Applying to College: 4 Tips to Boost Your College Applications

By the time you apply to college, much of the information that will go on your college application is already pretty much set: overall GPA, test scores, extracurricular involvement, and so on. The key to boosting college applications at this stage of the process isn’t what goes on your application but how you present the information. We’ve got four tips to help you maximize opportunities when you apply to college.

Tip #1: Consider the college application as a cohesive whole.

It can be easy to look at each section of your application as a separate unit. The way most college applications are built seems to encourage this mindset—each section is presented on its own page, separated from everything else.

When you apply to college, resist the urge to tackle the application piece by piece. The very best applications are ones that tell a cohesive story throughout.

Think about the values and traits that you want admissions officers to see in you. Each piece of the application should relate back to those values and traits.

When you finish your application, look it over as a whole. Do the various components of the application illustrate your core message? Could you improve some parts of your application to better reflect this message?

Tip #2: Maximize opportunities in your activities descriptions.

At first glance, the activities section of the Common App seems pretty straightforward. You state your position, the name of the organization, and a brief description of the activity. Easy peasy.

But with a little extra thought and effort, the activities section becomes a great opportunity to highlight your values and personal traits as you apply to college.

Deciding Which Activities to Include

This starts with deciding which activities to include. The Common App will allow you to include up to ten activities—but even if you have tons of activities on your resume, you don’t have to fill all ten spaces. Approach this section with an eye toward quality rather than quantity. Admissions officers don’t need (or want) to know about every single activity you’ve done in the last four years. They want to know what you’re most interested in, most committed to, most passionate about, and most likely to continue pursuing in college.

Plan Your Approach

Before you even start writing anything on your application, do some brainstorming. For each of your activities, consider what your responsibilities were, what problems you solved, what lessons you learned, and what impact you had. You certainly won’t be able to include all of this information in your descriptions, but the more information you come up with at this stage, the more powerful you can make your final activities descriptions.

As you look through this brainstorming material, consider what defining traits or values are implied by each piece of information. This will help you to decide which details to include in your descriptions.

Make Full Use of the Available Space

When you start writing your actual descriptions, consider this: although the Common App only allows you 150 characters for each description, you have an additional 150 characters available to define your position and the organization. The more detail you can fit into these fields, the more space you’ll have available to you in your activity description.

Rules for Awesome Activities Descriptions

And finally, you’ll get to writing the descriptions. Follow these rules for more powerful activities descriptions:

  • Use active verbs. Lots of college career centers post great resume verbs on their websites, and these lists are wonderful resources. Avoid the super corporate-sounding options in favor of more mainstream verbiage.
  • Don’t use complete sentences. You have to make every character count. Sentences will only waste space.
  • Numbers are good. Whenever possible, include information about tangible impacts you’ve had. For example, did you cut print costs while on the school newspaper staff? Or increase student attendance at school-sponsored events while on the planning committee? Or boost membership while on the Red Cross Youth Council? Numbers are impressive.
  • Emphasize leadership. Even if you didn’t have a formal leadership role, you may have spearheaded a particular project, solved a problem, or organized an event. These are all aspects of leadership, so include them in your descriptions.

Tip #3: Ensure your recommendations reflect the core traits you intend to illustrate on your application.

Recommendation letters aren’t entirely outside your control. Use these strategies to help ensure that your recommendation letters become a part of the story you want to tell when you apply to college:

  • Carefully consider who you ask for recommendation letters. Remember that you’re not limited to teachers and counselors—coaches, faculty advisers, volunteer leaders, employers, internship supervisors, and instructors for outside activities are all good options. Think about your relationship with each potential recommender and which of your traits he or she is most likely to highlight.
  • Provide detailed brag sheets. The Common App offers free downloadable brag sheets for you to use. By giving a lot of thought to these sheets, you can influence the direction your recommenders will likely take as they write their recommendation letters.
  • Be sure your brag sheet responses reflect the traits and values you’re trying to highlight throughout your application. This improves the odds that your recommendation letters will contribute to the story that your application is telling.

Tip #4: Give all of your essays the attention they deserve.

Once you start the application process, the essay is your most powerful tool in influencing your chances for admission. After all, after grades, course selection, and test scores, the essay is the most important factor in admission decisions. Here are some tips to help you nail your essays:

  • Don’t ignore the supplements. They’re there for a reason! You should give each supplement just as much effort as your main essay.
  • It all comes down to the writing. Some of the best essays I’ve ever seen were about incredibly mundane topics—what made these essays stand out was the way the student used language to turn a mundane experience into an insightful illustration of core values and traits.
  • Don’t skip prewriting. You can’t write a great essay without spending a lot of time brainstorming topics and planning the essay’s structure.
  • Expect to go through multiple rounds of drafting and revision. Each draft will take you one step closer to that perfect final essay, so it’ll all be worth it in the end!
  • Don’t get discouraged if you wind up going back to the drawing board. It’s not at all uncommon to scrap big chunks of an essay or even to decide to change topics entirely. It’s all part of the creative process!

Check out 10 Tips for a Great College Application Essay for more help.

Bonus Tip: Don’t wait until the last minute!

When done right, college applications take time. You want to have the time to really think about your responses, to thoroughly proofread your application, to draft the perfect essays, and to still submit a day or two before the deadline. Start now and take it slowly instead of waiting until the last minute and being rushed!

COLLEGE ROADMAP

FRESHMAN

  • Set yourself up for college application success by focusing on the top three factors in college admissions: gradescourse rigor, and test scores.
  • Freshman year is the best time to explore extracurricular opportunities.

SOPHOMORE

  • Set yourself up for college application success by focusing on the top three factors in college admissions: gradescourse rigor, and test scores.
  • Invest more time and get more involved in those extracurricular activities that are most meaningful to you.

JUNIOR

  • Set yourself up for college application success by focusing on the top three factors in college admissions: gradescourse rigor, and test scores.
  • Develop strong relationships with your teachers and coaches.
  • Explore leadership opportunities in your extracurricular activities.
  • Start thinking about your college essays.

SENIOR

  • Approach college applications strategically: make each component part of a cohesive story about you and your values.
  • Give yourself lots of time to write your essays – when done right, a great college essay can take weeks or months to write.