How to Stand Out in Your College Application

How to Stand Out in Your College Application

One thing that truly impresses these top schools is extracurriculars. Learn what you can do outside the classroom that top colleges and universities love to see in college applications.

Applicants to the top 40 national colleges and universities ranked by US News & World Report are already expected to have high GPAs and test scores, so how can students stand out on their college applications?

One thing that truly impresses these top schools is extracurriculars.

In some cases, a student’s extracurriculars can sway college admissions officers to forgive less than perfect GPAs and less than shiny test scores. So, it’s only fitting that we should spend some time discussing extracurriculars that can help you stand out in your college application.

The Main Idea Is To Have Social Impact

Often times, a student’s social impact on his community or the world around him suggests to a college admissions officer that this individual has the potential to have a major impact on society through leadership and innovation.

A student can exhibit leadership by:

  • Standing for an important cause
  • Leading an important social movement, despite the size
  • Mobilizing people into action for the cause

A student can exhibit innovation by:

  • Creating an original piece of art or music
  • Exhibiting a rare level of artistic talent
  • Making a valuable contribution to human knowledge

It may not be the norm, but ultimately, a school may accept an applicant with subpar GPAs and mediocre test scores in the hopes that the student will excel in the areas of leadership and innovation, contributing to the good reputation of the school.

Depth of Extracurricular Activities

Ranked from most to least valuable, here are the 9 general categories of extracurricular activities:

  1. Signature project
  2. Internship
  3. Leadership
  4. Summer camps
  5. Paid work
  6. Sports
  7. Music
  8. Art
  9. Volunteer work

What is meant by depth? Depth means that a student has committed a significant amount of effort and time into a cause or activity. Depth can result from months to years of involvement. Other signs of depth include awards, media mentions, an artistic product, or a letter of recommendation from an established authority figure supporting significant contribution. This authority figure is typically an adult who has a professional role in a relevant organization or who has credentials as an expert who can assess the quality of the student’s contributions.

However, for students who are exceptional at categories that rank lower on the list, their chosen activity can become their signature project. A signature project is a self-initiated endeavor in which the student tries to solve a problem for society, whether large or small.

While most students who get into the top 40 universities have participated in activities in each of the nine categories, it is unrealistic for all nine to have depth. What college admissions officers want to see is that you are deep in 1-3 of them. It is unrealistic and even hazardous to your mental health to be deep in all nine categories.

Passion for the Good of Society

Social impact only comes from creating something or leading a cause that makes society a better place. Social impact often stems from a student’s passion, an important requirement for someone willing to commit to something for an extended period of time. This passion can be about creating awareness of or providing solutions to an injustice, becoming exceptionally good at something, or celebrating something great about humanity through your talents.

Remember, college admissions offices want applicants who will make a university look good. You might be the best chess player in the nation, but if your college application - which includes letters of recommendations and personal statements - comes across as someone who cares nothing about the wellbeing of others, then you’re not going to be as competitive as you think.


Not everyone can paint a masterpiece or create their own mind-controlled prosthetic arm, but everyone can choose to lead a movement for something important.

Leadership is one of the two key features that results in social impact. Leaders come in many forms, including public speakers, media figures, local community leaders, or local school leaders.

Leaders don’t necessarily need to have followers, as is usually the expectation of leadership. Leaders can be solitary figures who take a stand for an important idea or stand against a dangerous idea, like issues of justice, equality, or redemption.


The word innovation often brings technology and robots to mind, but innovation can also include artistic endeavors, such as dance and music. An example of innovation might be pioneering a new form of art that is a fusion of modern street graffiti and 19th century Impressionism. Another example might be a student writing a novel about the plight of Syrian refugees adapting to life in America.

In either case, no cures were discovered and no product was developed that will advance technological development, but they are still innovations in the eyes of admissions officers for their valuable contributions to society.

For science and engineering students, innovation typically means a new method or product that provides value in understanding nature or enhancing technological prowess. But a recreation of an existing product in a creative or affordable way utilizing basic materials would also count as innovation. In this case, nothing new was created, but the student proved her creative potential, which will only advance with the right training and access to better materials.

Advanced Training Through Internships

Internships in academic settings, at nonprofit organizations, or at for-profit organizations are highly valuable in making a college applicant stand out. Advanced training under a professional mentor cannot be derived from the high school classroom or a standardized score. Students who have done internships are more confident in their future potential and can more easily make contributions to society.

Internships provide the experience necessary for making concrete contributions to knowledge, the economy, or social good. Internships also give the student opportunity to work with authority figures, who can provide the student with letters of recommendation. A letter of recommendation adds weight to a student’s claim that they gained specialized knowledge, or made valuable contributions, indicative of a promising future career.

Advanced Training Through Summer Camps

Every summer there are camps that train students on every academic subject, ranging from political debate to nanorobotics. Summer camps are more abundant than internships, so these are great alternatives. However, summer camps can have a hefty price tag.

These camps are a way for high school students to show their passion for knowledge outside of the classroom. Camps often teach things that high school classes do not have the time or resources to teach. The skills obtained from summer camps can boost a student’s confidence in a certain career path and provide an edge in college admissions.

Summer camps also provide the skills necessary for high school students to do independent projects throughout the school year, culminating in a unique accomplishment that may take several years to achieve.

Athletic Achievement

For students who are highly accomplished in a sport, recruitment to universities based on athletics is a great way to stand out. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has three divisions of competitiveness in college sports.

Schools that have high academic standards typically have the same expectations of their athletes. Typically, schools with highly competitive sports programs allow coaches to accept a number of highly competitive athletes early in the admissions process. A high school student is typically competitive for an athletic scholarship at the top schools if they have a national or state ranking as a high school athlete.

Keep in mind that smaller Division III schools also give scholarships to recruit potential student-athletes.

Musical Achievement

Admissions officers are often eager to find outstanding student musicians. These applicants prove

Admissions officers are often eager to find outstanding student musicians. These applicants exhibit their exceptional talent by winning state-level and national-level awards, or by qualifying for competitive performing arts opportunities.

Musical achievement can be showcased by including audition audio/video recordings along with the college application. For students who play less well-known instruments or sing lesser-known vocal styles, a supplementary recording showcasing the student’s unique talent is highly recommended.

Artistic Achievement

Artistic achievement can include many forms beyond traditional watercolor and oil paintings. Art can include dance, ceramics, woodcarving, digital media, and even writing. High school students should showcase their talent in the form of portfolios and awards.

Many competitions exist at the local, state, and national levels for artists, so high school students should have plenty of opportunities to show off their talent. Art can be very abstract and difficult to understand, so the applicant should make an effort through his personal statements and portfolio to help the admissions office understand the significance of his art.

See our Complete Guide to the College Admissions Process for more.

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