If you’re an admissions officer, a typical day might look something like this: over your mug of morning coffee, you’re peering at a stack of hundreds—maybe thousands—of applications from all over the world. SATs, GPAs, and other acronyms are standards to consider in determining the strongest candidates. After the numbers are crunched, who will catch your eye and hold your interest? Sometimes even the straight A student/captain of the hockey team/organizer of a program at a homeless shelter won’t make the cut—unless, of course, he or she knows how to paint his or her own self-portrait in the most flattering light.
For the applicant, the application doesn’t have to be daunting—or a chore. Think of it as one of life’s rare opportunities to design your own image. Applying to college can really stress you out, or applying to college can be an opportunity to re-create yourself for an audience of admissions officers who are looking for someone original, creative, and stellar. They are looking for that edge, that extra something beyond the mainstream that tells them you are right for their school and that their school is a match for you.
It’s sometimes hard to flaunt your good qualities, throwing modesty to the wind, but this time, piece together all of your valuable high school accomplishments and brag about them—loud! Be specific about all of your leadership roles, your significant contributions to an area of interest. Were you president of a student body? Editor-in-chief of a newspaper? A rated athlete? Have you been recognized as an All-State or an MVP? Did you organize others in support of a cause? Write about and emphasize the activities that inspire you. They’ll serve as vibrant colors for your self-portrait.
If you’ve been visited by the muse, some colleges welcome supplementary material. Sending original poetry, music, or art may help to introduce a fuller picture of you as a person. If something means a lot to you, send it, but be brutal in your selections—pick only the best of your best. Other schools clearly request only materials that adhere to application requirements. Read carefully to determine whether or not supplementary materials will be accepted and considered. Don’t provide an original score of your aspiring Broadway musical if the school isn’t going to consider it a factor in your acceptance.
A memorable essay is one of the best ways to reveal the true you. What is not on the application that you would like the college or university to know? If the stack of applications you face seems to reduce you to a list of activities, grades, and courses, use the freedom that the essay gives you to choose your topic and to use your voice.
Write about your passions; they will speak for you and allow your voice to shout through the paper. Use the essay questions to let the college get to know you as a person.
In the line-up of college application tasks, pacing is one of the most important strategies. Give yourself a realistic timeline when devising a schedule for yourself. You don’t want to run out of energy before you reach the finish line.
Maybe you want to dive head first into the application that has the earliest deadline, devoting all of your after-school hours until you polish it off. Or perhaps you will begin with the application to your first-choice school so that you can dedicate your freshest enthusiasms to number one on your wish list. Whatever way you begin, be sure that you remain on top of the required dates of submission—not just for the application proper, but for the test scores, letters of recommendation, and so on. (Remember that colleges might have different dates for specific tests; some require more SAT Subject Tests than others, for example.) A college application is a many-layered process. Sometimes each layer contains a different date to consider.
It doesn’t hurt to write down on a calendar all of the important dates for each school. You can color code according to school or according to layers (for example, dates for letters of recommendation can be sea green while dates for the registration of appropriate tests can be periwinkle). Make the application process a priority.
If you take your time, you’ll make sure that details are not overlooked. (Did I sign the application? Did I send the University of Chicago a check made payable to Colgate?) Go beyond Spell Check and really proofread your work carefully until you are sure it’s in its best form.
After you have read and reread your essay and application, you may feel too close to it to catch any missing commas. Show it to some objective observers who will see it with fresh eyes—counselors, Mom, Dad, teachers, those who know you well. They will see it for the first time, just as an admissions officer will. If the application is striking, they may even discover something about you that they didn’t know before.
Maybe your third-grade teacher worked your fingers to the bone practicing your penmanship, but your perfect script will not make it for the reader who is looking at countless other applications. Your essay should be computer-generated. For the application, taking the extra time to line up those little lines and boxes to a typewriter or word processor is worth the effort.
While you read on and on about the selectivity of schools and about the importance of really impressing those to which you have chosen to apply, don’t forget that you are, in a sense, interviewing the schools almost as much as they are interviewing you. An application is a hefty investment of yourself. Each school you choose should be one that you can see yourself attending, whether it’s choice number one or choice number five. Each application should be tailored to the school where it will end its journey. Keep your schools in mind as you complete their applications. The application—and the school—should bring out your best points—carefully, thoughtfully, honestly, and creatively.
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