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Accepted: Make your college application stand out

By Leah Gibson on August 1st, 2012 • College & Career, college applications, Going to college
Originally appeared in: Fall 2012Starting Line

Filling out too many forms can be hazardous to your health. Or at least it should be. Those prepping for college can go cross-eyed filling out application after scholarship after form all in the hopes of getting into the school their heart is set on. We can't help your headache from filling out your address for the billionth time, but we can help you tackle the application process.

All in the timing

Whether you're in high school or considering college after a hiatus, the time to get college-ready is now. Early-decision applications are generally due around November 1, and speedy students can secure some pretty sweet perks, like priority processing, early advising, and early registration. Columbia University, for example, is notoriously difficult to get into--the admittance rate for the class of 2014 was just 9%, but 43% of those admitted were early decisions. When it comes to admissions, being at the front of the line can only help.

Sorting the options

There are literally thousands of schools to choose from, but before you freak out, use the "College Search" at bigfuture.collegeboard.org to narrow the playing field. Results are generated based on your specific college preferences (e.g., majors, location, cost and finan¬cial aid, extracurricular activities, and student services). Once you have a list that isn't quite so overwhelming, start checking individual schools for admission requirements, learning models, dorm living, night life, intramural activities… you see where this is going.

Sort the list into three categories: reach, match and safety schools. Applying to a "reach school" means you fall below the academic requirements for incoming freshmen, but you still have a chance of getting in with a strong essay, extracurricular activities and excellent recommendation letters. At a "match school," your application meets or exceeds freshman requirements, and a "safety school" is basically a sure bet--you'll probably get in. You can reasonably expect admittance to the latter two schools, but reach schools will take more work. Altogether, aim to apply to five to eight schools.

Fill in the bubble

Once you get through all the fill-in-the-blank, name-your-parents, what-do-you-want-to-major-in kind of stuff on the applications, the next big box is for standardized tests. The SAT and ACT are typically interchangeable, but some schools may prefer one test over the other. Check applications to see what is required. For those that let you choose, here are the standout differences:

The ACT is more focused--testing trigonometry, natural sciences, and social studies, just to name a few--while the SAT is more generalized in reading, writing and math.

  • The ACT is multiple choice with an optional writing section. The SAT has multiple choice, student-response math questions, and a required writing section.
  • The SAT takes nearly an hour longer to complete.

Choose the test that caters to your strengths, and schedule a test date that allows time to study, test and re-test (if needed) before applications are due. Check out sat.collegeboard.org and actstudent.org for test dates, locations and free study materials. The SAT costs $49 and the ACT is $34, but you may be eligible for waived fees. Ask your high school counselor for more information.

Strength in words

The truth is that even students with perfect SAT scores and grades don't always get into highly competitive schools. A killer essay is also important. In your essay, write about something other than what you've discussed in other application materials. Whatever you decide to write about, it's important to showcase your personality and make it memorable. That's easier to accomplish when writing about unique experiences rather than more common and even cliché topics like visits to other countries or national disasters.

The other big written portion of each application is, thankfully, one you don't have to write. But you're not off the hook altogether. Letters of recommendation are required for many applications. When choosing writers, select a mix of professional and personal contacts. Suggest topics for them to consider writing about, such as a class project that received a high grade or the reason you earned a raise at work. Give writers plenty of time. You want them to put thought into why they support your efforts.

Show off

Proving that you are well-rounded and have interests outside of school can help beef up the application and create interest, and the best spot to do this is when you're detailing activities. Work experience shows that you have learned valuable real-world skills that can be applied to your college routine, such as time management and organization. Extracurricular activities such as a team sport or an interesting hobby show that you are dedicated and passionate about your interests.

Sizing up in person

Some colleges require an in-person interview as part of the application process. Interviewers will ask questions regarding why you want to go to that college specifically and what qualities you can bring to the school by attending. They may also ask about your personality and skills, as well as volunteer or work experience and extra-curricular activities. In order to answer these questions well, research the college ahead of time and practice interviewing. Be prepared to talk about your strengths and weaknesses, goals, interests, and even current events. Focus on why you are a good fit for the school, not vice versa.

The Bottom Line

In 2010, there were 6,632 post-secondary (after high school) schools in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education. With that many options, you have plenty of choices and opportunities to further your education. Grab the next application from the pile, take a deep breath, and give it all you’ve got.

Sources: princetonreview.com; forbes.com; columbia.edu; ed.gov; collegeboard.org; suite101.com; uoregon.edu; harvard.edu; kaptest.com; actstudent.org; wwu.edu


I am a sophomore at 4-year cogllee right now and don't like the school. I want to fininsh off this coming semester so I can transfer to a community cogllee since it's cheaper. I plan on taking the next semester at a cc. And then when I become a junior, I'm going to another 4-year cogllee to graduate. Will the cogllees I will be applying next year wonder why I started out as a student at a 4-year cogllee but then decided to transfer over to a community cogllees?

by DolphineShark on March 23, 2013

 Hi Dolphine. It's hard to say if they'll question it. It depends on whether you use a special program to transfer to a cc, such as dual enrollment or filing a request for a year's sabatical from school (in which case you wouldn't necessarily have to reapply to go back). If you do have to reapply, and they wonder, they'll likely just ask and you can tell them the truth. Given how expensive college is these days, I'm sure any entrance councelor will understand. 

by jenniebartlemay on March 26, 2013

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