5 Things on Every Accepted Student’s College Application

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  • A great application highlights your strengths, achievements, and individuality.
  • Writing an original essay for each school you apply to can raise your chances of admission.
  • Include unique additions that reflect your character and highlight your passions.
  • A high GPA, an impressive transcript, and strong test scores can go a long way.

Getting into college gets more competitive each year. While good grades and a high SAT or ACT score remain important, these alone don't guarantee a college acceptance. College admissions officers want to understand your individual character and the impact you could have at their institution.

Highlighting your hobbies, talents, and achievements in your application will increase your chances of getting in. We spoke with admissions experts to learn five things accepted students have on their college applications.

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1. Individual Strengths

Successful applicants include their strengths and achievements throughout their application. Colleges want to know how you've dedicated your time over the past four years of high school and what you're passionate about.

Rather than just listing a variety of activities, explain the impact you had and how you participated.

"Perhaps you were a three-season captain of your athletic teams, or the lead in the school play for two straight years," said Ashley Murray, a seasoned college admissions expert. "Whatever you took part in, make sure that you are highlighting that while keeping in mind that time matters!"

Emphasizing activities you've invested time in can also help demonstrate your commitment.

"Involvement in the same activity for four-plus years will always look stronger than something you only did your senior year because you knew you would need to put it on your application," said Murray.

2. An Original, Well-Crafted Essay

Colleges can tell when you've used the same personal statement to apply to multiple colleges. It can be pretty obvious when an essay wasn't written for a specific prompt or is intentionally vague.

And many admissions officials regularly communicate with other schools.

"Every year, I explain to students that Penn undergraduate admissions knows Cornell undergraduate admissions very well, and can tell when students adapt their Penn supplemental essay from Cornell's prompt about long-term plans (or vice versa)," said Sasha Chada, founder and CEO of Ivy Scholars, a Texas-based educational consulting firm.

Experts agree that originality is the most important part of a great college essay. If admissions officers can tell you've used a basic essay and just swapped out university and program names, they'll likely reject your application.

"This demonstrates an obvious lack of care and is one of the easiest ways for universities to weed out students," explained Chada.

If you're struggling to write a unique essay for each college, start by researching how the university's academic program and culture relate to your goals and how the school differs from other institutions. The more connections you can build between you as a student and the specific features of the school, the better.

3. Unique Supplemental Materials

Many college applications include additional sections for optional supplemental materials or essay prompts. Students who take advantage of these sections to display their unique qualities are more likely to be accepted.

"[Supplemental materials] are wonderful opportunities for us to get to know you and for you to showcase strengths that perhaps lay outside the 'traditional' application," said Murray. "I have had students submit chapters of novels they have written, PowerPoint presentations about their educational journey with a learning difference, videos of cultural dance competitions — the possibilities are endless."

Don't feel as though it's only worth including something if it's traditionally spectacular, like a published paper or founding a charity. Colleges will be interested in any personal achievement or hobby that demonstrates your personality.

4. A Clear Spike or Passion

Contrary to old-school ethos, colleges aren't just looking for the well-rounded student anymore. Accepted students often have a "spike" on their application — a term that admissions committees use to refer to something that makes a student stand out.

The spike is the one thing that makes an applicant truly exceptional, such as a passion or extracurricular that focuses your biggest talents into a tangible project or goal.

"Some examples [of spikes] include students participating in medical research at the Mayo Clinic, partnering with a regional nonprofit to create apps that help children with neurological differences, patenting safety technology for high-rise construction projects … and that's just scratching the surface," said Chada.

Colleges look for students who thrive in areas that can benefit their campus.

"If you can show that you fill a significant campus role — social organizer, athlete, journalist — better than other applicants, universities will want to lock you in early to ensure their campus remains vibrant and well-rounded," stressed Chada.

5. Strong Grades and Test Scores

Some things never change, and that includes the fundamentals of being a strong college applicant. At the end of the day, good grades and impressive test scores are still key to college acceptance.

"Applications that instantly get accepted are well-rounded students — high GPA, extracurricular involvement (and leadership roles within those activities ideally), and strong short answers and essays," said Murray.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray grew up in Boston and attended undergrad at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she majored in liberal studies with a specialization in developmental psychology. She later earned her M.Ed. in educational policy and leadership at Boston University. Murray is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Lesley, studying human development and learning. She has worked in education since 2008, almost exclusively in college admissions, and is dedicated to improving access and inclusivity. Murray truly enjoys working with students during such an incredible transitional period in their lives.

Portrait of Sasha Chada

Sasha Chada

After learning about the college admissions process first-hand at Johns Hopkins University, Sasha Chada founded Ivy Scholars in Houston in 2015. Having watched hundreds of students and their families get lost in the admissions process and endure the stress of college rejection, Chada dreamed of providing a crystal-clear journey of self-reflection and coaching to help students craft great applications. By 2019, hundreds of his students had been accepted to their top-choice schools — and enjoyed themselves in the process. Chada guides the vision of Ivy Scholars, oversees the hiring and coaching of mentors, and serves as the first point of contact for every student and parent.

Feature Image: Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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