15 Tips to Make Your College Application Stand Out

Tyler York

From conversation-starting extracurriculars to obtaining stellar letters of recommendation, here are 15 answers to the question, “What are the best tips to make your college application stand out?”

List Wild, Off-the-Wall Extracurriculars

Standing out among college applications has become more difficult than ever. Just about every college applicant under the sun has a 3.8+ GPA, plays a sport, and takes part in some impressive school-related extracurriculars. Just about every application looks the same. So, apart from your personal statement, how do you draw attention to your application? 

My advice is to add a crazy, off-the-wall extracurricular to your application. I’ve spoken with college admissions officers who admit that reading hundreds of applications, which all look and sound the same, makes them brain-dead. Yet, every so often they’ll get an application with a wild story or skill that sucks them in. This is the application you want to be. 

Some examples include playing the didgeridoo, winning a pie-eating contest, and placing first in your county’s 4-H swine showing. The point is that admission officers want to see passion, commitment, and hard work, and the weirder the way you can exhibit that, the better.

Stand Out With Impactful Volunteerism

Make your college application stand out with volunteering experience that shows measurable impact. Colleges are always on the lookout for candidates who show that they have volunteer experience and that such work effort went a long way in providing a noticeable, positive change, such as in a community or area. 

This impact will speak volumes about your character. You don’t need to have been in a leadership position to make this positive impact through your service. However, it won’t hurt your chances with the college admissions committee if you show areas where you may have also been in a leadership role.

Marcus Hutsen, Business Development Manager, Patriot Coolers

Customize the Application for Each School

One tip to make your college application stand out is to tailor it specifically for each school. Take the time to research each school, understand its values and mission, and adjust your application accordingly. Show them why you would be a great fit for their specific program and that you have something unique to offer. Highlight any relevant experiences or qualities that make you stand out, and be sure to explain why such experiences would make you an asset in the classroom.

By customizing your application for each school, you’ll show admissions counselors that you have taken the time to get to know their institution and that you are a serious and invested applicant.

Amira Irfan, Founder & CEO, A Self Guru

Create a Custom Website to Promote Your Achievements

Create a website showcasing your accomplishments up to this point. It’s easy to purchase a domain name on GoDaddy, and there are many drag-and-drop website builders (like Wix.com, for example) that make it easy to build an attractive landing page. 

Even if you’re fresh out of high school, you can include volunteer work, organizations you’ve taken part in, and academic achievements. Be sure to include quality photos and multimedia elements if you can. The extra effort will surely catch the eye of any college admissions officer.

Michael Green, Co-Founder, Winona

Talk About Adversity and Unstructured Learning

Your grades are your grades; it’s too late to change them now, but it’s not too late to stand out. Colleges want applicants who will be successful, and you can communicate your potential in two ways. 

The first is if you have faced extreme adversity; a personal story can show discipline and grit. The second is to show your innate curiosity about learning by talking about unstructured learning opportunities you’ve pursued. It doesn’t have to be academic or related to your stated field of interest, but should show your journey and pursuit of knowledge.

Be Honest About Your Shortcomings

My brutally honest tip for college applications is always to personalize and cross-check all the variable details that you’re adding to the application’s cover letter. If you’re sending a simple and boring template to all the colleges, you won’t be getting much success.

The key here is to match your college application with the culture and ethics of the college. It shouldn’t take you over 15 minutes to briefly study the college’s culture, famous alumni, activities, and curriculum, and how you would fit into those. Treat it like a job application and be sure to add the areas where you can add value to the college. 

Also, I’d like students to be mindful of their weaknesses and address them in the application. Never hesitate to open up about your shortcomings and clearly state the steps you’re planning to take to remove those weaknesses. It will surely impress the college administration with an application that is aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

Alex Mastin, CEO & Founder, Home Grounds

Use Your Social Media as an Interactive Resume

Managing your social media presence can make your college application stand out in a few ways. First, having active and well-managed social media pages is becoming increasingly important for many colleges, as many of them value communication skills and the ability to present oneself professionally online.

Moreover, having a strong social media presence helps to showcase your interests, passions, and personality to colleges. This really sets you apart from other applicants and puts a person behind a name on the application form, which is exactly what many modern colleges are seeking.

Finally, by building a personal brand on social media, you can show your expertise and passion in a particular area and make your application appeal to colleges that are looking for students with a strong focus and dedication to a particular field.

Piotrek Sosnowski, Chief People & Culture Officer, HiJunior

Tell Your Story in Your Personal Statement

Consider your life to be a novel, with admission to college being the next chapter. This chapter’s introduction must grab the reader’s attention. Your personal statement for college applications should reflect how your life events, both positive and negative, have molded you into the person you are today. 

