Top Tips for a Stand-Out College Application

A post by Top Tier Admissions’ Maria Laskaris, former Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid at Dartmouth College

A stand-out college application consists of more than just high test scores and a killer GPA. Year after year, admissions officers are faced with a crushing volume of applications and a short amount of time in which to read them. As former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth, with over 25 years of experience in selective college admissions, I can tell you, they are looking for reasons to accept, not deny, you. To do so, they’ll look well beyond just your stellar high school record, strong test scores, and extracurricular resume to figure out if you’re just the type of student they seek for their community.


Seniors, as you’re well aware, deadlines for early and regular admission are on the horizon and as you write your essays and complete your Common App, you’re probably wondering “am I good enough” or “will they like me.” Read on for my tips and learn how to make your application absolutely rise above the rest and put these questions to rest.


“Your business here is learning” said a former college president to the assembled first-year students at the college’s annual convocation. Remember that colleges are, first and foremost, places of higher learning. Admissions officers are looking for students who love learning, not just those who get good grades. How do you convey your love of learning through your application? Use your essay(s) to show how your mind works – the questions you ponder, the ideas you want to explore, the problems you want to solve.

Your voice matters. They may only be 650 words, but your essays will tell the admissions office something about you that your grades and test scores won’t. Don’t be shy! Once you’ve brainstormed a focus for your essay, be specific. Show – don’t tell – the reader what makes you unique and distinctive. Find a creative angle or hook for your essay and let the rest flow from there. Be honest and authentic about what matters to you and why.

Quality, not quantity, matters most. Whether your extracurricular passions include volunteer work, hobbies, clubs, arts, athletics or a part time job, it’s not about how much you do but rather the quality of your contribution. Rather than simply filling up the Common App’s extracurricular grid with a laundry list of all you’ve done, be choosy. Highlight those that are most meaningful – and show your greatest impact – by putting them at the top of the list.

New definitions of leadership. Colleges define leadership in ways that go well beyond being captain of the swim team, president of senior class, or editor of the yearbook. How do you make your school and community better through your ideas and initiative? Use any opportunities – supplemental essays, the “Additional Information” section on the Common App, interviews – to show how you’ve made a positive and lasting impact through your leadership.

Choose wisely. Build a college list that includes schools at which you have a realistic shot at admission and which line up with your academic and personal interests. If your grades and scores put you well in range of students typically admitted to the school, then you’re most likely a realistic applicant.

Do your research and be able to articulate in an essay (as well as an alumni or campus interview) why the school is a perfect fit for you. What are the academic programs that match your interests? How do you see yourself taking advantage of on- and off-campus learning opportunities? What appeals to you about the college community? Is it the artsy vibe, outdoors bent, or socially engaged student body? Be sure you can answer the question you’ll inevitably be asked about.

Best of luck to each of you on your college admissions journey!

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