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5 Ways to Make Your College Application Stand Out if You Feel ‘Average’


At some point or another, most of us have felt average in high school. Whether your wardrobe lacked the latest winter trends or your chemistry grade pulled down your GPA more than you anticipated, you’ve probably experienced the universal sluggish feeling. When college application season rolls around, it’s almost impossible not to feel subpar as your classmates compare test scores and count off the number of awards they’ve received. You might even question sending your applications to more selective schools because you’re convinced admission officers would just toss it in the rejection pile. If this how you feel, here are several ways to make your application stand out from the rest.

1. Turn your application into a story

While the analogy may be cliché, comparing life to a book with many chapters is true. High school isn’t just one chapter of your life; it contains good and bad experiences that shape your perspectives of things from love to work ethic. Admission officers are interested in how you’ve changed as a person throughout high school. Ashley Olszanski, a sophomore at the University of Vermont, believes that you can reveal more about yourself through the power of creative storytelling.

“Personally, I used my college application essay to tell a story,” she says. “Instead of listing positive aspects about yourself, pick a time in your life that you can make into a story and within that story, highlight the qualities that make you the perfect applicant.”

Your story can also stretch beyond the essay. Look at your application as a whole. Are your activities and leadership roles linear? Do your classes increase in rigor? Do your grades stay consistent or improve? If you answered no to any of these questions, take advantage of the additional writing space at the end of the application. Your explanation can help connect the dots of an incomplete picture, one that if completed, can work in your favor.

2. Convey who you are beyond your resume

Have you ever thought about how strange the college application process is? Strangers read about you on paper and decide your future based on how well you present yourself in less than a dozen pages. Without the essays, you’re literally a series of grades and achievements. This is why it’s crucial that you use the essays to communicate what makes you tick. Peter Van Buskirk, author, speaker and consultant of Best College Fit, stresses the importance of not letting your resume define you.

“So often students applying to college know themselves by their resumes: the activities they been involved in, the places they’ve been, the people they know, the positions they’ve held and their score history,” he says. “It’s a very visible reminder of who they are to the world. Schools want to know about the person behind the numbers, behind the data. Who is the invisible person?”

With a long list of extracurriculars, a perfect GPA and dozens of volunteer experiences, you’re more than qualified to attend most colleges, but showing who you are takes more effort on paper. Take the time to do this because it’ll be worth it.

3. Add a little bit of humor

You don’t have to be a professional comedian to include humor in your college application. There are many opportunities to make the reader chuckle or even just smile at your words. If you’re a sarcastic person or have a dry sense of humor, show that in your essays. Write about the time you took 25 four-year-olds fishing by yourself or what you learned from accidentally shaving off your eyebrows. Even a serious writing prompt can be answered in a lighthearted way. Amy Ma, a freshman at Stanford University, says, “I wrote in my essay that one of the reasons I wanted to go to Stanford was because I wanted to be like Gabriella from High School Musical. I guess they thought it was funny!”

If you’re afraid your humor will fall flat, have multiple people read your essay or personal statement. Watch their reactions and tweak your writing based on the positivity of the reactions. Just know that everyone has a different sense of humor, so not everyone might enjoy your jokes (including the admissions officer). Sometimes written humor doesn’t have the same effect as spoken humor. One specific case is dark, conversational humor that’s more of an acquired taste for some people. Make sure you’re completely confident before you submit your application

Related: 5 Things That Don’t Matter on Your College Applications 

4. Be honest with your achievements

Let’s face it. It’s very tempting and easy to exaggerate on your college application, especially if it’s something as trivial as how many people were competing for a certain award that you won. While an admissions officer may not be able to fact-check everything you put on your resume, it’s assumed you’re being truthful. Min Son, a sophomore at Ursinus College, learned from personal experience that honesty stands out on an application.

“When I was applying to college, I only thought about impressing whoever was going to look at my applications. Being the first chair in an orchestra or winning a debate trophy as a sophomore wasn’t as important as I thought,” she says. “I realized that people who stand out don’t exaggerate. They take their life experiences to show who they have become, focusing on the process rather than the result.”

While Min’s achievements are admirable, she believes that writing about the hours of practice to become the first chair or the struggles of winning the debate trophy would’ve benefitted her more in the long run. High school is a journey and colleges are interested in hearing about how you’ve been shaped by your achievements, not just the achievements themselves.

5. Focus on what you’ll bring to campus

Although many colleges don’t use quotas to fill spots in their new incoming class, they do look for students that will bring something new. Maybe they want a stronger theater culture or a greater diversity of intramural sports. If you’ve got a passion for something unusual, chances are the admission officers will like that. Even if you don’t believe it, your mad juggling skills make the campus melting pot more diverse.

Rachna Shah, a freshman at Dartmouth College, says, “One of the most important things to understand in your college application is that colleges are trying to see what you’re going to do in the future, both on campus and beyond. What’s unique about you? Whether it be an extracurricular or a personal trait or a hobby, it’s sure to make you shine.”

If you can’t keep track of how many schools you’re applying to, think about narrowing down that list. For each school, consider how your passion will impact student culture. Bringing something completely new to campus will ultimately help a college’s image and your chances of acceptance.

The college application process is one of self-growth and discovery. While you may feel defined by ordinary test scores and activities, you’re more than a list of items admissions officers use to compare you to other applicants. By showing them the unique qualities you’ll bring to their campus, your application will definitely have a better chance of being placed at the top of the acceptance pile.  

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