51 College Admissions Tips
The college application process is overwhelming. You have to take standardized tests, write essays, piece together your activities, ask for letters of recommendation, and research schools – all while maintaining good grades and impressive extracurriculars.
On top of the logistics of simply putting together an application, it is now harder than ever to get into elite schools. More and more students are applying, and more and more of these students are academically qualified. So how can you make sure that you put together a good application, while also making sure you stand out?
Our team of admissions experts at InGenius Prep has compiled a list of college admissions tips spanning everything from freshman year planning to filling out your activities list to choosing your school.
As you start thinking about the college application process, check these 51 college admissions tips!
51 College Admissions Tips
College Admissions Tips – Early Planning
1. You start writing your application when you enter high school
You start writing your application years before you’ve even put together a school list. Think early about your interests, passions, and what makes you unique. And in terms of the actual application, once September of your senior year hits, it is hard to juggle your college applications, schoolwork, sports practice, drama club meetings, volunteering, social life, family dinners – the list goes on. Starting your applications in the summer before senior year is a great way to relieve stress later on in the process.
2. Do something you enjoy for your sustained community service or volunteer work
While picking up trash and reading books to the elderly are certainly nice things, if you aren’t passionate about them or they have no relation to your interests, you’re simply just checking a box. When schools say “impact” they don’t mean just going through the motions. A student who is pursuing something they are passionate about or interested in, will always do a better job and accomplish more impressive achievements.
3. Try starting a company or nonprofit while still in high school
Leadership is one of the most attractive features that colleges seek in their admitted students. One “easy” way of demonstrating leadership and initiative is to start a company or nonprofit of your own. If you are starting a company, you should go to the website for your state’s secretary of state (e.g., Google “New York secretary of state”) and search for LLC formation or registration. It’s relatively inexpensive, and hugely beneficial to the credibility of your venture to have your own LLC. If you are starting a non-profit, come up with your own idea, and then get your friends to work with you – especially if they are in need of some volunteer opportunities. Remember: results speak louder than titles, so when you put this on your application, make sure you highlight your tangible achievements.
4. Understand the admissions process as a whole and exploit any advantages
How can you expect to succeed in something when you don’t understand how it operates? What do colleges look for and value beyond the buzzwords on the website? Great schools may be lacking in certain majors or departments that are less funded and that the schools are trying to improve. Research schools to see if your individual academic or extracurricular interests can benefit and add to specific programs.
5. Set all of your application due dates in a calendar to be several dates earlier than the actual deadlines
Emergencies and extenuating circumstances happen all of the time, but your universities typically won’t care. Make sure that you prepare to have all of your different tasks and materials finished days in advance, so that if anything unpredictable were to arise, you would have some time built in before the actual due date.
6. Clean up your social media accounts
Admissions officers and alumni interviewers have been known to check out student’s social media profiles during the application process. Make sure you have gone through and deleted anything that would be a potential red flag well before submitting your application.
7. Understand what schools are looking for, and play to those needs
People rarely think about admissions offices as being comprised of actual, living people – but that is certainly the case. What’s more, those people have bosses, and those bosses have metrics they use to grade the performance of admissions offices. One of those metrics is called “yield”, which is a measure of how many students that were accepted by the admissions office actually decided to attend the school. The very top schools may be more confident that you will attend if accepted, but for schools outside of that very elite group, hearing that they are your top choice, and that you will definitely attend if accepted, may make the difference in a borderline application. Of course, you should make sure that if you tell a school that they are your top choice, that it is actually true.
8. Think like an admissions officer
While putting together your application, think about any questions or concerns an individual may have about admitting you. If there are concerns about your grades or testing, speak with a recommender about addressing those weaknesses in your candidacy.
9. Try to meet your regional admissions officer
Admissions officers are typically assigned to a particular region. One person might be assigned to Massachusetts, another to California, and another to Texas. Try to figure out who your regional admissions officer is, and when they will be visiting high schools in your area (or your high school). You should ask the admissions office whether it would be worthwhile for you to travel and meet your regional admissions officer. If they say yes, do it. Make sure you bring some good questions with you. You are not meeting them to beg for admission, you are meeting them to show your genuine interest, and ask questions that demonstrate that you have done your homework on the school.
10. Create a compelling application persona
When you start thinking about your college applications, it’s crucial that you create an application persona, or “central theme” to your application. There needs to be a unique, memorable, and persuasive narrative that ties together all of your application components – the personal statement, activities list, supplemental essays, letters of recommendation, etc. Successful applications have a “hook.” How do you want to be remembered?
