Make Your College Application Shine: Six Strategies for Success

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by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.

One of the most critical stages in a college-bound teen’s life is the process of applying to college. And while many activities lead up to the point of applying to a select group of colleges, the focus of this article is on maximizing your efforts on your college applications.

More specifically, this article discusses six strategies that are absolutely critical to mastering the college application process — and moving you closer to your goal of obtaining acceptance to the colleges of your choice.

Get Organized

Some of us are much better than others at keeping track of multiple tasks and deadlines and dealing with applications to multiple colleges. A system is a must.

You might consider developing a checklist or spreadsheet with critical elements needed for your applications — along with the deadlines. For example, most colleges require your application, official high school transcript, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation. Some schools request work portfolios and other supporting documents.

Follow this link for a useful college application checklist from

Focus on Accomplishments/Leadership/Community Service

Your accomplishments, leadership experiences, and community service can be a critical tool in helping you showcase your strengths — and separate yourself from all the others applicants with similar GPAs, class standings, and SAT scores.

Take the time now to identify and document all your past and current experiences. College admissions officers often talk about the importance of being highly involved in a small group of organizations over an extended period of time, ideally with leadership in at least one of the groups. And remember to document specifics about your activities and the successes of the organizations — such as if you helped raise money to assist hurricane victims. (And whenever possible, quantify those accomplishments.)

Finally, don’t forget all those hours of community service. Many colleges are placing a greater emphasis on encouraging students to reach out to the local communities — and showing that commitment while in high school is important.

Decide on Common Application vs. Individual Applications

More than 200 private colleges and universities in the U.S. accept the Common Application, which you can find at The Common Application, Inc.. You can actually complete the application online and then print out the number of copies you need, thus your application answers are neat and professional.

Be sure to check two things before you get too wrapped up in the common application. First, make sure each school you want to apply to accepts it. Second, even for those schools that accept it, check to see if they require a supplemental application.

And even for schools that accept the common application, many experts recommend for your top two or three college choices that you use the individual school’s application because it is a subtle sign that you care enough to individualize your application to that school.

Master the College Application

Whatever application — or applications — you decide to use, first take the time to read it thoroughly before you jump into filling it out.

Most experts suggest printing (or photocopying) an extra copy of each application and completing a rough draft. Once you are happy with all your answers, take the time to complete the application using a black-ink pen and neat penmanship. If your handwriting is bad, consider typing your applications.

Although it may sound a little silly compared to the importance of the content, first impressions are critical, and a sloppy-looking application shouts disinterest while a clean-looking application signals interest.

Plan, Write, Edit, Rewrite, and Proof Your College Essay(s)

Many teens are probably sick of hearing about the importance of writing drafts, composing, editing, and rewriting — but the vast majority of us are not strong enough writers to whip out a top-notch essay on first write.

And your college essay is critical to your application. Besides being well-written, it should also offer insight into your personality. Your essays should be original, personal, and honest. And since you often have some choice in which question(s) you answer, be sure that your essay clearly answers the question.

The essay is another chance to distinguish yourself from all the other similar applicants. Some admissions counselors make initial judgments about an application’s strength and standing by grading the personal statement before any other part of the application.

And always remember to proofread your final version as carefully as possible to remove all typos and other mistakes.

Seek Outside Assistance and Criticism

There is no reason for ever going through the college application process alone. If you don’t have a family member to assist you, seek out a high-school teacher or counselor, neighbor, friend, or clergy — any adult who has been through college and can assist you in all aspects of the process — from strategies to editorial assistance.

Welcome the opportunity to get constructive criticism. The more eyes that read your work and offer positive suggestions, the stronger your final product will be.

There are also outside editing services and college application books that can assist your efforts.

Learn more in Writing the Successful College Application Essay.

Final Thoughts & College Application Resources

Every student deserves the opportunity to attend the college of his or her choice. To have a chance at getting accepted, you need to meet the minimum requirements for acceptance. But beyond those minimums, the most important element is the quality and professionalism of the actual application and essay.

Two more pieces of advice. First, do not send supplemental materials unless the college requests them — or you ask and get permission to send them. Second, it’s important to follow-up with all the colleges you apply to — not to ask if or when you will be accepted, but to make sure they have your complete application, including transcripts, test scores, and the like.

Finally, some additional resources that can help you in the college application process:

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms. Founder Dr. Randall Hansen Dr. Randall S. Hansen is founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web, as well CEO of He is also founder of and He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press, including the Quintessential Careers electronic newsletter, QuintZine. Dr. Hansen is also a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He’s often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally, Dr. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal Website or reach him by email at randall(at) Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

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