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How to Stand Out as a College Applicant

Chatham University
Chatham University

The leaves are changing colors and pumpkin spice lattes are trending, which for many high school seniors, can only mean one thing: college application season has arrived.

Applying for college can be a stressful time for students (and their parents), but with enough advance planning, the process can go more smoothly.

The earlier a student begins thinking about college, the better, but not so much that they feel pressured through four years of high school. However, once freshman year starts, students need to realize that their transcript matters, and the vast majority of colleges do place a great deal of emphasis on grades.

Eva Gelman
Eva Gelman

“I believe it’s important for students to understand that things that they do in the 9th grade, including the courses they take, can indeed impact their college admissions process,” said Eva Gelman, owner of College Quest, an educational consulting firm that helps guide students to improve their chances of being admitted to the college of their choice.

Grades will always matter, but standardized test scores are losing steam, at least at some institutions. During the pandemic, many colleges, including the highly competitive ones, made standardized testing optional, a trend that is persisting at some schools, though not all. The decision to not require standardized tests has had the effect of inundating many universities, particularly highly competitive ones, with a record number of applicants, driving down the percentage of accepted students.

Chatham University
Chatham University

Brian Dwyer
Brian Dwyer

The decision about whether or not to submit scores at a test-optional school is an individual one. Chatham University, for example, is test-optional, and their policy is ‘do no harm.’ “We don’t ignore if you submit a test to us, but we don’t necessarily look at it from an admissions perspective but from a merit-based scholarship perspective,” said Brian Dwyer, director of undergraduate admission and recruitment at Chatham University.

Grades and standardized test scores, although important, do not provide the whole picture; many colleges, including Chatham, take a holistic overview of a candidate’s application, which includes letters of recommendation, a strong essay and activities that ideally demonstrate interest and leadership. Gelman said that there is no right or wrong activity, but students, most of whom are still exploring their passions, should find activities that they are good at and genuinely enjoy.

Jennifer Rosato, a school counselor at North Allegheny Senior High, agreed, saying that students need to be their authentic selves and engage in activities meaningful to them rather than what they think a college wants them to do.

“In the world of college admissions, there are the well-rounded students and then there are what we refer to as ‘pointed’ students (those who immerse themselves in a specific pursuit). A freshman class is going to be made up of both types of students. Schools value diversity; there is no one right path or right way to be successful in the college admissions process,” Gelman emphasized.

A student who plans to major in journalism, for example, should consider getting involved with the school newspaper, which demonstrates a targeted interest. But joining clubs, community service, involvement with a team and artistic pursuits are also important.

“Schools are looking for students who were in positions of leadership or engagement.

Universities, regardless of whether they are a small private liberal arts or a large state school, are looking for engaged and active community members to drive their school forward. What are the ways that you actively contributed to community? What are the ways you actively lead?” said Dwyer.

Dwyer added that students, on applications, should take the time to further explain their activities or involvement. “Don’t expect that every single university knows what being a key club member means. We like to see some context and some depth,” he said.

Once a student begins to identify potential colleges, Rosato said that visiting a campus is very important. “I don’t know that you can find a good fit without seeing the campus. When I talk to families, my spiel is telling them they need to find the economic or financial fit, and then the social and academic fit. It is hard to evaluate the social fit from a slide show or online research; you need to experience sitting in on a class or seeing the student body,” she said.

Even factoring the pandemic out, it seems as if getting into the more competitive colleges becomes more challenging every year. “I always try to tell kids that you need to reframe what is a good college. The majority of colleges are accepting more kids than they deny, but often we are only talking about 20 or so highly competitive schools. There is a school for everybody,” said Rosato.

There is no magic number for how many colleges to which a student should apply. Fortunately, the Common App or Coalition makes it easy to fill out one primary form and write one primary essay, but many colleges do require supplemental essays. And if these essays, or any portion of the application is labeled as ‘optional’---do it anyway. “’Optional’ to me suggests there’s an additional opportunity or way to bring context and depth to your application,” said Dwyer.

While there is no minimum number of colleges to which a student should apply, Gelman emphasized the importance of creating a well-balanced college list. “While you may have a preferred top school, it’s important to be able to see yourself being successful and happy at all of the schools on your list, including your foundation or ‘safety’ schools.” She recommended prioritizing quality over quantity when it comes to your college applications.

It is also important to not overload your applications with too many ‘reach’ schools—schools that have a low percentage of admissions rates across the board. “At the end of the day, you want to have schools you can be admissible to, and thrive,” added Gelman.

“If applying to more selective schools, you need a larger list. The average number of schools at NA a student applies to went up from five or six to eight. That is because, with many schools being test optional, they have to cast a wider net,” said Rosato.

Applying early is another good tip, particularly as some colleges, such as University of Pittsburgh, have rolling admissions. But applying early is not the same as applying Early Decision, which is a binding decision. Though this could be valuable if you are already a highly competitive student, as this can tip the scales in your favor, as many competitive schools take over 50% of their freshman class this way.

If you have any questions about the application process to a specific school, college admissions officers welcome calls and questions from prospective students. “It doesn’t guarantee a decision gets changed or you become preferential over other candidates, but one of the biggest things we like to think about is breaking down that ivory tower barrier. We are here to help. We are here to be a resource and answer questions that will help put your best foot forward,” said Dwyer.

Remember that selecting a college is as much a commitment on your end as on the college’s end. “No school is admitting a student for one year. They are looking at you as a community member,” said Dwyer.

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