You’re Not Your Numbers: How to Stand Out in the College Application Process
With competition tough for spots in most of the country’s 4-year schools, it’s easy to get discouraged. “My grades aren’t quite what this college looks for.” “My SATs are a little too low.” “I don’t have enough extracurricular activities.” But none of these things by themselves is a reason to rule out the college of your dreams; with a few exceptions (mostly Ivy League), colleges are looking for reasons to let you in, not keep you out!
Naturally, being realistic is part of this equation – being way out of line on your GPA compared to a particular college, or a couple of hundred points below their stated SAT range, are big gaps to bridge. But if you’re on the cusp, so to speak, the way you state your case in your Common App essay and supplemental responses (even how you describe your role in the extracurriculars you list) can make the difference. You can “write your way in!”
The Common App Essay
Every application question, whether it’s the main essay on the Common App or the short-response, college-specific supplementals, is an opportunity for you to tell a compelling story. The 650-word Common App statement does _not_ have to be about an earth-shattering experience you’ve had to overcome, about how you want to change the world, or anything else so grandiose. And it’s not the place to talk in general terms about how much you love your community or what a hard worker you are or your persistence in overcoming challenges.
It's a place to “show, don’t tell,” and that means building your story around something specific. Tell your reader about the family you got to know through that community service project. Tell them about the time you turned your grade around in a specific class, and how you did it. Tell them about the new perspective you gained during rehab from your sports injury – not just how persistent you were in getting back on the field.
And remember that whatever topic you choose, the story is always this: “Why I’m an exceptional applicant who will be a great fit on campus.”
The Supplemental Questions
School-specific supplements are great ways to let colleges know you’re interested specifically in them. Consider:
Why do you want to attend this particular school?
What will you contribute to the campus community?
Typical responses might include “it’s the perfect fit for me”; “by getting involved in lots of activities”. General, non-specific statements that leave general, non-specific impressions. Instead, do some legwork, drawing on what you saw in a tour (if you took one), or exploring the college’s website for details like alumni who inspire you, an instructor you’d love to meet, a nearby landmark that has meaning for you, a school motto that speaks to you.
Be as specific as possible: show yourself following in the alumni’s footsteps in pursuit of a goal. Mention the professor’s publications and how they connect to your planned studies. Anything you discover about the college will make your essay stand out from the crowd and tell a reader, “I really want to be a part of your community, and you can count on me to go the extra step.”
There are ways to stand out from the crowd, even what your grades or scores may not be quite where you want them to be. Never underestimate the power of the written word in the application process!