By Cayli Allen
High school seniors spend hours pouring into college admissions applications and scholarship applications every year. Between frequent meetings with guidance counselors, college visits, and taking the ACT or SAT multiple times, students will wait anxiously for the acceptance letters, the final ticket to their future.
What sets you apart?
Out of the millions of students who apply to colleges each year, how do you plan on standing out? David Mee, Associate Provost and Dean of Enrollment Services at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee and Lori Eggleston, Guidance Counselor from Brentwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee explain what you need to do to get accepted to your dream school as well as get the scholarships for which you have worked so hard.
“Institutions are looking for students who they believe will be successful, not just academically but will find activities that will suit their background and interests and will be a part of the university community,” said Mee.
“I know that students in high school always want to be like everyone else in dress and style, but colleges want a wide variety of personalities and cultures and experiences to mix together on the campus,” Eggleston agreed.
“A student is more than his or her ACT score,” Mee assures. But at the same time, he argues that these standardized tests are one of the few ways that admissions counselors can put all students on the same playing field since they receive applicants from many different backgrounds.
While discussing how he and his colleagues choose which students are admitted and which are not, Mee explained, “There is no magic formula. You’re trying to take all these things and make a big picture…But it does boil down to three main things: overall comfort level, fit, and potential.”
The feared college admissions essay
What about the dreaded admissions essay? Mee says that this is one of the major ways that students can really stand out compared to other applicants. The essay shows the admissions team many things about a candidate. “Is this student able to coherently share their opinion at an appropriate level for someone about to enter college? It’s also a place for students to tell us something not easily reflected on their application or resume,” he said, “It gives them an opportunity to share their personality.”
Eggleston stresses the importance of catching the reader’s attention right away. “If the reader is enjoying reading your essay, they will keep on reading. You usually only have 1-2 sentences to get their attention.” Eggleston further recommends you communicate your commitments and accomplishments by choosing 2-3 things each year that really interest you. “Having membership in 20 clubs is great but it would tell me that you are spread very thin and probably not able to give your true attention to any one club or activity…Seeing something through from beginning to end is very meaningful and shows dedication,” she explains. Be sure to stress any leadership roles in your community or school. How about an important entrepreneurial experience? Essentially any case where they can see how a student has gone above and beyond can really shed more light on an individual applicant.
If you are nervous that your whole high school experience hasn’t been perfect, this is also the perfect place to explain it. Mee offers an example, “Let’s say that the second quarter of your sophomore year there was something in your life that caused your grades to dip a little bit and then you bounced right back. Simply letting that ride without any commentary would make them wonder what happened there… And it is important to not just say this is what happened and why my grades dipped, but also what you learned from that process. Resiliency and grit are appealing traits to many university admissions offices. This can include health issues, moving, family issues, or financial challenges. Those are things that happen all the time,” Mee elaborates. He encourages students to address these situations with the attitude of “How am I a better person and what have I learned from that?”
Don’t worry about reinventing the wheel for your admissions essays. “Students have written so many essays that there may be a past essay that could be reworked and molded to answer the [latest] essay question,” said Eggleston. She emphasizes you should still answer the prompt completely, but that using old essays as inspiration can help with writer’s block and stimulate your creativity.
Do you feel that in your college essays you are bragging? “You need to present yourself in the most accurate and positive light and you need to call out things that may seem unusual”, said `Mee. “Certainly, in this day and age that we live in, there’s a lot of sensitivity to service and thinking globally… so can you demonstrate the challenges that you and other students typically have and how you are helping your peers?” explained Mee on walking the fine line between humility and boasting.
For Eggleston, students who have stood out on admissions essays have let their real personality shine through and communicated how they have done their research on the college. “A student once wrote about the city in which the school sat and how being from a small town would be a challenge both negatively and positively and how he was so excited to have that experience as well as the college experience. Being able to talk in such detail always helps and demonstrates that you do have a true picture of the college to which you are applying,” Eggleston said.
The admissions interview
You may have received or will receive an offer to interview for scholarships at your school of choice. The interview provides the opportunity to rise to the top by showing maturity and highlighting aspects of your application that makes you stand out. Mee agreed that these are a few of things that he looks at during the interview. This process helps the admissions team confirm in person what they have seen on paper.
Remember to get a head start
Both Mee and Eggleston recommend starting the college search and application process early. “Download copies of applications and read through them so you have an idea of what will be required of you when you start applying,” suggested Eggleston. She also stresses the importance of keeping up with deadlines and asking for recommendation letters early. “Give your references ample time to write you a great recommendation. The longer you give the teacher/counselor to work on the recommendation letter, the better it will be.”
Hopefully, these tips will help you stand out in both your essays and interviews. To summarize: Remember to be yourself, elaborate on what you need your admission counselor to know about you, and use this as an opportunity to showcase your personality and passions.
Cayli Allen is a writer who enjoys writing about education, health, and music. She is currently a senior Public Relations major at Belmont University, class of 2018. You can chat with her on Twitter: @cayli_allen.