How to Make Your College Application Stand Out

Standing out from the crowd

Every college or university will review your application in a slightly different way. There are some consistent components which most colleges will require.  In fact, nearly 500 public and private institutions now subscribe to the Common Application, which allows students to complete one standard online document and submit it, with some minor variations, to all of the colleges on their list.  To help you put your best foot forward, here is a table listing the elements of a college application and how to make your application stand out:

Application Component Basic definition How to make your application stand out
Application Collects basic background information about you, your family, your educational history, and your future plans. Take your time to get the facts right the first time around so you don’t have to go back and update them.
Activity list


A place to briefly outline the primaryextracurricular, volunteer, and work activities that you have been involved with since 9th grade. If you find that you need more room to explain your commitments, consider including a resume as an additional attachment (on the Common Application, this would happen in the space that asks if there is any additional information you would like to include at the end of the form).
Short answer A chance to share a little more information about an extracurricular activity or work experience that has been particularly meaningful to you and why it was significant. Since this space is capped at 150 words, jump right into an anecdote about a specific memory/experience that demonstrates why this activity is particularly meaningful to you.
Essay/personal statement The section of the college application that students often find the most intimidating is actually the single best opportunity you have to give the admissions committee more insight into who you are and what makes you a compelling applicant. Be thoughtful, self-reflective, and strategic about what you share (but do so in less than 650 words!).
School-Specific Supplements Many colleges on the Common Application ask that you submit additional information, usually in the form of short answer questions, that is particular to their school. These are just as important – if not more so! – as the standard application questions.  Do your homework on the school and make sure your answers are as specific and personalized to each institution as possible.
Transcript Colleges ask for your official high school transcript so that they can assess your academic performance and the rigor of your curriculum within the context of your school and community.


In addition to asking your counselor about their procedures and timelines for sending transcripts, be sure to also request official transcripts from any colleges, summer programs, or distance learning courses from which you have earned credits.
Teacher Recommendations Colleges will require 1-2 recommendations from teachers who have taught you in core academic courses in 11th or 12th grade. Be sure to ask teachers who can highlight different aspects of your academic and personal strengths. Make sure to ask teachers if they are able to speak positively about you. Note that sometimes the best recs come from teachers who did not give you the highest grade.
School Report and Counselor Recommendation


Completed by either your guidance counselor or college adviser at your school, this section allows colleges to get a better sense of who you are in the context of your high school. Even if you are at a big school, it is important to get to know your counselor early on so that they can write a more robust and personal letter on your behalf.
Standardized testing score report Although you might be asked to self-report your SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests scores on the application, most schools require that official copies of your test results be sent electronically from the appropriate testing agencies. There are fees associated with sending these scores, however, all students receive 4 free score reports to use at the time of registration so you should take advantage of this opportunity to reduce costs. Additionally, if you used a fee waiver to register for the SAT or SAT Subject tests, you are granted a credit on your CollegeBoard account for 4 additional free score reports to be used at a later date.
Application fee/fee waiver Although some colleges may automatically waive their application fees for students who apply online or who meet certain criteria, the vast majority of schools do require an application fee which often ranges between $30-$75. Students who qualify for free/reduced lunch or meet other stated guidelines can receive application fee waivers from their high school counselor, but you will need to inquire about this early in the fall.


Midyear Report Whether you apply early action, early decision, or regular decision to a college, you will need to ask your school counselor to send a grade report listing your first quarter/trimester/semester grades to schools so that they can see what courses you are taking and how you are performing. Choose an appropriately rigorous course load for senior year to demonstrate to colleges that you are challenging yourself and will be ready to transition into college-level classes.
Final Report Counselors are required to send your final transcript which lists your courses and grades for the entire year, in addition to confirmation of your graduation, to the college which you will attend. Senior year doesn’t end at the time of your application!  Keep up your grades and the rigor of your curriculum for the entire senior year. College acceptances can be reversed if new information is received on the final report which indicates a drastic change in performance.



Interview Although usually not required, many selective colleges offer applicants interviews on-campus, via Skype, or with alumni in communities around the country (and even the world!). This is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate interest in the college, make a personal connection with someone affiliated with the institution, and share information about yourself that may not be captured on the application. This is also a chance to find out if the school is a good fit for you.
Supplemental Recommendations Beyond the 1-2 academic recommendations and the counselor report, you may feel that there is another person, such as an employer, club advisor, homeroom teacher, clergy person, or coach who can speak to your academic/extracurricular achievements or personal challenges you’ve overcome in high school. Although most colleges will accept additional letters of recommendation, limit these supplemental letters to 1 or 2.


Arts Supplement If you have a particular talent in an area of the visual or performing arts, you might consider submitting slides or a CD of your work to colleges, in addition to a recommendation from an instructor who can speak to your ability level. Only submit an arts supplement if you are accomplished in an artistic area, especially if it is something you are considering pursuing as a major or a profession.  This option would not be appropriate for beginners.
Athletic Supplement If you are interested in playing collegiate sports or are a particularly accomplished high school athlete, you should work with your coach to put together a resume listing your stats and athletic accomplishments, as well as a video of your highlights. If you are interested in competing at the Division I or II levels, you must register with the NCAA Clearinghouse and familiarize yourself with the eligibility guidelines.