Guide to the college application process: how to stand out and succeed

Drake Goodman

Amid the uncertainty of college applications this upcoming fall semester, there are many questions that need to be answered. How can I be a competitive applicant if I don’t have true grades for a semester? How can I position myself in a compelling way if my activities, internships or jobs were cancelled or postponed? What should I write about in my essays? When should I begin my application process? The following is what I’ve learned over the past few years going through the application process myself, as well as attending several webinars and talking to many college students.

Before diving in, here’s a little bit about myself. I will be attending the University of Pennsylvania next year under the Huntsman Program, where I will be receiving a dual degree in Business from Wharton and International Studies. According to The Kopelman Group, a college admissions consulting firm, the acceptance rate for the program is an estimated 1 to 2 percent. In all, I prepared applications for about 20 schools (although I ultimately only applied to one) and wrote about 100 essays in the process. 

Not everyone has the time or motivation to commit to all of the following advice, so it’s okay to pick and choose what you like. After all, this is simply a guide from one person’s perspective. Now, onto the advice:


Start your applications as soon as possible

I cannot repeat this point enough. During the summer before senior year, I wrote the majority of my essays and filled in the basic information for my applications. People oftentimes underestimate how long it takes to complete the application process, so, the sooner you start, the better. The main reason to start in the summer, though, is simple: there’s less going on than during the school year. Plus, with the government restrictions of going out and working, there’s even less activity than usual. You don’t have school to compete with writing your essays or filling out applications, so you’ll be able to get a lot more accomplished. Once school does roll around, trust me, your stress levels will also be much lower than your classmates. If you have time, I would even start the process now by filling out the common application’s general information sections, researching different schools and programs and brainstorming essay topics.


Establish a theme in your applications

Someone said this to me one day, and it stuck: colleges are not looking for well-rounded individuals, they are looking for a well-rounded class. They want students who are outstanding in a certain area, students who have a clear role in contributing to their campus. So what does that mean for your application? Whenever possible, structure your application so that a very clear component of who you are shines through so the admission offices can clearly see how your contribution will benefit the college. For example, if you are interested in pursuing medicine and also volunteer at the local food bank, you can structure your application around the theme of “helping those in peril whenever possible.” Then, structure your activities, essays and intended interests around that theme. 


Illustration by Drake Goodman

The Common Application essay

First of all, I want to emphasize how important this essay is. It gives schools the opportunity to see you for who you really are, something the rest of your application doesn’t necessarily encompass. That alone makes this one of the most important components of your application. With that being said, there is no special formula to writing this essay. In 250-650 words, you need to convey yourself in an essay that most schools (with some exceptions) will read. Even for schools that don’t use the Common Application essay, you can use this essay and restructure it to match one of the prompts they ask in their application. Also, many students will likely write about how COVID-19 has affected them in some capacity, so unless you have a very unique story or have done something extraordinary during this time, steer clear of that topic. The first question you might ask then is: how do I figure out what to write about? To do this, write down possible topics and stories that you think can reveal something greater about yourself. You can go on a walk, talk to your parents or read a book to get the creative juices flowing. Then, how do I write this? For each idea you brainstorm, write down what that story reveals about you. Remember, relate this essay to your theme! If you like one idea, start writing. If you like multiple, write a draft for all of them because even if you don’t use some for this essay, there are plenty of other essays where this could come into play. In terms of writing style, let your voice shine through your writing. After all, this is a chance for the admission officers to really know you. Another recommendation is to focus on a small component of your life. Instead of focusing on the entire tree, write about one branch to convey yourself. This enables you to have a focused, meaningful and insightful essay rather than a broad and vague one that doesn’t say anything of significance about yourself. The topic itself that you choose doesn’t have to be exciting, but your writing and the message should be. 


School supplemental essays

The vast majority of colleges have supplemental essays, which are meant to be more to-the-point than your personal statement. The two most important parts to remember when writing these essays are these: why do you want to go to this school and how will you contribute to this school? The latter is often ignored but is extremely important. To be successful in writing these shorter essays, you will need to do research. A lot of research. The more specific you can be in these essays, the better. Is there a specific program that no other college offers that you want to take advantage of? Is there one professor that you would do anything to conduct research with or learn from? Is there a unique feature about the school that perfectly fits you? This research is essential because the more specific you are, the better chance you have of convincing that school you’re truly passionate about what they offer. Also, try to steer clear of cliches. Admissions officers already receive several essays saying “I’m excited to cheer the football team” or “I’m looking forward to all the research opportunities you have to offer,” so don’t get lost in the crowd. Keep in mind, these essays give you the chance to show how much you want to go to that school but also how the school needs you as a candidate to attend.


