says he’s interested in engineering, I’m going to look for other evidence he’s been preparing with challenging math courses and participating in clubs that give some of those skills.”
4. Follow directions
Take the time to read the application’s directions. Then follow them. Yes, it sounds obvious, but managing applications can be stressful and it’s not uncommon for students to miss details.
For example, the University of California system has its own individual application that includes some short-answer questions. Nearly all college applicants also fill out the Common App, an application that’s used by more than 1,000 colleges. Przekop says students often recycle a Common App essay for the UC application, but an essay isn’t asked for and it often doesn’t supply the information the short-answer questions are asking for.
“I need very factual information about their goals, their challenges, their accomplishments,” she says. “Read the application questions carefully is my number one tip.”
Otherwise, the best case scenario is you’ve missed an opportunity to shine. Worst case? An application reader may think your lack of following instructions indicates a lack of interest in a college.
5. Start early
When students don’t take time to complete the application in a detailed way, admissions officers are left to fill in the gaps, says Mary Tipton Woolley, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology. She sees many applications that are too general, lacking more specific or personal details.
“I always tell students they are their own best advocate, and they have to use the platform they've been given, which is the application,” she says. Another missed opportunity, otherwise.
If you have to submit recommendation letters, choose teachers thoughtfully — “someone who can talk with a level of depth and detail,” says Jamiere Abney, associate dean of admission at Colgate University.
Finally, if you’re applying Early Decision or Early Action, don’t submit a rushed application. These admissions policies require students to apply much earlier in the fall, and they typically mean a higher chance of acceptance.
But “you want to present yourself in the best possible light, and that might mean applying at a later deadline so you can submit a more robust and thoughtful application that includes a well-developed essay, more informed and enthusiastic recommendation letters, and a strong showing in a rigorous senior fall program,” Gonzalez says. You want to submit the best version of yourself.
6. Narrow your essay focus
When writing a more traditional essay, Woolley recommends narrowing your focus as a general rule. Many essays are too broad. “I think often we figure out who we are in those really small moments,” she says. Of course, it’s not always easy writing about yourself, so you have to give yourself some space to get that right, Tipton says.
In general, though, application readers will learn more about you through a narrower, well-developed scene. A good essay usually takes multiple drafts. And, stating the obvious, they want to see original writing with your voice that doesn’t sound like a thesaurus. They can spot stilted writing.
7. Don’t tell an uncomfortable story just to wow the college
You may think colleges are only looking for students who have persevered to overcome challenges. That’s not untrue, but it certainly doesn’t mean that getting into college requires writing about trauma. Abney tells students they don’t need to make themselves more vulnerable than they want to.
“You don't need to write a deep, dark story unless you feel you’re at a point where you can tell that story,” he says. “Instead, give us the story that you can tell well and that really gives us a view of who you are.”
8. Do mention family circumstances
On the other hand, if you weren’t able to participate in extracurriculars because you were working after school or taking care of younger siblings, colleges want to know. Those details count.
“Give us that information, because that's a lens into the context of who you are,” Abney says.
It’s also helpful for the college to understand a hardship situation, such as an absent parent or a job loss, even if you don’t want to belabor it. No need to over-embellish, just be open and transparent, says Freddie Williams, assistant vice president of student affairs, enrollment management, and admissions and recruitment at Alabama State University.
9. Follow up, follow up, follow up
After you’ve submitted your application, verify that all the pieces — transcript, essays, test scores and so on — were received, Williams says. If any of your personal information changes, like your address, email or phone number, be sure to update your application with the college so they can follow up with you if needed. And “anytime you contact an admissions office by phone, take notes about who you spoke with and what was said,” Williams suggests. That way, if you talk to another admissions officer, you can accurately reference the previous call.
10. Finally, remember your self-worth during the process
Applying to college is an emotional roller coaster, particularly if you’re focused on attending competitive colleges with tiny acceptance rates. Those colleges receive many more applications from qualified students than they have spots for. So while getting a rejection letter can feel like a personal judgment, it’s not. Remember your worth, Woolley says.
“It’s important not to derive your value from outcomes of admissions decisions from colleges,” she says. “Be proud of the work you’ve done in high school.”