College applications allow students to show admissions officers who they are—not just what they’ve achieved. This is a chance to demonstrate that you’re more than simply a high ACT score—or, on the flipside, that your below-average GPA doesn’t wholly define you.
No matter where your strengths and weaknesses lie, you can display your positives to the fullest on your application. Here are a few factors to consider when crafting admissions applications for your top schools:
Your grades, test scores, and class rank
Your grades show admissions officers how reliable—and effective—you are as a student. A student who started high school with below-average grades and finished junior year with high B’s and A’s could leverage this improvement on a college application. Even though you may not be a straight-A student, a positive change in your grades can demonstrate perseverance and a commitment to hard work.
Similarly, your ACT or SAT score and your class rank can also be viewed as indicators of how you stack up academically against your peers—particularly if you attend a rather competitive school.
On the other hand, if you’ve been a poor student throughout your high school career, highlighting your grades or class rank may not be the best choice. These are often some of the first factors that admissions officers look at when considering applicants, but you may be able to overcome the effects of your low GPA with a stellar personal statement and strong extracurriculars.
The rigor of your course load
Straight A’s are great on an application, but may not mean as much if you’ve only taken rudimentary courses. A transcript filled with honors, AP, and IB courses is much more meaningful—even if you received B’s. A rigorous course load demonstrates to admissions officers that you challenge yourself by taking on new subjects and obstacles, even if you aren’t guaranteed an “easy A.” If you have grit, and a handful of advanced courses, shine a spotlight on those efforts in your application.
Unique and meaningful extracurriculars
Learning is so much more than being lectured to in a classroom. Extracurriculars are another great way to learn about a new subject, your community, and even yourself! Admissions officers recognize the learning power of extracurriculars and review them to get a sense of who you are. Did you excel in team sports? Were your extracurriculars academic in nature or an irrelevant side interest? There are no “bad” extracurriculars, but you can have too many. It is always better to have a few extracurriculars that you are heavily involved in rather than several that you only occasionally participate in. Choose the few extracurriculars that highlight your passion, leadership experience, or talent.
Your application essay
Your prospective college may assign you an essay prompt, or you may respond to the Common App writing prompt. You also may not be required to submit an essay at all—although if it is an optional part of your application process, you should consider writing it. You may not have the chance to woo admissions officers in person, so think of your essay as a chance to allow your voice and personality to shine through. This is your true opportunity to highlight your strengths. A leadership position in a community group looks good on a resume, but it doesn’t explain to the reader what you may have learned during the experience or how you grew as a leader. Your best bet is to expound on the most relevant and striking experiences or strengths in your academic life.
Your passion for a specific subject or field
There are many ways you may have demonstrated your interest in and passion for a subject. Perhaps you founded a speech & debate club at your school, volunteered for a local politician’s campaign, or sought out work as a reporting intern at your local newspaper. Maybe you signed up for an online college course in a subject you’ve wanted to explore. Be sure to play up those experiences in your application. Doing so shows you’ve made an independent effort to learn more about a particular field.
Your passion for the school
Admissions officers have the difficult job of discerning who is serious about attending their school and who is using their school as a safety. Take this opportunity to outline why you want to attend this school specifically. A great way to set yourself apart from other applicants is to explain your interest in a few of the school’s particular course or degree offerings. Does the university operate a world-class research lab? Are there abundant study abroad opportunities available in the department you’re interested in? Highlighting these features shows you’ve done your research, and it demonstrates your interest in that particular program.
There are very few applicants with absolutely perfect qualifications. The art of the admissions process is choosing what traits and experiences you should amplify—and which should play a secondary role. Choose wisely and put time into each application—the results are worth it.
Sydney Miller is an Online Marketing Coordinator for Varsity Tutors, the leading curated marketplace for the top private tutors in the U.S. The company also builds mobile learning apps, online tutoring environments, and other tutoring and test prep-focused technologies.