- What Looks Good on College Applications?
- Grade Point Average (GPA)
- Test Scores
- Extracurricular Activities
- Community Service
- Awards and Honors
- College Essay
- Demonstrated Interest
- Read More
- 7 Steps to Stay on Top of the College Applications Process
- 1. Finalize Your College List
- 2. Aggregate Your Essay Prompts
- 3. Write Early and Often
- 5. Work on Your Safety School Application
- 6. Be Aware of Unconventional Deadlines
- 7. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels Just Yet
- Early Decision & Early Action Applications
- Early decision versus early action
- ED applicants
- EA applicants
- Who should apply early?
- The benefits of applying early
- The drawbacks of applying early
- Does applying early increase the chance of acceptance?
- The ethics of applying early decision
- Keep in mind
What Looks Good on 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 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.
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!
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 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.
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 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 ly 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.
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 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.
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!
7 Steps to Stay on Top of the College Applications Process
Deadlines are crucial in the world of college applications. Miss them, and your application will never be opened. Meeting deadlines in a timely manner and doing so without a last minute panic-session is a requirement for success when it comes to college apps. To do so you’ll need to employ careful planning, a disciplined approach, and a structured schedule.
Here, we offer seven critical steps to staying on top of the college application timeline. If you’re applying to college this season, don’t miss this important post.
1. Finalize Your College List
By the time college application season nears, you should already have a good idea of what types of schools you want to apply to, even if you haven’t chosen the specific schools that will make your final list. Before you move forward, you’ll need to curate the final draft of your college list. For more help with your college list, don’t miss these posts:
Seven Tips for Creating Your College List
Five Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Your College List
10 Considerations For Making Your College List
Once you’ve finalized your college list, you’ll need to decide on which one(s) you will be applying to Early Action/Early Decision and which you’ll apply to Regular Decision. For more help with this, check out the post Early Decision versus Early Action versus Restrictive Early Action.
Once you’ve got your strategy outlined, make sure that you know all of the associated deadlines. It is a good idea to create a calendar of deadlines that you can clearly track.
Create one calendar electronically on your device or computer, and set reminders so that you’ll have plenty of time to ensure you meet each deadline.
Post a paper copy of the calendar prominently at home so that you’ll have another visual reminder every day.
2. Aggregate Your Essay Prompts
Once you have your list of schools, you should aggregate all of your school prompts. Take note of which prompts are similar and overlap in theme, and see which essays can and will be reused across most of your applications. These essays are the ones you want to put the most time into polishing and getting right.
Don’t force essays into overlapping. If it doesn’t feel a natural fit, you’re better off writing two separate responses or revising one response to better fit another prompt. For more information about how to do this effectively without negatively impacting the quality of your essays, check out our post How to Write Fewer College Essays.
3. Write Early and Often
After you have your school deadlines and prompts in order, it is time to start writing. The hardest part of getting an essay started is coming up with a quality, high-level idea. Make sure to allow yourself plenty of time to brainstorm ideas, to scrap ideas that don’t quite translate from theory to practice, to brainstorm some more, and of course to write, write, write.
You might want to keep a notepad or note-taking app with you at all times during this stage so that you can write down essay ideas whenever you are struck by inspiration. The more ideas you initially generate, the more options you will have. In the end, you will choose the ones that work best given each prompt. For tips of getting started with your essays, check out these posts:
Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
How to Come Up With an Idea for a Personal Statement
How to Write an Impressive College Essay: A Step By Step Guide
Everyone goes through a unique writing process to reach their final product, but once you are ultimately satisfied with your work, you’ll need to go through an extensive editing and proofreading process. To ensure that your essay is just right, consider enlisting the help of CollegeVine’s Rapid Essay Review.
Once your essays are complete, it will be time to send off that first round of college applications. Keep in mind that if you’re applying early decision or through restrictive early action, you may only submit one application at this time.
The higher acceptance rates through ED/EA applications at top schools might entice you to submit more than one, but doing so it ultimately a bad idea.
Ivy League admissions committees have stated that they regularly share their lists of students admitted through EA/ED and if you are found in violation of the EA/ED policies, not only could your acceptance be revoked, but also your name will be tarnished within the college admissions world, negatively impacting your regular decision applications too.
5. Work on Your Safety School Application
After having submitted applications to your early schools, you might want to consider submitting your application to your main safety school. This application, if you have chosen an appropriate safety school, should not take too much of your time and getting it the way will mean you have more time and energy to devote to other schools later in the process.
6. Be Aware of Unconventional Deadlines
Many students get it in their heads that the regular decision college application deadline is pretty much universally January 1st, but this is not the case across the board. This is why it’s so important to create that calendar of deadlines that we discuss in step one above, for all the schools on your list.
Some colleges, the University of California system, have deadlines as soon as November 30.
Others, including specialty schools Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music have December 1st deadlines.
In addition, many other conventional schools have a deadline of December 31st rather than January 1st, so don’t head out for those New Years Eve celebrations before double-checking your calendar.
7. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels Just Yet
After you have submitted all of the above, you might be tempted to relax and wait to hear back from your early admissions results before writing any more regular decision essays. Don’t do this.
