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    How to Stand Out as a College Applicant

    By Cait Williams

    Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: March 21st, 2024
    How to Stand Out as a College Applicant

    With so many students applying to college each year, it’s only natural to want to stand out from the competition. But what do colleges look for, and what can you do with your application to make it stand out? In this article, we look at the various sections of your application, what’s most important, and how you can set yourself apart!

    What do colleges look for?

    So, exactly what are colleges looking for? Colleges are looking for students who are going to become active members of their campus community and have a genuine desire to learn, grow, and add to the world around them!

    This is why some of the ways that you can stand out are the obvious ways of good grades, high test scores, and your academic merit. But equally important may be things like extracurriculars, jobs you’ve held, places you’ve volunteered, future aspirations, and community involvement. Okay, now let’s talk specifics! 


    This one is obvious; having good grades is one of the more important things that colleges will look at. Grades reflect a lot about who you are as a student. This doesn’t mean that you need to have straight A’s for your entire high school career, but you should have grades that reflect positively on you. 

    If you had a semester or quarter where your grades slipped, colleges would see that and typically look a bit deeper at what classes you struggled in. Meaning that if chemistry or English are particularly hard topics for you, but you succeed in all your other courses, that’s okay. It’s also something that you might have a chance to talk about in your essay(s). 


    Say you’re applying to college, and you share that you want to become a pre-med major and then attend medical school. However, you didn’t take any science or math courses during your senior year. There is going to be a bit of a disconnect for the admissions officer reading your application. 

    The point is that the classes you take in high school say something about you. If you aren’t sure what you want to major in at college, take an array of courses, try AP courses or, if possible, even a college course or two! 

    Essay, Essay, Essay!

    A good essay is going to be critical to your application. Essays are something that you usually want to give yourself plenty of time to write. This is your chance to be personal and give yourself a voice

    Have a guidance counselor, a parent or a trusted friend who knows you well read your essay. They should be able to say better than anyone else if your voice is truly coming through. Additionally, search your college essay prompt to look for specific guidance about how to respond!

    Your grades, test scores, and list of extracurricular activities will give the college plenty of data about you. Your essay is the place to be personal with someone from admissions, so don’t miss this opportunity!

    Be genuine and honest

    College applications are not the place to lie about anything! If you are nervous about how something looks, speak to someone like a parent, teacher, or guidance counselor. For more serious things you may need to disclose, such as a suspension from school, an infraction with the law, or time off from school, you will generally be given space to explain. 

    The important thing is to be honest on your application and let who you truly are shine through! Don’t agonize over not having enough extracurriculars, or the one or two poor grades you received. Again, let your application speak for itself!

    Know who you are applying to

    This one may sound simple, but it’s important to know who you are applying to when you submit an application. Take a little bit of time to research the school you are applying to and ask yourself:

    • Do they offer more than one major that you are interested in? 
    • Do their values align with yours? 
    • What is the school’s history? 
    • Are there specific professors that attracted you to this school?

    Understand what your application says about you

    After you are done writing your application, look back over it. Try to view it objectively and ask yourself the questions below. 

    • What would you think about this person if you didn’t know them? 
    • What does the application say about them? 
    • Does it say what you want it to? 

    This is why starting applications early is a great idea, because if it doesn’t say what you want, you have time to change things and take advantage of opportunities to grow your application. Ask someone you trust to review your application as well! 

    Handling rejection 

    The truth is, even with the most extensive effort on some college applications, it does not guarantee that you will get in. The reality is that your application might be strong, but others might be stronger. If you don’t get in, it’s not the end of the line. If you applied to early action, try applying to regular decision as well. 

    Not getting accepted into a school you wanted is an opportunity to reassess your plans. Maybe taking a gap year or applying to another college is right for you. Talk with your parents or someone you trust to help you look at your choices. Everyone’s college path will look different, so don’t get discouraged! Best of luck on your higher education journey!

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    Frequently asked questions about how to stand out as a college applicant

    What do colleges look at most on college applications?

    Colleges are really going to look at a mix of things on your application. Grades, test scores, extracurriculars, volunteering, and community involvement are all important. Trying to create a well-rounded application will get you much further than an application that is only strong in one of those areas.

    How do colleges decide who to accept?

    There is no magic formula that a college uses to accept students. Rather, they simply want to admit the students who they think will be a good fit for their school. The best thing you can do for your application is take your time with it. Show them that you will be a good fit for their school through your application!

    What would cause a college to not accept you?

    There are a lot of reasons as to why a college may not accept you. These things can range from a stronger applicant pool than usual to personal errors on the application made by you. If there is something specific in mind that you think might keep you from being admitted to a school, reach out to someone at the school directly or try to speak with a guidance counselor about if they think it will be an issue. Again, the best thing you can do is take your time on your application and seek help from those around you!

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