The Ivy Coach Daily

September 30, 2023

How to Make Your College Application Stand Out

The bronze statue of John Harvard at Harvard University is featured.

Harvard University’s longtime Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons has long lamented (or bragged, depending on whom you ask!) that Harvard has no choice but to reject over five incoming classes worth of students with perfect or near-perfect grades and scores. So, what distinguishes an applicant who will wow Harvard admissions officers (and other admissions officers at top schools) and an applicant who will inspire a yawn?

10 Ways to Stand Out from Other Applicants in Elite College Admissions

  1. Students must take the most rigorous coursework at their high school — and then some. Admissions officers at our nation’s top universities want to see that students are challenging themselves to the fullest. Think of it this way: if a student isn’t taking the most rigorous courses available at their own little high school, what business do they have applying to a university like Harvard? And also, keep in mind that in the age of online learning, students can take coursework outside of their schools to distinguish themselves even from other applicants from their high schools.
  2. Students just excel in the most rigorous courses. There are enough applicants applying to America’s elite universities with perfect or near-perfect grades that a string of Bs will often prove a barrier to entry. There are simply too many students with perfect GPAs in the most rigorous courses to choose from!
  3. Students should submit top test scores on the SAT or ACT as well as AP exams. While most of America’s elite universities remain test-optional — with exceptions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University — students with great test scores will always have an advantage over students with no test scores. Of course, students can get in without test scores, but it doesn’t behoove them to apply without scores. All else being equal, students with great scores will always enjoy an advantage over students with no scores.
  4. Students should position their extracurriculars to showcase a singular hook rather than well-roundedness. America’s elite colleges don’t covet students who play two sports, a musical instrument, and perform community service on weekends. That kind of profile worked at elite schools in the 1970’s, but America’s elite colleges — for the past few decades — have sought to admit singularly talented students who together will form a well-rounded class (not to be confused with a well-rounded student). As such, several of a student’s extracurriculars should demonstrate how a student hopes to make a contribution to the world in a small but meaningful way.
  5. Students’ admissions essays should highlight their singular hook. Every essay should be considered a puzzle piece. If a student is an aspiring environmental scientist in one essay, it wouldn’t be beneficial to write about their passion for the Classics in another. Instead, they should tell one cohesive narrative.
  6. Students should demonstrate interest through in-person visits, virtual visits, and Why College essays. While many colleges claim to not measure Demonstrated Interest, just about every highly selective university — with the exception of Harvard University — wants to know that a student wants to attend, and they want to know they wish to attend for the right reasons. It’s why so many colleges ask Why College essay prompts, prompts that should be filled with specific details that don’t apply to any school but that one. And, no, name-dropping professors who may or may not be there next year or listing classes that students can cut and paste from one school’s course catalogue to the next is not the right approach. These essays should not be approached like a game of Mad Libs.
  7. Students shouldn’t just ask their teachers and their counselor for letters of recommendation, because that’s how they end up with generic letters that don’t say much at all about them. Instead, they should share with their teachers anecdotes that showcase their intellectual curiosity in their classrooms. And for the counselor’s letter, it should be filled with anecdotes that showcase the student’s singular hook.
  8. Students should apply to reach schools, but not to impossible reaches in the Early round. Applying Early is a fantastic way to demonstrate interest and show rather than tell admissions officers that a student loves the school over other schools. But many students apply to impossible dream schools and thereby waste their valuable Early cards. By applying instead to reach schools that might be possible with the right approach, they set themselves up for success.
  9. Students should present themselves in alumni interviews in a manner that is consistent with how they presented in their applications. While the alumni interview is one of the least important components of the highly selective college admissions process, a bad writeup or a fantastic writeup can occasionally tip the scales.
  10. Students’ online presence should be consistent with how they’ve presented in their applications. If there’s something you don’t want admissions officers to see, why is it online for the world to see? Admissions officers sometimes check social media. As such, students should curate any online content as though admissions officers are seeing it. And, no, it’s absolutely not necessary for students to have social media profiles! Those articles about how students should have LinkedIn profiles to improve their case for admission to elite universities are all nonsense!

Ivy Coach’s Assistance Optimizing Your Case for Admission

If you’re interested in standing out to admissions officers at America’s elite universities, fill out Ivy Coach’s free consultation form, and we’ll be in touch to delineate our college admissions counseling services.

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