How to Stand Out as an Applicant in the US

Are you Interesting?

College would be a pretty dull place if only those students who liked to sit in a library and read were admitted. Admissions officers are looking for more than just students who are capable of earning good grades. US colleges in particular are looking for students who will bring a spark to a class discussion, who will start a new club, who will sing in an acapella group, or who will make the residence hall a better place to live.

One US admissions officer once said, "When I'm considering an applicant, I try to decide whether this is the kind of student I would want as my son or daughter's roommate." Obviously, being a good roommate is not something that can be determined by looking only at a transcript. Most schools realize a GPA does not make up the total student.

Extracurricular Involvement

Extracurricular activities play a big part in distinguishing you from other applicants. And quality, creativity, and commitment are much more important than quantity. Colleges value students who are deeply involved in just a few activities and who remain committed to them year after year.

Students may ask, “what activities should I do?” The answer is that the nature of the activity itself rarely matters; colleges want to see that you are investing in areas of passion. There’s no need to do one service club and one sport and one instrument. Try to find things that matter to you—colleges want to see students who have made their own paths. Your focus should be on exploring what you love in grades nine and ten and then committing to those things in significant ways in grades eleven and twelve.

Some students may struggle with identifying their extracurricular interests. Please see your PAC counselor or your college counselor if you would like help brainstorming possible areas that you might pursue or ways that you might want to spend your summer.

Summers: Summer can be a good time to deepen your investment in your academic and/or extracurricular areas of interest—or to seek out new ones. It may be a time to get an internship or a job, to go to overnight camp, to do volunteer work, or to shadow an adult in a possible career field of interest. It may be a time to write, to do art, to join a club team, to attend sports or music or theater camps. It may be a time to visit colleges.

Some students choose to take college classes over the summer. This is a good idea if you are interested in a particular subject or want to explore a new discipline, or if you want to get a sense of what it might be like to be away from home and live on a college campus. But please know that, with rare exceptions, spending time on a particular college campus will not in any way increase your chances of acceptance to that individual school.

Please do not spend the whole summer in test prep or tuition. Colleges want to see students who devote time to pursuing their interests, not to pursuing better test scores. Lastly, we strongly suggest that you save some time in the summer for relaxing and spending time with family. It is important to have time to recharge so that you are ready for the next school year.

Applying to Summer Programs: If you are applying to a summer program that requires the SAS College Counseling Office to send your transcript or other supporting materials, please fill out this form.

Arts and Athletics

Some students may be interested in the athletic recruitment process. These students should meet with their SAS college counselor to discuss the role of athletics in the college application process.

Students with talents in the arts may want to share their abilities with the college admissions office, whether or not they plan to major in the arts. Visual arts students may want to submit a portfolio of their work, while performing arts students might post sound clips, film, or a video of their work online. Students intending to major in these fields will most likely be required to go through a portfolio review or an audition process. They should check the submission and timeline requirements for each individual school and talk with their SAS college counselor about their plans.

Alumni and Legacies

Most schools will ask if your parents or siblings attended the college. Children of alumni, often called "legacies," often have some sort of an admissions advantage. At some schools, legacies are given an extra boost only during the early decision period. If you are a legacy applicant, ask the admissions officer if the school takes legacy status into account during the admissions process.

Demonstrate Interest

Because colleges want to admit students who are likely to enroll, a growing number of admission offices now take account of how well informed and serious a candidate is about the school. When a choice has to be made between two equally qualified applicants, your interest can provide the necessary edge.

How can you show you're interested in a school? Starting in junior year:

  • Go to the school’s website and sign up to be on their mailing list.
  • If the school sends you email, open it—and click on one or two of the links in the body of the email.
  • Chat with admissions representatives who visit SAS.
  • Send your admissions representative thoughtful questions via email about academics, housing options, extracurriculars, and campus life. “Thoughtful” questions are those that seek information that cannot be found on the college’s website. But please do not flood your admissions representative’s inbox with emails— don’t send more than one email every other month.
  • Visit the campus, if possible
  • Set up an interview if they are offered.
  • Send thank you notes after tours, interviews, and meetings.

Please note that not all colleges track demonstrated interest. Neither large public institutions nor most of the most highly selective research universities in the US have the resources or desire to consider this as a factor in reviewing applications. If you have questions about which colleges do and do not track demonstrated interest, please ask your SAS college counselor.

Next Steps