Seven Critical Components of a Strong College Application

As you prepare to complete your physical college application, first of all, CONGRATULATIONS.  It’s a big decision to pursue your college degree, even if your family has always expected/insisted upon it.  And it doesn’t have to be anxiety-ridden and exhausting.  If you understand how your high school career may be evaluated by admissions officers (e.g., GPA, sports, service, etc.), you already know what to emphasize as you apply.  You’ll also want to understand where to emphasize those things, in each of the seven application components below:

  1. A complete application.  This seems obvious, but don’t skip reading this step!  Particularly with digital applications, be very detailed about not forgetting to fill in any of the fields, especially if it’s something you planned to check on and get back to.  Also be sure to ask if you aren’t clear about what the proper answer is for a given application field.  Common questions include whether to use your legal or common first name (e.g., if you anglicized a non-English name), whether you have to indicate a specific campus in a university system, and what to indicate for your major.  List all questions at once, and contact at least two admissions officers at the campus to verify the right way to answer.
  2. A carefully vetted academic transcript.  Before the end of junior year, request your transcript and carefully review every class and every grade so your GPA and course load are correct in your application packet.  Are there missing classes, incorrect class titles or grades, duplicate courses, etc.?  Counselors and computers make errors – and the beginning of senior year is the slowest possible time to try to get things corrected!  If you are not yet a senior, be sure to save every report card (it’s fine to scan and store) and check your transcripts every year.  This doesn’t just assist your college application – it ensures you will graduate from high school, too.
  3. Strong teacher recommendations from core courses.  “Core” instructors are your English, Math, Science and Social Science teachers.  Relationships with them matter – don’t let “knucklehead” moments keep you from knowing and learning from them.  A “strong” teacher recommendation goes far beyond your attendance, politeness and timeliness of turning in work.  The more specific the recommendation is about your individual academic engagement in that class, the better!  Did you do independent study or research?  Lead multiple teams on projects?  Keep notes of your academic experience in classes – better yet, send thank you notes to instructors at the end of courses and keep copies.  When it’s time to request a recommendation, you can share those detailed experiences with your teacher again to help them write a singular recommendation for you that celebrates your academic excellence and curiosity.
  4. Distinct counselor and/or mentor recommendations.  Some campuses request additional counselor, coach or other mentor recommendations.  These shouldn’t repeat information that’s clearly available on your transcript or common to everyone else they’re recommending.  Counselor should be able to share your engagement in shaping your course selection and seeking additional experiences at school.  Coaches and other mentors can effectively detail your work ethic, active leadership, commitment to excellence, community service and more.
  5. Exceptional essays.  There are three components to a terrific student essay: solid writing (spelling, grammar, essay structure, etc.); a memorable, distinct answer (can an admissions officer instantly recall you as “the student who…” – or is your subject area as broad and common as thousands of other students?); and, most critically, your actual voice.  Your essay should be as close to speaking with you in a comfortable interview as possible.  Don’t let adults write for you!  Instead, write your essays and practice speaking them aloud to people who know you.  (Of course, don’t use slang, text-speak or emoticons! See the first component: solid writing).  Your personal essays allow you to highlight all of your personal strengths – review the list as you draft possible responses to see where you can organically incorporate them as you write.
  6. Crisp, clear, correct answers to questions.  Whether a given application has additional “short essays” or just open questions, be sure to complete all of them with the same standard of solid writing, distinct answers and your own voice.  As you review, ask yourself the most important question: did I answer the question that they asked?
  7. A warm and wonderful interview.  If your campus requires interviews, don’t think of it as a grilling session or a stressful first date.  Often, you will be interviewed by staff or former alums who know and love their school and are happy that you think highly enough of it to apply.  Know that you are likable, and expect to be liked!  Smile, give a great handshake and let them show the absolute joy you feel at the prospect of joining them on campus, coupled with the personal strengths that make you a great fit.  And be sure to thoroughly explore their campus experience, at least online, before the interview.  Not only will it connect you more to the interviewer, it will reinforce your decision that this is one of the right campuses for you.

Sometimes students, families and counselors try to think up fun gifts or additional materials to impress college admissions officers.  The important truth is, and please hear this, YOU are the gift to the right college.  Admissions teams are excited to see all of the interesting applicants considering their school, and their challenge is to put the right mix together to form a terrific freshman class.  Use the steps above to submit your strongest application to multiple schools, so you can be excited on May 1, regardless of where you accept admission.