Advice from College Reps for Making Your College Application Stand Out

Friday, December 09, 2016
Nshss College Panel

How can I make my college essay stand out? Who should write my recommendation letter? These are a few of the questions NSHSS members asked during the college panel at the NSHSS Holiday Member Event at the Carter Center on December 3rd. College Admission Representatives from ten NSHSS Collaborating Universities were on hand to answer these questions and offer valuable advice for students applying for college. Here are a few highlights from the panel:

1. Ace your College Essay

Your college admissions essay is an opportunity for you to highlight the qualities not reflected in your grades. If you are a talented athlete, a student leader or an active volunteer, your essay is where you can shine a light on how those experiences have formed you as a person. It’s an opportunity for you to explain why you would be a good fit at the school of your choice.

According to Vanderbilt Representative Leslie Sanderfur, universities are reading essays to find proof of a sustained commitment from students. It’s not enough just to list a variety of clubs and activities, you have to show how you contributed to a team or organization. His advice is to take a leadership role in a club or organization that you enjoy and get involved on a deeper level. Focus on the quality of your extracurricular activities, not the quantity.

Nancy Beane, the president of NACAC, notes that part-time jobs or extra responsibilities at home, like caring for younger siblings, can also count as leadership experience.

Oglethorpe  Representative Whitney Lewis, suggests that if you choose to write your essay about an experience that had an impact on you, don’t just write about what happened, be reflective and write about what you learned. Expand on this idea even further by writing about how you hope to continue to build on what you learned when you go to college.

Another approach, according to Bocconi Representative Parker James Siddal, is to focus on what you want to do after college and explain how the program you are applying for will help you accomplish your goals.

2. Ask the Right Person to Write Your Recommendation Letter

Your college recommendation letter should come from a teacher or counselor who knows you well. Don’t fall into the trap of asking the most popular teacher, or asking a teacher based only on the perceived prestige of the class they teach, because if they do not know you well enough, they will not be able to write you a quality recommendation. A teacher you worked with as part of a club or a coach you’ve trained with for several years of high school will be able to write a more honest and accurate representation of your positive qualities than that AP teacher you had for one class and never spoke to outside the classroom.

Some schools require that recommendation letter come from a teacher or counselor, but Miami University Representative Miya Walker explains that even if that is the requirement, you are usually still able to submit extra recommendation letters from people who you have worked with outside of school.

If you have a scout leader, coach or boss who would be able to comment on your achievements outside the classroom, don’t be afraid to submit additional recommendation letters (unless the school explicitly asks you not to submit supplementary material, of course). A really great recommendation letter from a community leader can also help show a sustained commitment in an activity outside of school and makes you look more well-rounded.

3. Get to know your College Admission Representative

Most colleges and universities have dedicated College Admission Counselors for different cities or regions. They are there to help you make your college decision and can often provide you with extra resources that the guidance counselor at your high school might not have access to. Their job is to help you to learn about the school you are considering, and sometimes have information about additional scholarships that are not publicized on their website.

A great way to meet your local representative is to attend a college fair, like the free NACAC College Fairs hosted across the United States. If you are unable to attend a college fair, University of Cincinnati Representative Kimberly Norfork recommends using the contact information listed on the college or university website to make an appointment to meet your area’s counselor. Depending on where they are located, they might be available to meet you at your high school or even for coffee, so don’t be shy.

Meeting a college admission counselor face to face is an excellent opportunity to connect with them, so they can learn about you while you learn about their programs. It’s their job to help you, so take advantage of this opportunity!

Just remember that when reaching out to a College Admission Counselor, contact them directly yourself. Do not have your parent email them for you! As Miami University Representative Miya Walker explains, counselors can always tell when a parent has written the email and they find it much more meaningful to hear from a student directly. College Admission Counselors appreciate the initiative and are more willing to help you in any way they can.

For more tips and recommendations, please watch the full NSHSS College Panel video.

The universities represented in the College Panel include Vanderbilt University, The Ohio State University, University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati, Miami University, Bocconi, Seton Hall University, Claflin University, Fisk University, and Oglethorpe. Also see our related blog post on What Colleges Look for in a Student.