How to truly stand out on your college application

Posted by Neal Schwartz on November 14, 2021


To say that this generation of future college students is having a harder time than in the past would be an understatement. The impacts of a still-present pandemic have changed the way students learn and has certainly had an effect on even the strongest students. Online learning has expanded academic and social gaps, and that means that the future promises to be even more challenging to those trying to keep up.

The pandemic’s impact on colleges is that it has decreased enrollment at the lesser known schools and increased competition at the well-known ones. With testing requirements shifting to nearly universal test-optional policies at the majority of institutions, admissions criteria is increasingly pivoted toward essays, recommendations and extracurriculars. Some students are no longer being judged solely on their scores, but on the deeper content of their written work.

This all means that students have to re-strategize when applying and no longer think in terms of “well-roundedness.” Previous generations of college applicants used this as their key word, but according to some admissions officers, being well-rounded is no longer good enough. So how can students truly stand out in this unprecedented context?

Our first piece of advice is to dig deep. Superficial and general responses to supplemental essay questions and an overly formal tone is not going to get the right response. Admissions officers are looking for students to be genuine and show that they are vulnerable. It is OK for them to be afraid or to even sound silly. They want to understand a person behind an essay, not just see a candidate. But getting deep is not easy. So, we suggest spending some time doing some soul-searching. Keep a journal, for example, and write down everything on your mind: your reactions to happenings in the news, to your relationships and goals. Gaining this closeness with yourself will eventually come across in essays. Colleges want to know what you really care about, but not just what sounds good on paper.

 Duke Campus cropped

When digging deep, don’t be afraid to focus on your true passions and quirks, even if they’re not academic or “serious” in nature. Some of the best (and most entertaining) essays can be about the simplest topics. It’s not the topic that matters, but the way the story is told. So, whether your obsession is Anime or thrift stores, bring that to light. Break away from the molds of academia and focus on letting your voice shine through. Write as if you were telling someone a story.


Ultimately, you should think about essay writing as acting or doing improv: if you don’t commit 100% or if you shy away, the audience will notice and lose interest. Standing out against a backdrop of impressive applicants is no easy task. But if you can eliminate the pressure to be special and just focus on being genuine, half the work will already be done. After every sentence you write, be sure to ask yourself, “is this really me?”

When trying to stand out on your college application, let your voice shine through and avoid clichés. But if you need a hand to get started, give us a call to schedule a free consultation today!

Best Regards,

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Neal Schwartz, Owner

College Planning of Westchester


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Topics: College Essays, College Applications, college preparation, college counseling, high school senior, high school junior, recommendations, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities


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