Creating a winning college application |

Creating a winning college application

High school seniors are already working on their college applications. Before starting this task, it is important to understand what colleges consider important; it may be a wider range of things than you suspect.

While SAT/ACT scores and grade point averages are important to the admissions office, other personal information is also vital.

Many colleges rate “character and personal qualities” as extremely important in their final admissions decisions.

This can include such things as leadership, special talents, overcoming adversity and a sense of social responsibility.

Character and personal qualities show up in three places on the application: involvement in extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations and the personal statement or essay. A college interview, if you have one, is another opportunity to show your unique qualities.

So how do students decide what to highlight in their applications? First, they need to write down everything they want the admissions office to know about themselves. This is not just their grades, but also any accomplishments, community contributions, and lessons learned along the way.

This process of self-reflection is often hard for students because they have been taught not to brag. They may want assistance from their counselor, friends or family.

Once they have identified four or five definite traits about themselves, they should highlight them throughout the application.

The college essay is often the place where students can most clearly illustrate these qualities because it features the student’s own voice instead of merely a list of statistics and references.

The essay is the highest-ranking nonacademic feature of an application. It is also the one thing that students have absolute control over. This is especially important for small colleges who choose students who will fit into their unique campus environments.

Letters of recommendation is another area where specific qualities can be highlighted. It is important to give the recommenders your academic resume, including your unique traits and contributions. Hopefully, they will include them in their letter.

For example, if you are applying to a college and are declaring a nursing major, you would want to highlight your science abilities, your desire to help others and your volunteer work in some medical setting.

Your letters of recommendation should be from a science teacher or community member who recognizes your desire to be a nurse.

This creates an application that reads like a book and tells the story of the applicant.

Use any additional space in the special comments section to explain situations not clarified in other parts of the application, such as health issues or a drop in grades.

Have someone you trust read your application before submitting it. Ask them: “Is this how you see me? Does the essay reveal the traits I am trying to highlight? Have I communicated my intellectual curiosity and commitment and service to others? Does it have all the information I want the admissions office to see?”

Colleges want students who will be a good fit and can contribute to the campus. A well thought-out and cohesive application will help them decide.

Jill Haley is a retired high school counselor who now works as an independent college counselor. She can be reached at or

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