How to Stand Out at a Competitive High School
Competition in the college admissions process can sometimes feel like a losing battle. This is all the more true if you go to a competitive high school where it seems like everyone has stellar grades and seems to have one foot already in the door of an elite university.
The first thing to do when faced with this (very common) situation? Relax!
Most colleges and universities require high school guidance counselors to complete a school profile. This tells colleges how many of the school’s graduates go on to 4-year universities (and which ones). The profile also includes average SAT and ACT scores, level of rigor in curriculum, and average GPA. This works to level the field a bit for those students at a hyper-competitive high school. Admissions officers realize that not all schools are created equal. The school profile helps them make an informed value judgment about the applicant. A student with a lower class rank from a competitive high school can often be more desirable than a high-ranking student from a less competitive high school.
If your grades are good but your class rank is low, consider focusing on other areas. What makes you a “catch” for the schools on your college list?
Admissions officers often equate test scores with aptitude for learning. If a student has phenomenal test scores, a less-than-perfect grade point average can often be dismissed as a result of not being challenged enough by teachers. The higher your test scores are, the more colleges will fight over you (and the more scholarship money they will offer!). This is less about you and more about boosting the average test scores of their incoming freshman class, which makes them look more selective than competing schools. This puts the power directly into your hands. Maximizing your scores will maximize your options.
Many college applications lack something no one really thinks of: an entrepreneurial spirit. Work experience appeals to potential schools and is something a lot of honor roll students lack. If you work hard at your part-time job, or even better, you start your own business, this should be on your applications! Running your own babysitting company or lawn care operation showcases your maturity and work ethic outside of the classroom. Professionalism and time management skills indicate that you will do well at the university level.
Sure, everyone knows that colleges consider your extracurricular activities as part of your college application. You’ve probably joined different clubs and teams over the years to try new things. Colleges use the phrase “future leaders” in their recruitment materials all the time, but not everyone knows what that means. Successfully running for vice president of the German club or captain of the lacrosse team showcases your commitment. This is more desirable than joining eight different clubs or playing every single sport. Realistically, no one has the time to participate in everything. Think quality instead of quantity.
Many students avoid asking for recommendations because they seem like such a huge favor to ask. Do it anyway, and do it early. Ask your favorite teachers, the ones who can speak to your academic capabilities as well as your character. They will need plenty of time to craft a quality recommendation. Bosses and coaches are also an option and can give insight into other qualities your teachers may not be aware of. Another idea that could help your application is to ask someone you know that went to the college you are applying to, especially if that person is a donor or part of an alumni group. Let these connections work in your favor, but only if the individual truly knows you well. Stick to academic or professional references as opposed to personal ones. We’re sure your mom has very nice things to say about you, but your college application is not the place.
Not every college requires an admissions essay. For those that do, however, being insightful and well-spoken is basically a prerequisite to admission. Make sure you emphasize why this school is a great fit for you. It wouldn’t hurt to mention what you have to offer the school as well. Let your personality and values shine through in your writing. Admissions officers read these on a daily basis and can spot a generic essay a mile away. While it may seem tedious to write, proofread, rewrite, and submit several different essays, it’s a necessary evil. If your GPA and test scores are at the lower end of a school’s accepted group, a great essay can be the push that officially gets you (or someone else) in.