Seven must-haves for a successful college application

Tips to ensure that your application to college stands out from the crowd

April 16, 2023 08:15 pm | Updated April 17, 2023 10:28 am IST

It is important to make one’s college application stand out.

It is important to make one’s college application stand out. | Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Getty Images

If you are an ambitious high-schooler hoping to apply to college within the next three years, here are some ways to ensure that your application stands out so that you get the best shot at your dream college.  While each college is unique and looks for something specific (Carnegie Mellon looks for quirky and passionate people whereas Stanford considers international excellence. Where Cambridge expects research and academic excellence, and Ashoka wants independent thinkers), generally all colleges want driven, passionate and smart students who add value to the classroom. So consider these points:

Strong academic record 

Grades are the foundation of a great application and there is no formula to override marks. While most universities don’t announce cutoffs, there are unwritten norms for high-school grades that prove your ability to handle the course load at a leading university. Average grade levels are often published unofficially for almost any university. If you are a smart test-taker who can crack the grades, you have won half the battle.

Demonstration of rigour

This is really about the ability to take on and handle a difficult course load. Universities respect a student who goes beyond his/her comfort zone to take on challenging courses. Students who get good scores in Advanced Placement (AP) exams signal a very strong study ethic. Take on higher-level courses in the subjects you are planning to pursue at college. 

Strong test scores 

Although most U.S. colleges are test-optional now, a great SAT/ACT score adds value to students applying to competitive colleges and competitive courses. Many Indian colleges now accept these scores in lieu of their own admission test. The IELTS is mandatory for most students applying anywhere abroad. Some U.K. universities like Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial require testing, including Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), Mathematics Admissions Test MAT), Physics Admissions Test (PAT), and Law National Admissions Test (LNAT). In India, apart from the JEE, NEET and CLAT, Ashoka University has the AAT, OP Jindal has the JSAT, and FLAME has the FEAT.

Well-written essays

Essays are where you showcase your personality, as well as the depth of your knowledge about the subject you are applying for. Personal essays are a place to connect with the human side of the admissions team and engage them in a conversation. Your essay should reflect your unique voice: your life, your values, your perspectives, and your personal growth. 

Statements of purpose allow you to showcase how well you understand a subject: what aspects you enjoy; what research and reading have you done outside the syllabus; and what projects or internships have helped you understand its practical applications. 

Unique interest or passion 

Extracurricular activities add to your credentials only when they have been consistent for at least two years or more! Colleges like to see students develop in a continued area of interest over their high school years. Contests and awards, especially at the national/international level, add to your credentials. Performance videos also hold value and several students make their own websites or YouTube channels to showcase their work. Quality and depth are more important here rather than quantity and variety. It is also advisable to build your profile in the area you plan to study in college. For example, if you want to pursue psychology, internships or research work or membership in psychology, mental health or human resources clubs will help.

Community service

While this seems to be a checklist item that all students want to cross off during their high school journey, it makes an impact only if you have made a noticeable, concrete, and positive change to the community/ organisation you were trying to help. Numbers help — funds raised, the number of workshops conducted, the number of medical kits distributed, or the number of users touched by an app. 

Recommendation letters 

The idea is for colleges to hear directly from people who know the student well, in order to gain a better understanding. Ensure that you choose someone in whose class you are doing well. Try to also choose someone who is a little familiar with you and can emphasise your strengths. Here’s a pro tip: share a summary sheet with the teacher who is giving you the recommendation.

Finally, while these are tips for a strong overall college application, it is also important to research and emphasise why you have chosen that particular college and how their vision aligns with your personal goals to seal the deal. 

With inputs from Kritika Malhotra

The writer is Founder and CEO, Inomi Learning, a Gurugram-based career and college guidance firm.

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