Insider Tips for Nailing those College Applications
Sabrina is a 17-year-old senior from Bellevue, WA. She loves to figure skate, eat vast quantities of frozen yogurt, and jump in lakes in the middle of the night! Her favorite subject is English, because she loves to write and read anything she can get her hands on.
If you’re a senior in high school or the parent of a senior in high school, listen up! And if you have a few grades yet to go before seriously thinking about college, beginning to follow this guide now will give you an edge when it actually comes time to apply to college. As a slightly college-obsessed senior myself, I’ve conducted extensive research into the college application process and, specifically, what colleges like and don’t like to see in an applicant. I’ve found that most articles addressing this topic are rather vague and give advice like, “get good grades, play sports, and do volunteer work.” While those things are important, I’m going to suggest some more specific strategies to receive that coveted “fat envelope” on May 1st, the most common admission decision notification date.
Create a Theme
Colleges like nothing more than to see an applicant with a passion—just one or two passions is plenty. Depth is preferable over breadth when it comes to extracurricular activities, because nothing shouts “I did this to impress college admissions officers!” louder than an applicant who is minimally involved in dozens of after school activities but doesn’t seem to be committed to any of them. Focus on one activity you’ve been really involved with over the past 4 years, and reference it throughout your entire application. For example, say you’re passionate about saving the environment. Many applicants might volunteer planting trees with an environmental conservation group every week, but in order to stand out from the crowd, you need to go beyond that and convey the depth of your passion by being involved in it in multiple ways. Become involved with eco club at your school, attend lectures and presentations by environmental speakers in your area, or, best of all, organize a fundraiser/ charity drive through another of your extracurricular activities—say a youth group, sports team, or band you’re involved with—and donate the money to an environmental restoration charity. By showing colleges that you care enough about the activity to devote extra time to it, you make yourself stand apart from the majority of applicants who merely plant those trees so they can put in on their applications.
Obtain them. Enough said! Colleges love, love, love leaders, so if you are captain of the swim team, yearbook editor, or a student government officer, play that up in your application! If you took the initiative to become a leader of any kind in high school, you’re a sure bet to do so in college as well, and colleges want to admit those take-charge kinds of students!
Although it may seem counterintuitive, do not instinctively ask the teacher whose class you did best in last year to write any recommendation letters the schools you’re applying to require. Such a teacher will surely commend your work ethic and intelligence in their letter, but colleges will already see that information on your high school transcript. Your recommendation letters need to be from teachers who really know you well enough to write letters that not only glow with praise for you, but also highlight your personal qualities that might not be seen elsewhere in your application. Did you struggle in math first semester last year, but worked your butt off second semester and got extra help from your teacher—and subsequently received a higher grade? Ask that math teacher you to write your recommendation, because they probably know you better than the teacher who taught a class you breezed through with no effort.
Despite what people say, your college essays do not need to be heart-wrenchingly sad, mind-bogglingly eloquent, or laugh-until-you-cry hilarious. Certainly, it will not hurt you to write an essay that induces such emotions in its readers, but the pressure of sitting down to write the best essay ever can make it impossible to come up with any good ideas. Most colleges have a general prompt of some sort that’s open to a wide variety of interpretations, usually along the lines of “Tell us something about you not evident in the rest of your application” or “Describe a quality you possess or experience you had that has shaped your life in a significant way.” Although prompts like these are intimidating to respond to, keep in mind that the real question they’re asking is this: who are you? College admissions officers are people too, and they know that you’re more than just your SAT scores and GPA, and they want to know if you, as a person, would fit in well at their school. That’s it. So when you sit down to write that scary college essay, write with one goal in mind: show what kind of a person you are. The best essays show the message you’re trying to convey to colleges without reverting to telling it. Pick a short anecdote from your life that portrays your quirky sense of humor, your kindness, or your leadership ability, and write a story about it. If done well, you won’t need to add any explanatory sentences like “And so, from this experience, I changed by ______” or “So because I am so _____, I was able to _____ in this situation better than if I didn’t have that quality.” Once again: Show your message in your story, and you’re good to go.
So, there you have it: a few insider tips from someone who’s researched the college admission process extensively. I hope they prove helpful in your own college application process, now or whenever that time comes for you. Best of luck!