How to navigate extracurricular and summer activities amid a pandemic

As government restrictions push into another month, you may be wondering, “How am I supposed to get anything accomplished when I can’t even go outside? This is a great opportunity to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. While most people will sit at home, feeling defeated and as if there is no solution, you can take advantage of this inaction. This serves two purposes: to first and foremost better the community or yourself in a certain aspect, but also to bolster your college application. There are several online college classes being offered right now and over the summer. You can help the community by starting a business to provide food to those unable to afford it at this time or are unable to go to grocery stores. You can conduct research (reach out to professors!) in any field based on the coronavirus (or something else). For example, there’s obviously a lot of medical research to be conducted, but there is also untapped economic, political and behavioral research as well. Remember, pursue something out of the good of your heart, but try to think how that activity or activities can relate to the theme you want to establish in your application.


Demonstrated interest

This part is most applicable if you are applying to any private schools. These buzzwords, “demonstrated interest,” essentially mean showing a school that you truly want to be a student there. How do you do this? One of the easiest but most impactful ways is talking to your regional admission officer. Regional admission officers are the people that visit Redwood to talk about their schools, but more importantly, are the first people to read your application. If they like it, they will likely advocate for you in the rest of the admissions process. You can find these individuals on almost every college’s website, although some schools don’t release this information. Email them any questions you have, talk to them in person if they visit Redwood and/or schedule a meeting with them if you have the opportunity to visit their campus. This way, when they eventually read your application, they can attach a face to your name, as well as understand your true commitment to them, which is powerful. If a college you are applying to visits Redwood, make sure to attend the info meeting and fill out the forms so they know that you were present. Also, if you have the opportunity and good fortune, schedule a campus visit!


What is the most important part of the application?

Colleges will continually say that they evaluate candidates using a “holistic approach.” It’s a broad phrase, but it encompasses the truth. Each component of your application, ranging from grades to test scores to extracurriculars, is extremely important and will be used as part of your evaluation. That being said, while those components of your application “get your foot in the door,” what sets you apart are your essays and letters of recommendation. These parts add humanity to you, understanding who you are as a person, how you’ll fit in the campus community and what your intentions in life are. This is the make or break of your application because you’ll either stand out, head and shoulders above the rest, or you’ll get lost in the crowd.


How do I keep track of everything?

There is so much research involved that everything can become overwhelming, especially if you’re balancing this with school, sports and other commitments. Don’t worry, that’s totally normal. First of all, create a folder (both online and physical) to keep everything college-related in one place. Within the online folder, have separate documents for every application, which is where you will write down and draft how you want to frame all aspects of your application, including your essays. I also recommend having separate documents for each school that you’re applying to where you can write your supplemental essays for those schools (as well as add your research to those documents). Within your college folder, create a folder for letters of recommendation, where you can have your documents of what your teachers need from you, and a folder for spreadsheets. In the spreadsheet folder, have a “deadlines” spreadsheet, “essay checklist” spreadsheet and “test score submission” spreadsheet at the very least, and feel free to add more. All of this may seem tedious and like overkill initially, but in the long run, it saves you time and from panicking later down the road. 


What should I do as an underclassman?

First of all, you only experience high school once, so enjoy it while it lasts! Now is the time to explore your interests and figure out what makes you “click.” If you do find something that you genuinely enjoy, run away with it and master that skill or position. Make yourself essential to others. Another important action you can take right now is establish meaningful relationships with your teachers. I mentioned earlier the importance of letters of recommendation, and in order to have a glowing letter, you need a teacher to rave about you. How do you do this? Find your niche in class, whether that is the active participant, the in-depth analyzer, the individual who frequently checks in with the teacher outside of class to talk about content because of genuine interest or something along those lines. By doing this with at least two teachers, you’ll position yourself well as an applicant before the application process even starts!


While I’m not an admissions officer or paid college tutor that has been in the trade for 10 plus years, I’ve learned a lot by going through the experience. While every person has a different process that works individually, these tips and tricks serve as a general guide that encompass a broad overview of what to expect and what to do. But most importantly, close your eyes, take a deep breath and repeat after me: everything will turn out as it was supposed to. Good luck!