Insider tips for a great college application

If you’re currently applying to college, or even preparing to apply, you might be feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. That’s understandable! There’s so much conflicting information out there about how to complete your college application—including myths and misconceptions—about the admission process.

Truth is, there’s no perfect college application that will get you admitted to every college, because every college is looking for different things. Applying to college is a bit like dating. We try to get to know you as you get to know us, so we can both decide if it’s a good match. That said, there are ways to show your best self and hopefully make a mutual connection.

My colleagues and I have reviewed mountains of college applications, and the truly memorable ones share a few common themes. Here’s a rundown of a few of my favorite strategies, along with some of those common myths and misconceptions.

  1. You’re more than your GPA and test scores. I know, crazy, right?! We are aware that you are a real person who is not defined by these numbers. Some colleges may have hard cutoffs when it comes to these numbers, while others do not. You could have the same scores as another applicant, but only one of you might be considered a good fit for the school. Believe it or not, colleges aren’t looking to build an army of identical students. Instead, we want to create a community of people who will learn from each other, give back to their community, and make the university a better place. We also want students who we think will be successful academically, build relationships with others, and one day make an impact in the world and be an ambassador for the university. So, how can you show us that you have the potential to do these things?
  1. Lean in to what makes you…well, you! One of the things students seem to believe is that you have to be involved in everything to be a strong college applicant—captain of the soccer team, student body president, president of the service club, and lead robotics engineer. Now don’t get me wrong, that person sounds awesome. But, that doesn’t have to be you! If you’ve spent the last four years dedicated to marching band, working hard to improve, leading a section, and mentoring younger musicians, that’s great! We love to see students who show dedication to their passions. Or maybe you’re involved in a little bit of everything, trying to figure out what appeals to you. The most important thing you can do is give us a real picture of who you are, what you’re interested in, your unique strengths and personal qualities, and how you’ll bring these to your future college.
  1. Do your research – and show it. To show that you’re a good fit for a college, you need to connect what’s special about you to what’s special about them. When you’ve identified the interests, passions, and goals mentioned above, figure out how you can make the college a better place with your gifts and goals. (Hint: this means you’re going to have to do some research!) Your college applications should not be identical copies of each other. Remember that dating example we talked about? Would you be a good date if you only talked about yourself? Of course not! Tailor your responses to essays, supplemental questions, and communications with admission representatives to show why the university should want you to join their community. Whether it’s professors with specific areas of expertise who interest you, on-campus clubs and organizations you want to join, or even the college’s mission statement that fits with your values and who you plan to be, show that you’ve done your homework and you would be a great addition to our campus culture.
  1. Take the essay seriously, but don’t let it paralyze you. One of the most common misconceptions about the college essay is that you have to write about something sad or traumatic to get into a college. I’ve even heard students wish that something bad had happened to them in their lives so they had a good essay topic. Please don’t ever wish this! I promise, a heart wrenching essay does not get you a leg up in the application process. Of course, if you’d like to write about a difficult, but meaningful, experience you’ve had you are welcome to do so. But, I’ve read wonderful essays that were funny, silly, and even about mundane topics made interesting by a unique perspective. The most important part of a college essay is that it is told in your voice. Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear, tell us something you want to say. Make sure you consider the “so what?” factor; you can write about a time you made macaroni and cheese for all I care, as long as you express why it matters, what it has to do with your plans for the future, or what it meant for you in your life. Be authentically you, include specific details, and avoid clichés. Plan to spend some time on your essays. Have others read your drafts and give yourself time to edit. Great essays are not written the day before the application deadline.
  1. Don’t cut corners. It may be easy to just submit the bare minimum and move on, but if a college is your top choice, go the extra mile! Submit the letters of recommendation, even if optional; take the supplemental questions seriously; talk about what makes the college special and be specific! Go beyond saying “the campus is pretty,” and dig in to why the academics, learning opportunities, student body, or culture appeal to you. Don’t show up to our metaphorical date in your dirty gym clothes or the same outfit you wore on your last outing. Put your best foot forward and show that this specific application is important to you!
  1. Please, PLEASE don’t get sloppy. I know by the end you’ll just want to get these applications submitted, but spelling errors, lack of capitalization, and using the name of the wrong school in your responses (yes, that really happens) will do you no favors. Don’t ruin an interesting, unique essay with grammar and spelling problems, or forget to answer your supplemental questions because you’re rushing. You’ll be glad you spent the time getting it right.

Most importantly, take a deep breath and relax. There’s a great college out there for everyone, and I promise you can find yours. If you have questions about the application process, ask! Talk to your school counselor, if you have one, and make an appointment with an admission counselor to get more information about the colleges on your list. We’re here to help, and take some of the stress off you. Best of luck on your college applications—you got this!

Kellie Butler is Associate Director of Admission at Oglethorpe University.

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