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10 Application Tips To Stand Out To Ivy League Colleges During The Admissions Process

By Christopher Rim | September 6, 2022, at 11:09 a.m.

Admission to top colleges has been growing increasingly competitive. Every year, colleges receive more applications than the last, but are only able to accept roughly the same number of students. In the midst of thousands of competitive applications, complete with near-perfect GPA’s and test scores, it is critical that students provide admissions committees with compelling and unique applications in order to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Most admissions offices at elite schools have only a few minutes to evaluate applications in their first round of consideration, so students need to take advantage of the time they have now to craft an application that will capture colleges’ attention. These applications are a student’s chance to authentically and effectively showcase their achievements and personalities, and demonstrate to admissions officers that they would be a valuable addition to their campus community.

Essays, activities list, recommendation letters, deadlines — application season entails a bunch of components that students need to keep track of before they submit. Every student must navigate many moving parts throughout the college admissions process, so it’s important that they follow a strategic plan throughout the fall and stay on track. While the best application strategy truly varies from student to student, the following ten tips are useful for any senior who is looking to put together a well-crafted application and navigate every component of their application process as effectively as possible.

1. Start early

Rising seniors should start working on their applications as soon as they become available. The vast majority of schools published their 2022-2023 prompts and requirements in early August, so seniors should now be finalizing their college lists with families and counselors, keeping track of each college’s application requirements, and writing essays. Working on applications at the eleventh hour creates both unnecessary stress and room for error.

2. Do thoughtful college research

Great results in the college process rely heavily on thoughtful college research and list-building. Students should attend college fairs, browse school websites, check out course offerings, sign up for virtual or in-person campus tours, and ask questions about the schools they’re interested in. Most schools with supplements will ask questions like “Why our school?” and admission officers can easily tell which students have both a genuine interest in attending their school and values and goals that align with their institutional mission. Some schools also track demonstrated interest. This makes expressing interest and asking questions about schools all the more important.

3. Pick recommenders wisely

While teachers all want the best outcomes for their students in the college application process, not all recommendation letters are equally effective. A generic letter will be much less effective than a deeply personalized letter that highlights a student’s strengths and passions. The best recommendations come from teachers who have a detailed understanding of a student’s abilities and growth over time and are enthusiastic about writing a letter. Seniors should ask their teachers for letters of recommendation at the start of this school year if they have not already done so.

4. Take time to write strong essays

The writing process can be more time consuming than students expect, so it is imperative that students start working on these essays early. It’s also important that students find friends, teachers, or mentors who can read over their writing to offer feedback about how they come across in their essays. Proofreading is essential—both content and presentation matter to admissions officers.

5. Answer optional supplemental questions

One of the main challenges of writing strong college applications is that students need to demonstrate as much about themselves and their accomplishments as possible. Therefore, they must take every opportunity to describe different facets of their personality and their achievements. It’s safe to say that optional questions posed in a supplemental essay section are not really optional.

6. Submit supplemental materials

In addition to the previous tip, students should send supplemental materials if they have the opportunity to do so (but should never submit any supplemental essays or materials that are not requested or accepted by colleges). For instance, if students have completed extensive work in music or visual arts, even if they do not plan on pursuing the arts in college or professionally, they can send videos of musical performances or a portfolio of their work. Some colleges permit one supplemental letter from an outside recommender; students should think carefully about who can speak to a new side of their personalities and abilities. Common supplemental recommenders include internship or work supervisors, or sports coaches, for example.

7. Emphasize uniqueness, leadership, and impact

When writing their activities section and essays, students should discuss unique out-of-school extracurricular and volunteer activities, highlight and reflect upon leadership roles, and clearly convey their specific accomplishments and impact on their community. It is essential that they show what matters to them, how they think, and how their perspective and involvement—even in common activities—differs from that of hundreds of other applicants who are involved in similar activities.

8. Submit test scores strategically

In light of the COVID pandemic, many schools have opted to adopt a test-optional policy, through which students may choose whether or not to send SAT/ACT scores. Students should compare their score against the historical statistics published by each of their prospective colleges, and only send their scores if they are at or above the typical score ranges of admitted students.

9. Practice interviews

A major component of many schools’ admissions processes is an interview, typically conducted by an alum of the school. Much like a job interview, students should prepare ahead of time by practicing their responses to common questions and thinking of a few specific, thoughtful questions to ask their interviewer.

10. Be honest and genuine

No student is perfect, and every admissions officer is well aware of this. If a student has outlying grades in their academic record or extenuating circumstances, they should be honest and give context in their application. Admissions officers are interested in students’ accomplishments and talent, but their character and capacity for growth are equally as important. Whether in their personal statements, supplements, or interviews, students should strive to present themselves in a positive but genuine light.

As the school year starts, being proactive, organized, and aware of these different application components will help seniors have the best possible outcomes in their college processes. Best of luck to all seniors and families in the 2022-2023 application cycle!


Originally published in Forbes on September 6, 2022

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