While your momentum is still strong, you need to keep writing for your regular decision schools, working on your essays in order of your preference and desire to attend said schools. This strategy is advantageous regardless of your early round outcome.
If you do not get into your early school(s), you will already have more applications ready for submission and will not allow your disappointment to hinder the caliber of your subsequent applications.
Similarly, if you are accepted to an EA or REA school, you will have a head start on applying to only the schools you would consider attending over your early acceptance.
For this reason, remember to write in order of descending school preference.
For more about this approach, don’t miss our post How to Approach Your Post-Early Application Strategy.
Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!
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Early Decision & Early Action Applications
Early decision (ED) and early action (EA) plans can be beneficial to students — but only to those who have thought through their college options carefully and have a clear preference for one institution.
Early decision versus early action
Early decision plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend the college. Early action plans are nonbinding — students receive an early response to their application but do not have to commit to the college until the normal reply date of May 1. Counselors need to make sure that students understand this key distinction between the two plans.
Approximately 450 colleges have early decision or early action plans, and some have both. Some colleges offer a nonbinding option called single-choice early action, under which applicants may not apply ED or EA to any other college.
ED plans have come under fire as unfair to students from families with low incomes, since they do not have the opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This may give an unfair advantage to applicants from families who have more financial resources.
- Apply early (usually in November) to first-choice college.
- Receive an admission decision from the college well in advance of the usual notification date (usually by December).
- Agree to attend the college if accepted and offered a financial aid package that is considered adequate by the family.
- Apply to only one college early decision.
- Apply to other colleges under regular admission plans.
- Withdraw all other applications if accepted by ED.
- Send a nonrefundable deposit well in advance of May 1.
- Apply early.
- Receive an admission decision early in the admission cycle (usually in January or February).
- Consider acceptance offer; do not have to commit upon receipt.
- Apply to other colleges under regular admission plans.
- Give the college a decision no later than the May 1 national response date.
Who should apply early?
Applying to an ED or EA plan is most appropriate for a student who:
- Has researched colleges extensively.
- Is absolutely sure that the college is the first choice.
- Has found a college that is a strong match academically, socially and geographically.
- Meets or exceeds the admission profile for the college for SAT® scores, GPA and class rank.
- Has an academic record that has been consistently solid over time.
Applying to an ED or EA plan is not appropriate for a student who:
- Has not thoroughly researched colleges.
- Is applying early just to avoid stress and paperwork.
- Is not fully committed to attending the college.
- Is applying early only because friends are.
- Needs a strong senior fall semester to bring grades up.
Encourage students who want to apply early to fill out NACAC's Early Decision Self-Evaluation Questionnaire, in the Deciding About Early Decision and Early Action handout. You may want to share this with parents as well.
The benefits of applying early
For a student who has a definite first-choice college, applying early has many benefits besides possibly increasing the chance of getting in. Applying early lets the student:
- Reduce stress by cutting the time spent waiting for a decision.
- Save the time and expense of submitting multiple applications.
- Gain more time, once accepted, to look for housing and otherwise prepare for college.
- Reassess options and apply elsewhere if not accepted.
The drawbacks of applying early
Pressure to decide: Committing to one college puts pressure on students to make serious decisions before they've explored all their options.
Reduced financial aid opportunities: Students who apply under ED plans receive offers of admission and financial aid simultaneously and so will not be able to compare financial aid offers from other colleges. For students who absolutely need financial aid, applying early may be a risky option.
Time crunch for other applications: Most colleges do not notify ED and EA applicants of admission until December 15.
Because of the usual deadlines for applications, this means that if a student is rejected by the ED college, there are only two weeks left to send in other applications.
Encourage those of your students who are applying early to prepare other applications as they wait to receive admission decisions from their first-choice college.
Senioritis: Applicants who learn early that they have been accepted into a college may feel that, their goal accomplished, they have no reason to work hard for the rest of the year. Early-applying students should know that colleges may rescind offers of admission should their senior-year grades drop.
Students and parents can use our Pros and Cons of Applying to College Early, in the Deciding About Early Decision and Early Action handout, to weigh their options.
Does applying early increase the chance of acceptance?
Many students believe applying early means competing with fewer applicants and increasing their chances for acceptance. This is not always true. Colleges vary in the proportion of the class admitted early and in the percentage of early applicants they admit.
Higher admission rates for ED applicants may correlate to stronger profiles among candidates choosing ED. Students should ask the admission office whether their institution's admission standards differ between ED and regular applicants, and then assess whether applying early makes sense given their own profile.
The ethics of applying early decision
The Common Application and some colleges' application forms require the student applying under early decision, as well as the parent and counselor, to sign an ED agreement form spelling out the plan's conditions.
Make it clear in your school handbook and at college planning events that your policy for early-decision applications is to send the student's final transcript to one college only: anything else is unethical.
Keep in mind
- ED and EA program specifics vary, so students should get information as soon as possible directly from the admission staff at their first-choice college.
- ED and EA applicants must take the October SAT or SAT Subject Tests™ in order for these scores to make it to the college in time.
Print out and share the Early Decision and Early Action Calendar with students and parents to be sure they are aware of all the required steps for applying early.