Applying to college is an exercise in storytelling: think of each element of the application as a chapter in the narrative that you are presenting to colleges.
So what’s your story?
Just as powerful stories require clear structure and careful planning, so do the various pieces of your application.
Let’s take a look at those pieces and think a little bit about what each one can capture about the applicant. (This is an exercise I like to call StoryMapping.)
Academic Record: the most important element of any application. Your transcript reveals to admissions not only your performance in school (a reflection on your study habits and work ethic), but also your willingness to challenge yourself, based on the advanced classes available at your high school. Standardized test scores are intended to help admissions get a sense of how you compare to students outside your school.
Activities Section: how you choose to spend your non-academic time. Admissions are interested in how committed you are to the organizations you’re a part of: how many years have you spent in a single activity? How have you improved, as evidenced by awards and leadership positions?
Personal Statement: the centerpiece of your individual story. The personal statement is an opportunity for you to open up and show admissions who you really are. They want to hear your voice, know how your circumstances have shaped your worldview, understand what makes you tick—to tell your story in the way that only you can tell it.
Supplemental Writings: pieces assigned by individual colleges. They want to see how you go about supplying specific information that will help them determine how good a fit you’d be with their college community. These prompts are usually a prime opportunity to show off the amount of research you’ve done into that particular college.
Letters of Recommendation: almost like background checks by the adults who know you best. Colleges generally require recommendations from two teachers and a counselor, and sometimes request rec letters from more specialized instructors or coaches to better understand how you’ve developed certain skills. These adult perspectives add credibility to the claims you make about your character, so choose wisely and build relationships now!
Additional Information: There is often confusion surrounding this portion of the application. Students seeking to seize any opportunity to get a leg up often fill this section right to its limit; in essence, they use it to write a second personal statement. DON'T MAKE THAT MISTAKE! It only leads to irritation for admissions officials, who have their hands full already. This section is primarily for giving some context or insight that doesn't fit elsewhere into the application. For instance, a dip in academic performance (e.g., due to extended illness or family emergencies), a sudden drop off in the activities section (e.g., due to changing schools), or an additional out-of-school activity (like an independent film or writing piece) should be documented here. In terms of style, keep it short and sweet. Bullet points are often most effective.
Online Presence: What will admissions officials find when they go digging around online to learn more about you? What comes up if they search your name and high school? Keep in mind that as social media continues to play a greater role on both sides of the admissions equation, nearly a quarter of recently surveyed admissions officers believe that an applicant could gain an advantage in the admissions process by building a positive online presence. Find out more by checking out Cornerstone Reputation's 2014 report.
Portfolios, Audition Material, Reels: If you have spent considerable time and effort honing your skills of expression through an art form, you should look for opportunities to show your work. For students seeking to major in the arts, it's a no-brainer, but even for students who have no plans to continue their art practice on a professional or even an academic track, many colleges offer the chance to submit an optional supplement. Words usually can't capture what an image or a melody can, and if you have mentors encouraging you to showcase your work (they will be the best judge of your skill level), then don't miss the opportunity to add a whole other dimension to your application.
Interviews: There is a lot of debate (and variation from school to school) about how much weight interviews are given. Alumni interviews are all about getting a better feel for the candidates -- how their presence in person seems to correlate to what's written on the application itself. And does the applicant's personality seem to fit the vibe of the school? The same thing goes for interviews or even just informal conversations with admissions officers, but in those interactions, admissions officials are also closely tuning into the level of the applicants' interest. How much homework have they done? How focused and incisive are their questions about the college?
Campus Visits & Event Attendance: There is no clearer way to signal your interest in a college than by setting aside the time and making the effort to learn more in a firsthand way. Admissions officials certainly recognize that there are considerable costs to making a trip to another state to visit a campus, and so you won't be penalized if it's beyond your means. But let them know, and when your region's admissions representative comes to your neck of the woods -- to your high school or another school in the area -- don't miss the chance to be there and to introduce yourself in person.
Outreach to College Admissions Personnel: Last but not least comes a quintessential life skill to be gained from the college admissions process: reaching out by phone and email to introduce yourself, and to gather information. Your regional representative will be more than happy to connect with you, to tell you more about the college, and to learn about why you might be a great match for the school. Make sure to put yourself on the radar -- don't be a stealth applicant!