If you’re reading this, chances are that you're trying to figure out how to make your college application rise to the top of the pile. While there’s no secret to being a shoo-in for a particular college or university, there are strategies for crafting an impressive application. 

It goes without saying that the college application process is a stressful one. You're starting the process at a time in life that is undeniably busy. You’re likely juggling sports practices or other extracurriculars with studying for exams and writing papers. You’re also constantly being asked where you want to go to college and what you want to do with your life. The constant questioning from family, peers, and teachers can leave you feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. 

But before you start fretting, know that millions of students just like you are going through the same process at the same time. There’s no reason that your application is any less worthy than another student’s application. You’ve done the work and now is the time to really make it shine and spotlight yourself. So, if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by completing a compelling college application, this one’s for you. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Write Noteworthy Essays 

The essay section is oftentimes viewed as the dreaded part of the application process. Essay writing takes time, and it isn’t something you want to just breeze through. However, this is your shot at showcasing yourself beyond your grades and test scores. While this data is important in college selection processes, a number doesn’t tell the college who you are. The essays are meant to highlight your uniqueness — what makes you, you! 

The hardest part of the essay portion is starting. Due to common character count limitations, you may only have a small amount of time to tell a compelling story. If you decide to work one-on-one with a college admissions consultant, essay writing may not seem like so much of a burden. The consultant can be your sounding board during the writing process. The two of you can brainstorm what you’re going to write about as well as work together to organize and edit your essays. 

Once your essays are written, take a step back before you begin editing. Because you’ve been consumed by them for so long, it can be helpful to come back to them with a clear mind. Of course, you can only do this if you’ve given yourself enough time! Ideally, you should plan to spend at least a month on the essay section for your application. You might even start the summer before you apply. This way, you won’t feel rushed and can feel really confident in your submission. 

2. Provide Exceptional Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters are another way to really stand out amongst applicants. A great letter showcases your unique qualifications, skills, and personality. It speaks to who you are as a student, describing your work ethic and character traits. Many colleges require two to three letters of recommendation. Some ask for letters from specific individuals, such as a specific subject teacher or a guidance counselor, while others leave the decision up to you. 

Take some time to think about who you want to ask to write a letter for you. Your grandmother may be your biggest cheerleader, however her opinion is biased. Admissions counselors want to see letters written by counselors, teachers, and/or managers. A letter from one of these sources vouches for your character, speaking to your skills in the classroom and beyond.

It’s also a good idea to choose people who you’ve had recent interactions with, such as a teacher from junior year rather than sixth grade. Colleges want to see who you are as an individual today, not who you were five years ago. Be sure to ask for a letter well in advance of the application due date; teachers are busy and some may be writing letters for multiple students. Providing a one-sheet of your recent achievements and accolades can help your recommender write an exceptional letter on your behalf.   

3. Reflect on Your Extracurricular Activities

How and where you spend your time is another criteria that admissions counselors consider. Your extracurricular activities show your interests and talents. An activity can be anything, formal or informal, that you’ve dedicated time to recently. For many, this includes sports, scouts, clubs, and volunteering. However, you may also include internships, jobs, or time spent caring for a loved one.  

The Common App provides you with space to reflect on your extracurriculars through a specific format. You’ll need to provide details of the activity, including when you participated, hours spent per week, and weeks spent per year. You’ll also need to respond “yes” or “no” to whether you want to continue this activity in college. Currently, you can provide up to 10 extracurriculars on the Common App. 

Instead of listing 10 random activities you’ve done over the years, think through your responses. Was your year in the French Club as meaningful as the two weeks you spent volunteering in Maui for disaster relief over the summer? Use descriptive action words to demonstrate how you made a significant impact. Instead of saying, “Assisted in Maui wildfire cleanup,” you should write, “Spearheaded wildfire devastation relief in Lahaina, Maui, organizing aid for 12 local families.” This statement demonstrates your leadership qualifications and its significant impact.

Putting it All Together

Hitting the submit button on your college application will likely be a huge relief. But before you even think about turning your application in, make sure you’ve done your due diligence. This is really your one shot at standing out, your chance to get selected by a tough group of admissions experts. You don’t want to regret anything that you’ve included — or not included. 

Ask a counselor or mentor to go through your application, ensuring there are no typos or unanswered questions. Proofread out loud, checking for any inconsistencies in dates, awards, or extracurricular timing. Confirm your test scores, transcripts, and AP scores have been submitted properly. Once you’ve reviewed these tasks, then you can hit submit knowing that your application is going to stand out.