How to Stand Out on Highly Selective College Applications
If you’ve determined you might be a good fit for applying to highly selective schools, there’s more to consider than your GPA and test scores. Those types of colleges look beyond pure academic achievement. They also pay close attention to demonstrated intellectual interest or curiosity, also called the standout factor.
Highly selective schools expect great grades and test scores—without those you would not be considered. Hence, the increased emphasis on the standout factor, which doesn’t involve typical high school activities such as singing in the show choir or participating on the debate team. A good rule of thumb is that if other students are doing it, it’s not a standout factor. And if you can develop or create something that has a positive impact on others, ideally in a field dominated by adults, admissions officers will get even more excited.
Here are examples of projects students undertook that enhanced their standout factor:
- Transformed used cooking oil from the high school cafeteria into a biofuel that minimized the building’s carbon footprint and lessened its operating costs
- Restored antique instruments
- Bred a new strain of flower and named it after her grandmother
- Made a movie and convinced theaters to show it
- Started a real business that had customers and employees
Now, before you lose hope, consider that your standout factor doesn’t necessarily have to bring significant change to your corner of the world.
Now, before you lose hope, consider that your standout factor doesn’t necessarily have to bring significant change to your corner of the world. A Cornell University admissions officer recently defined the standout factor this way: “A project, an experiment, a portfolio or an endeavor they spent substantial time on learning, tinkering with or creating.” I like that sentence because it’s not too intimidating. It simply means you’re taking an extra step to explore one of your passions, preferably in your potential career. Your standout factor shouldn’t feel like work; rather, it should be a natural outgrowth of an interest. It should be like, “Hey, I’m curious about this. Let’s see how far I can take it.”
Your standout factor shouldn’t feel like work; rather, it should be a natural outgrowth of an interest. It should be more like, “Hey, I’m curious about this. Let’s see how far I can take it.”
Some of my students have had success with their own projects such as one who constructed a custom bicycle in his garage out of a lightweight metal and another who built a sailboat from scratch. Both of those were “tinkering” endeavors that played into their engineering aspirations.
Start developing a standout early
With students who are on a track to apply to selective schools, it’s best to start brainstorming with them about a standout factor as early as freshman or sophomore year. Not only do they increase their chances of being accepted by one of those colleges, but they also develop their passions along the way.
PFA provides guidance for students on standing out. For more information about PFA’s College Admissions Program click here.
Karen Daluga is a college counselor at Partners For Achievement. Read more about Daluga and the rest of the Partners For Achievement team.