College Admissions Tips – Standardized Testing
11. Retake standardized tests strategically
It is a waste of time and effort to retake a standardized test with preparing more thoroughly for the exam and improving your score. Most exams, such as the SAT and the ACT, shouldn’t be retaken for incremental score improvements. This energy would be better spent improving other aspects of your application. Anticipate that you won’t take the SAT or ACT more than two or three times, and plan accordingly. Prepare for the test in advance through a test prep course or a personal study plan. Do not schedule a retake if you don’t believe something has changed (your preparation) that will notably improve your score.
12. Choose SAT II test dates that coincide with your class schedule
When’s the best time to take SAT Subject Tests? When the material is still fresh! A great time to take these tests is June after your junior year. You will have just finished up taking classes, and your standardized test-taking ability will be at a peak from studying for SAT/ACT’s!
13. Don’t forget to send your test scores
Senior Fall is a stressful time of the year. With so many moving pieces, it’s easy to forget a part. So don’t forget to send in your test scores! Especially since it usually takes College Board/ACT about two weeks to send your scores to colleges. If you are retaking a test and already know which schools you want the new scores to go to, use the free score report on your test date, which will get your scores delivered 1 day after results come out, or about 2.5 weeks after the exam date.
14. Apply for scholarships early
Many students wait until January to start their scholarship search and application. But if you could nail down some third-party funding beforehand, not only will you be more financially secure, you may also appear more impressive to the admissions office and increase your likelihood of being admitted. College Board, Unigo, Fastweb, and Peterson’s are some good scholarship databases to start your scholarship search.
College Admissions Tips – Activities List
15. Use your first few activities as a framing opportunity
The Activities & Experiences list on the Common Application (or similar spaces on other application systems) is your second-best opportunity to shape the narrative about your candidacy. Just because this isn’t a free-form writing opportunity like the personal statement, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use every tool at your disposal to advance your story. You can use the categories, the order of the list, the description of your involvement, and other features to your advantage.
16. Use action words on your activities list
You are allowed 150 characters to describe your activities. Make every character count by employing active verbiage! Make your descriptions pop with active, enterprising, confident, bold, powerful English language. Use words like lead, start, found, direct, organize, change, transform, learn, teach, enhance, improve, engage.
17. Discuss non-traditional activities
Do you babysit your siblings? Are you responsible for cooking for your family? Do you have a part-time job? Make sure to report those in the activity section. Admissions Offices want to know how you spend your time outside of class, even if it’s not in a school activity.
18. List any rare or unique hobbies or interests
Activities or interests that don’t seem academically relevant can often be unique, easily memorable, and show dedication to a passion. “Avid sneaker collector”, “followed a rock band across the country”, or “built a boat with your grandfather” are all great examples. Some also may qualify as other forms of learning that may not necessarily be “academic.” While these may not be worthy of a spot on an activities list, they are certainly worth a bullet point on your resume at a minimum.
19. Write comparatively on your activities list
Show how your accomplishments stack up to the competition. Did you win first prize? Great! Were you the only person in the competition, or were you competing against 10,000 others? Better! Were you the first person from your school, city, state, or country to win this prize? Even better! See how that might make a difference to the reader?
20. Are you being honest with your time commitments in the activities list?
Admissions officers can add. Make sure that the amount of time you spend in your extracurriculars isn’t outside the realm of what is reasonable for a student with normal time commitments.
21. Order matters
The Common App allows you to list 10 activities. Once you have narrowed down your list to the activities of strategic importance to your application, you want to give them priority. As a general rule, list them in order of their importance to you. Ordinarily, that will generally correspond to the activities in which you have been most deeply involved, for the longest period of time, in which you have played an outsized leadership role, and accomplished the most.
College Admissions Tips – Letters of Recommendation
22. Strategically select your letters of recommendation writers
The most successful letters of recommendation will come from the teachers and coaches who know you best. This matters more than the credentials of the person, although a (specific and thoughtful) letter from a recognizable name is great. Ideally, your letters of recommendation can expand on and augment the strengths of your application, as well as explain any mitigating factors (a poor grade, a weak semester). Another thing to consider: It’s great if your letters don’t all say exactly the same things. It can be helpful to ask teachers who know you in different capacities, especially if they know you through extracurriculars, sports, or leadership roles beyond the classroom. They’ll be able to speak to these strengths of your application, as well as your academic prowess.
23. Don’t be passive about letters of recommendation
Just because you are not responsible for writing these letters, does not mean you should be passive about soliciting the letters. You should strategize with your recommenders and provide them with raw materials such as experiences or work you’ve done together that exemplifies the qualities and attributes you want them to cover in their letters.
