puzzle with items required for college applications

It may sometimes feel as though you need to be an oboe-playing, straight-A-earning, multilingual All-American athlete to get into your dream college—and that you should hire a quartet of musicians to deliver your college application via musical telegram.

First things first: Do not submit your college application in an unconventional format (unless the school has expressly asked you to do so)!

Now, we’re going to let you in on two of the worst-kept secrets in college admissions. Number 1: Colleges tend to have similar criteria for admission (and we know what those are). Number 2: Even still, there are ways you can stand out!


College is foremost an academic pursuit—so it makes sense that academics figure importantly in admissions decisions. Here are the two ways that your academic performance gets communicated on your application:

Grade Point Average (GPA)

The most important step you can take to make yourself a competitive candidate is, of course, to work hard in school. Your GPA is the single most influential factor that any college will consider. It reflects your performance as a student over almost four years of your life and offers insight into what sort of college student you will be.

If possible, enroll in honors classes during your freshman and sophomore years, and then AP classes during your junior and senior years. These will help boost your weighted GPA (an A in an AP course is typically worth 5.0 points instead of the 4.0 points awarded to an A in a regular course). More importantly, challenging classes demonstrate to admissions committees that you have the interest and the ability to take on higher-level work. This aspect of your transcript is often referred to as academic rigor, something many students don’t realize is important in college admissions. Try to take AP classes in the subjects that you would like to study in college. For example, if you want to be pre-med, aim to take AP Biology and Chemistry. Here’s a resource for mapping out your AP strategy.

Test Scores

For schools that consider standardized test scores, those typically rank second in importance. (However, even test-optional schools often use standardized test scores to make determinations about merit-based financial aid—your scores matter!)

Whether or not it’s mandatory, your SAT or ACT score can do a lot to set you apart. To see the range of typical scores at the schools you’re considering, check out their school profiles. Then, find out where you stand by taking a practice SAT or practice ACT. To hone your test-taking skills, put together a test-prep plan. Having a high score will help you gain admission to your top-choice colleges—and even earn scholarships to help you pay for school.

You may also need to take one or more SAT Subject Tests. Check out the admissions requirements for the schools you’re considering. Even if schools don’t require SAT Subject Tests, taking subject-specific tests can be a savvy admissions move on your part. Solid scores not only demonstrate mastery of the material, but can also get you placed in higher-level college classes and even earn you college credit!

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges want to win over students who work hard in school—but they also want to see that you’ve got a well-rounded life outside of your academic pursuits. While you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) go out and join every single club your school offers, you should participate in a few well-chosen extracurricular activities.


Plan to join two or three high school clubs, ideally ascending to a leadership position in at least one of them over the course of your high school career. Colleges like to see breadth, but not at the expense of depth. Make sure that you find a way to get deeply involved in at least one activity besides school. Use your club involvement as a way to show admissions committees who you are. Are you a champion debater? A mathlete? A musician? Let your extracurricular pursuits showcase the abilities you’ve cultivated that aren’t evident from your grades and scores.


Another option is joining a sports team. Colleges know that sports often entail a major time commitment, so don’t feel that you have to join several clubs and play sports, as well—strike the balance that feels right to you. If you’re able to assume a leadership position on one or more sports teams, all the better—particularly if you aim to play college sports.

Community Service

Volunteering is a good way to demonstrate that you are interested in giving back. You should try to volunteer for at least 20–30 hours every school year. Many high schools offer community service options. (If yours doesn’t, consider starting your own service club!) You can also check out nonprofits such as local food pantries or animal shelters as well as larger organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.


Many high school students rely on paid work to offset their expenses. If you have a job that prevents you from participating in as many clubs or sports as some of your classmates, take heart—colleges also like to see a strong work ethic, and they will take into account the fact that your part-time job required an investment of time.

If possible, it’s always a great move to take a part-time job or internship in an area in which you’re interested in gaining skills. Try asking your college counselors and family friends if they know of any openings for high school students. Whether or not you’re able to land a job in a field you plan to pursue as a career (and don’t worry if you don’t have an intended career yet either!), you can always ask to shadow someone whose work interests you.

Awards and Honors

It’s likely that your school has one or more honor societies—such as the National Honor Society or foreign language honor societies—that you can join. In addition, you can work toward earning awards that your school gives out (typically in an annual ceremony). These do not have to be solely academic. Being nominated as MVP for your sports team or winning a prize at debate club or Science Olympiad are also viewed very favorably by admissions committees.

College Essay

Your grades and test scores are your opportunity to demonstrate that you’d be a strong college student. Your extracurriculars afford you the chance to show off your wide range of talents and interests. Your essay, by contrast, is an opportunity to let admissions officers hear your unique voice. You may opt to share information that didn’t make it into the rest of your application. (Keep in mind, however, that your teachers can also provide a broader perspective on your abilities in their letters of recommendation.)

While you want to ensure that your essay is thoughtful, polished, and (of course) proofread, it doesn’t have to be a grand treatise filled with urbane vocabulary and singular accounts of adolescent life. What it has to be is authentic. It has to sound like you and tell a story—lofty or mundane—about your life, your values, your perspectives, and your personal growth. It has to be an essay that only you could have written. And it has to be proofread. (That’s worth repeating!) If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, here’s a resource to help you get started.

Demonstrated Interest

So far, we’ve talked a lot about what you can do to make yourself a more appealing candidate for colleges. But you should also show that you’re doing your own due diligence to find out which schools are the best fits for you. Schools keep track of your interactions with them—campus visits, communications, interviews, and so forth. (For this reason, you’ll want to make sure that your conduct and writing are always professional.) They want students who will be strong fits at their schools— and who’ve demonstrated interest in attending. So, demonstrate your interest! Attend information sessions in your area, visit the campus (and sit in on classes!) if possible, and schedule an interview. Show colleges that you’re as excited about them as you hope they’ll be about you.

If you’re looking for more advice about how best to position yourself for college, learn more about the admissions criteria that colleges consider. Best of luck in your exciting college journey!