Personally, I believe colleges are interested in learning more about a candidate’s motivations, personal growth throughout high school, and long-term goals. One effective strategy is to share your life story. Admissions officers value essays that provide insight into an applicant’s background and the impact of formative experiences on that background. 

Maybe you’d like to share the story of a chance encounter that changed your life, or the time you stepped up to the plate and led a group, or the experience you had when you tried something new for the first time, like playing a sport, traveling, or mastering a new skill.

Andrew Dale, Technical Director, CloudTech24

Stress How You Add Value to the College

What is the one common thing between candidates applying for a job and college? Well, they focus mostly on their own accolades and how great of a candidate they are. 

Now, this is well and good, but this is something every other candidate is doing, so it takes away the uniqueness. If you really want to stand out, focus on how you, as a student, can add value to the college. 

This works the same way; you will still use your accolades and talents, but direct them towards value addition for the college, showing them your worth, which will compound the college’s worth through your admission. This simple strategy can work wonders, as it shows the student is thinking of the college and wants to be a productive and contributing member.

Choose High School Classes Wisely

I know this piece of advice may sound cliché, but colleges can still evaluate your academic talents if you take classes that will help you transition into your degree program. Colleges care about the types and levels of courses you take, as well as your overall performance in each. Your academic performance is a major factor in admissions deliberations. 

The courses you take in your junior or senior year of college should align with the major you plan to pursue. If you’re interested in a career in medicine, for instance, you might benefit by enrolling in an advanced science and mathematics course besides studying biology. You might also enroll in courses over the summer to further your education and experience.

Zephyr Chan, Founder & Growth Marketer, Living The Good Life

Apply Early

To make your application stand out, I suggest applying early. Applying early shows that you are eager and motivated to pursue your education, and it ensures that you will be one of the first applicants being considered by admissions officers. 

Applying early also shows that you are organized and prepared, which are important qualities no matter where you decide to continue your studies. Completing your application well before the due date is an excellent way to ensure that your presence is noticed during the admissions process.

Ludovic Chung-Sao, Lead Engineer & Founder, Zen Soundproof

Craft a Unique and Candid Personal Statement

Universities get thousands of applications each year, so more than the essential elements of your application are needed. Grades, test scores, and extracurriculars may be required. One way to make your college application stand out to admissions officers is to craft a unique and candid personal statement. Reflect on your own life experience and then express it in a thoughtful, authentic way that connects with the college’s core values.

Show that you are passionate about something, articulate why you wish to pursue further education, and explain how you can bring something new and innovative to the institution. With careful crafting and thoughtfulness, you can create an unforgettable essay that will separate you from the competition.

Tom Hamilton-Stubber, Managing Director, Tutor Cruncher

Don’t Go Big, Go Small

When applying to college, one of the biggest and most repeated mistakes I see is being too grandiose.

For example, when asked to write about conquering a challenge, please don’t write about literally climbing Mount Everest or Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s much more interesting if you take the time to do some serious self-reflection and write about a smaller event that really affected you, not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. 

For one, I’ve read the literal mountain story multiple times. Two, any character trait you’re trying to show, like perseverance, you can talk about in a different story. Three, when you write about something “ordinary,” you show colleges you can learn from the little things in life. That’s what they actually want to know, not whether you can afford to spend a ton of money hiring sherpas to conquer your mountain for you.

Beverly Gearreald, Product & Operations Lead, Transizion

Show Us, Don’t Tell Us

None of us want to look at a list of accomplishments. Many college applicants take part in the same kinds of activities, so this does not distinguish one candidate from another. It’s important for every college hopeful to have a story of who they are in their mind and then illustrate this in their application. 

Do you want to be an architect and love designing buildings? When curating your list of activities, prioritize the ones that nurtured your interest in architecture. In your essay, bring us to the moment when you knew this field was for you. Was it a trip where you saw the impact architecture can have? 

Bring us into the trip; what did you see, feel, hear, and how did you engage that interest following this impactful moment? By sharing this story, a candidate stands out and makes us feel as if we know this student. No one will have the same story, so use this to make your application memorable.

Elisha Peterson, MD, MEd, FAAP, FASA, Anesthesiologist & Pain Medicine Physician, Elisha Peterson MD PLLC

Don’t Skimp on Stellar Recommendation Letters

Don’t overlook the importance of a few solid recommendation letters. Turn to teachers, employers, or counselors whom you trust and admire. You want to select people who you know will vouch for your amazing qualities. ‘t skimp on these. If they ask for two to four, for instance, include four if you’re able to. These letters give colleges a great glimpse at your character and what kind of student you’ll be at their institution. It’s a way to impress them from afar.

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