24. Add an additional letter of recommendation
Are you involved in an activity outside of school? Sometimes, it’s helpful to have the leader of a non-school affiliated activity write on your behalf. A coach, your job supervisor, or the director at a nonprofit you volunteer with are all great options.
25. Cultivate a connection with your high school guidance counselor
Many high school guidance counselors have too many students to get to know each one individually. Yet, this person will be writing a letter of recommendation for you and submitting your school profile. You should seek out your counselor and demonstrate your commitment and engagement in the process. Also, you should actively be involved in guiding your counselor’s work and double checking with him or her: Have your letter and school profiles been submitted on time?
26. Know your class rank and how it will be reported
If a school only reports percentile rankings, a student ranked number one or two will be at a disadvantage if the school states that she is in the top 10% or top 25% of a school of 800 students. If a school only reports number grades or letter grades, without a rank, it will be hard for admissions offices to assess whether this student stands out or not. Letters of recommendation are great places for additional information. A guidance counselor may state that the school does not report class rank, but that student X has the highest grades in the senior class. Understanding how your grades and rank will be reported is important.
27. Understand who you’re competing with
Take a careful look at the “school report/profile,” which is usually located on the school’s website or is available from the College Counseling office. This report will tell universities about the grades, test scores and involvement that students at your school typically have. Make sure to be unique and impressive compared to the information provided!
College Admissions Tips – Personal Statement
28. Spend More Time Reflecting than Writing
Personal writing is unfamiliar to most high school students. It requires deep reflection and abundant brainstorming. It’s not something you can sit down and hammer out in a few hours. You will inevitably go through dozens of drafts and re-assess plenty of topics or themes before settling on your final version. Remember, no writing is ever really complete; it’s just submitted.
29. The personal statement is not an opportunity to repeat your activities list
If you are using your activities list as an outline for your personal statement for college, then your personal statement will probably be a waste of space. The personal statement is an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions office, and delve deeper into your passions, interests, and character than you could in the other portions of the application. Stay focused, and think about depth over breadth. If three or more of your activities are making an appearance in your personal statement, you are probably overreaching.
30. Make your personal statement personal
Your personal statement is the best place to show an admissions officer an authentic version of who you are. The most effective way to do this is, pretty obviously, writing about yourself. Schools want to admit you, so show them who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what your goals are.
31. Avoid writing about clichéd topics for your personal statement
Admissions officers hate to read another essay about the injured athlete, inspiring family member, or story from middle school. Tell a story that is unique to you. An admissions officer should be able to put your essay down and know that nobody else could have written it.
32. All prompts are created equal
When given the option to choose prompts, don’t stress out that one prompt will be perceived in a better light than another. You should choose whichever prompt can better highlight your individuality, your goals, your personality, or your passions.
33. Don’t play the sympathy card in essays or interviews
Going to an elite college can be a life altering experience for any applicant. Great schools know they are great schools. Don’t promise to work hard and be a great student, especially if you’ve been an averagely good student in the past. Be upfront and direct about any issues or problems you’ve had in the past, and don’t make excuses for them. Admissions offices appreciate maturity.
34. Get feedback from family and friends on your essay and activities list
Your family members and friends know you well and think highly of you! They might be able to point out strengths you’ve forgotten to highlight or activities you’ve overlooked that would benefit your list. Feedback from a close family member or friend will help you gauge the tone of your essay. Does it sound like you to that person? Does it show who you are and what’s unique about you? Or could this essay have been written by basically anyone applying to the school?
An essay full of typos is a sign to an admissions officer that you did not care about your application. Read over your personal statement. Then read over it again. Then have your mom look at it. Then get a stranger to double check it for errors. You get the picture. And you should apply this tip to everything you write in the application, whether it is your home address or your activities descriptions.
College Admissions Tips – Supplemental Essays and Materials
36. Send in additional materials
If something significant happens after the deadline that enhances your candidacy, feel free to send a brief note to the admissions office about the event. For example, if you made the national field hockey team or were published in a scientific journal, you should send this information to your school.
37. Update your materials even after Early Action or Early Decision submission
Just because you submitted your Common App to your ED/EA school(s) doesn’t mean you are done with it! You might have rushed to put everything together, so it may not be your most polished work. After you submit it for ED/EA, come back to your personal statement and activities list with fresh eyes and polish them up again. After all, most students are admitted during Regular Decision, so you may as well put your strongest foot forward.
