How to Strengthen Your College Applications

College applications can seem daunting and stressful, especially since there are so many elements involved, from grades to essays to interviews. The college admissions tips below show you how to strengthen each of the seven key elements of a college application. Following these strategies can help you break down this intimidating process into manageable steps!

1. Raise your grades.

College admissions officers view high school grades as the most reliable predictor of academic success, so raising your GPA is essential in showing potential colleges that you could thrive in their courses. However, earning A's isn’t the only important aspect of having an impressive transcript: colleges look for students to earn such grades in advanced courses, such as AP and honors classes. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with such courses, and ask for help from a tutor if you’re struggling! Even if your freshman year grades aren’t as strong as you’d like them to be, not all hope is lost -- showing improvement over the course of your high school career is also impressive to admissions officers. After all, your senior year performance is a better predictor of your readiness for college than your first year grades.

2. Write a college admissions essay that stands out.

You need to write about topics that you care about and that are unique to you. Your passion about the topic will be reflected in your prose and its uniqueness will help you to stand out. While the personal statement will be the most important application essay that you write, supplemental essays matter, too. Make sure not to rush these! The shorter supplemental essays should read like a mini-personal statement with a great opening line, a body with memorable specific details, and a conclusion. Further, it’s important to work with a college admissions essay specialist to get extensive feedback on your essays. English teachers are well-meaning, but these types of essays are a niche essay, called a narrative essay, which is unlike the five-paragraph essays you learned to write in school. This is why you want a professional who can give you valuable feedback.

3. Earn high SAT or ACT scores.

High SAT scores will boost your application and help you earn college scholarships, so submit your scores if they meet or surpass the college’s average scores. While these tests are designed to reflect your aptitude regarding key English, writing, and math skills that you learn in high school, they are quite different from other tests you may take in school. That’s why you should prepare thoroughly and start early. Get guidance from a tutor who specializes in standardized tests. Take many practice tests before tackling the real thing on test day. And don’t be afraid to take these tests multiple times! There’s always room for improvement, and many schools will “superscore” your tests, taking your best score from each section across multiple test dates.

4. Take advantage of extracurriculars.

Beware of being a “jack of all trades.” It’s better to pursue a few passions over a number of years, so admission officers can see a common thread throughout your high school activities. I often get asked, “Between these two particular extracurricular activities, which one will look better on my college application?” I always tell my students to worry less about standing out and be more concerned with pursuing research topics and extracurriculars that they’re most passionate about. Following your passions will help you stand out in the long run and will set you up to continue pursuing them throughout your undergraduate career. Further, if you actually care about an extracurricular, you will apply yourself more to succeeding in it and will enjoy it more. These qualities will be reflected in your college interviews and essays.

5. Get the Best Recommendations.

Write a brag sheet, or a summary of your grades, test scores, and qualifications, and give it to teachers whom you ask to write you a recommendation. This will not only help you have more control over what recommenders include in their letters and ensure that teachers will highlight what you want them to emphasize, but it will also help the teachers! These brag sheets can also ask teachers to address gaps or dips in your academic or extracurricular life. For example, you might remind them of times when you faced obstacles but then put in extra time and effort to overcome them.

6. Master the College Interview.

It’s important to prepare an agenda for what you want to talk about when you walk into a college interview. Thoroughly research the college that you’re interviewing for, come up with at least three thoughtful questions to ask the interviewer, and practice a 30-second “elevator pitch” for when the interviewer says “Tell me about yourself.” It’s also helpful to do mock interviews, either with tutors or college admission specialists, before the real thing. This can help you identify areas for improvement and make you feel more confident on interview day. My favorite book to prepare for college interviews is College Board’s Campus Visits & College Interviews. It contains a list of questions that interviewers ask, tips for the shy person, and planning tools that can help you summarize how you want to present yourself to the interviewer, among other useful tips.

7. Apply to the Right Schools.

It’s important to apply to three tiers of schools: safety, match, and dream schools, in order to ensure successful admissions outcomes. Spend time researching schools thoroughly before applying: Students often put so much stress into wanting schools to like them and sometimes forget to ask themselves if they even like the school!

If a college is a good fit for you, you’ll get excited when researching and/or reading about it. If you start early, work diligently, and follow this advice, you can strengthen each of the seven key elements of your college applications. When you've done this, you’ll find the college admissions process much less stressful -- and more successful.

Susan Santucci has a Master's degree from Harvard and has been an SAT test prep expert and author for over 30 years. She’s helped thousands of students get into colleges, such as Princeton, Stanford, Brown, Yale, Boston College, and more.