38. Fill gaps and answer unanswered questions
Read over your application and think about what the worst thought an admissions officer could think in response to reading your materials might be. If it’s something that is rooted in a lack of information about your candidacy, give them that information! For instance, if you’re applying to science programs and you’ve done demonstrably worse in all of your science classes in high school, that might warrant some explanation in one of your essays or addenda.
39. Use the “Additional Information” section
If your activities list or your personal statement doesn’t allow you to provide more detail about an aspect of your candidacy, use the additional information section to elaborate. That being said, use this section strategically. If your grades dipped one semester due to a death in the family, that is a perfectly fine thing to explain. If they dropped because you were too busy playing video games, best to not make excuses.
40. Spend time on the supplemental essays
You don’t have to wait until your Common App personal statement is completely polished before tackling the supplemental essays. Otherwise, you might not give the attention they deserve. General advice for the personal statement also applies here: make it personal, concise, and compelling. Avoid general philosophical musing about the state of the world, or superficial ideas that lack depth. Most importantly, make sure you answer the prompt directly. Have a family member, friend, or mentor read your supplemental without the prompt. See if s/he could guess what the prompt was. If yes, then you have addressed the prompt. If not, then you should consider re-writing.
41. Avoid regurgitating school marketing materials
Too many “Why _____ School?” essays contain paraphrased versions of the school’s marketing collateral. You should think about every such question as if the prompt were “Why will ____ school benefit you and why will you contribute uniquely to the ______ school community?”
42. Get your facts straight
Make sure you thoroughly know what a specific school offers, so that it doesn’t look like you have not done your homework. For example, stating that you hope to major in business at Stanford, where there is no undergraduate business major, is a clear sign that you did not do any research.
43. Be aware of what questions are typically asked in interviews
It is relatively easy to find past interview questions asked by particular universities either on the university’s website, college confidential, or other blogs/forums. InGenius Prep also has info on these questions. Ask yourself, or have someone ask you, these questions and practice your responses to them and to questions that would be similar in nature.
44. Make sure to show individual schools that you are interested in them
Sign up for email lists, visit that school’s table at a local college info session, visit campus and sign up for an admissions tour, and generally engage with the school. Showing a long-term, vested interest in a school is important. Applying Early Action or Early Decision is also a great way to show interest.
College Admissions Tips – Choosing a School
45. Build a balanced school list
Your school list should have a mix of reach, fit, and safety schools. A good finalized list will include at least 20% “safety” schools and at least 30% “fit” schools. College Kickstart allows you to demo a list of schools and input grades and test scores. It provides great feedback on the feasibility of the list and your college admissions chances at specific schools.
46. Find “Hidden Gem” schools
With close to 2500 four-year institutions in the US, considering only the schools you have heard of might cause you to miss schools that would otherwise be great fit for you. A lot of the time, students from the same high school apply to the same colleges, which increases your competition. Look beyond the schools everyone is talking about and be open to out-of-state institutions, as they may just have the right program or scholarship to support your learning.
47. If you want to be an engineer, don’t overlook the liberal arts schools
Students tend to think that the only places you can get a decent engineering education are the national universities. This is simply not true. You should consider schools like Harvey Mudd, which despite being a liberal arts school, nonetheless has a very strong engineering program.
48. Research actual classes offered at the schools on your list
At the end of the day, the point of applying to college is to attend classes. One of the best ways to gauge if a certain school is a good fit for you, is to see whether or not you’re excited about the classes they offer. Go through your school list, and spend some time looking at required courses, new courses, courses that jump out at you, and courses that are completely unappealing. Write them down. Compare them to courses offered at other schools. It’s a great way to figure out if you’ll actually want to go to class.
49. Visit as many of the schools on your list as possible
What’s the best way to decide if you like a school? Actually visit that school. Go on a campus tour, talk to students, take pictures, sit in on a lecture. Having these concrete experiences will help you when you’re trying to narrow down your school list or make decisions after acceptances come out.
50. If you are waitlisted, write a statement of interest
Getting waitlisted isn’t the end of the world. And while you should always have a backup plan, there are steps you can take to getting of the list. In your statement of interest, make it explicitly clear that this school is a good fit for you, and that you are a good fit for this school. Maintaining contact with your regional admissions officer is key.
51. Pick the school that is the best fit for you, individually
Many people pick a school based only off of rankings. This is never a good idea, especially because no rankings methodology is perfect. While rankings are a good way to gauge schools generally, you need to put in the time and research to see which school will fit your academic interests, geographic location, personality, etc. This takes time and a lot of research on your part, but it is an important part of the process. After all, this will be your home for the next four years!
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