Most of us are well aware that college hasn’t gotten any easier to get into in recent years, and succeeding at the applications and admissions game can seem like a daunting task for teens and parents. Thankfully, much of that stress and fear simply comes from teens missing a few pieces of crucial information – and key steps they can take – to ensure their college preparation and application is smooth sailing, stress-free, and results in the acceptance letters of their dreams.
Therefore, we’re addressing 12 reasons your teen isn’t going to stand out on college applications if they simply follow conventional wisdom that worked years prior, and how to tackle each one to ensure they rise to the top of the talent pool.
1. No independent extracurriculars
We’ve all heard that clubs, honor societies, volunteer work, and sports are necessary for teens to convey a well-rounded, multi-skilled persona on their resumes and college applications. While this is true, there’s a giant flaw in that logic: If everyone – or most everyone at their school – participates in those endeavors, they no longer come across as special, unique, or impressive enough to make your teen stand out. Instead, these school-affiliated activities and clubs become more like an expected baseline that just proves a student ticked the required boxes, but didn’t necessarily go above and beyond.
There are two ways to make their extracurricular involvement more impressive and meaningful, and the most driven, ambitious, high-achieving teens will do both:
- Leadership positions with proven outcomes in school-affiliated activities: If your teen is going to participate in the jazz band, soccer club, and National Honor Society, you want to ensure they’re not just showing up or adding to the head count. Instead, they should strive to obtain a leadership position (or create one), spearhead new initiatives, and track the resulting outcomes and impacts sparked by their individual contribution. However, being a team captain or club treasurer alone isn’t the only way to stand out.
- Independent extracurricular involvement: The second way to bolster your teen’s application and help them shine high above the heads and shoulders of their peer competitors is to facilitate their involvement in independent extracurriculars. Independent extracurriculars are any activities or endeavors your teen participates in that are not affiliated with their school and thus require their own independent initiative and a greater level of commitment to seek out and engage in. The best independent extracurricular involvement will result in some sort of concrete outcome, positive impact on the world or others, and/or the development, exploration, or mastery of a host of new and real-world skills that will serve them in the future.
The moral here is simple: If your teen has only stuck to school-affiliated programs, they may end up with a resume that’s a clone of all their peers. Leadership positions with unique proven outcomes and independent extracurricular involvement are two great ways to separate them from the pack and let them shine.
2. Wasted their summers
The one thing most high school students have in common (barring those who go to year-round schools) is a long summer break. While colleges have in past years been asking questions like “what have you done or accomplished during the pandemic” for students whose high schools were disrupted with the lockdowns, it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to ask students how they made the most of their summer off. That said, students don’t need to wait for a college application essay question to prompt them to make better use of their summers, and proactive students won’t.
Summer break is a perfect time for teens to get a leg up and pursue significant and unique achievements and goals they otherwise wouldn’t have time for during the school year. This is the perfect opportunity to stand out, as admissions officers are well aware that most students have the same summer break downtime, but only some use it wisely.
Using your summer wisely could mean volunteering, learning a new skill, developing a brand-new project or invention, or otherwise pursuing a unique, impressive, and impactful challenge. The goal here is to convey intellectual curiosity, a drive for continuous growth and self-improvement, and an eagerness to make the most of the time you have.
3. Lacking a spike
Many teens these days participate in a wide variety of both classes and extracurricular activities and may feel stretched thin. While being a multi-faceted and well-rounded ambitious teen is great, what’s even more impressive is demonstrating some level of enhanced success or mastery of one particular skill on which you dove extra deep.
This heightened level of dedication and achievement in one area is often referred to as a “spike”, and teens who can demonstrate a spike and all they’ve learned, mastered, and committed to in the development of that accomplishment are likely to gain more favor with admissions officers than those who simply dabble in 12 different clubs with mediocre outcomes.
4. The packaging is off
Along the lines of developing a spike, the way you package and position yourself as an applicant is arguably just as important as the accomplishments on your resume. Many high-achieving students who don’t get into their dream schools sabotage themselves by painting a confusing, hard-to-believe, or incohesive picture of themselves.
On the contrary, you want your personal statement, essays, application, resume, and any interviews you may have to all reflect the same cohesive picture, and that picture should be focused, with clarity and conviction around who you are, what you care about, why you’ve pursued what you’ve pursued, and what you want going forward.
Participation in 8 different clubs and a myriad of unrelated awards doesn’t exactly paint a cohesive picture and may sound the alarms on whether you’re participating to participate or bagging awards aimlessly, just to pad the resume.
5. They forgot to serve
One area even the most high-achieving, brightest teens often neglect or fall short is outwardly focused service beyond their required volunteer hours. Colleges don’t just want to admit students who are capable of getting straight A’s or dominating standardized tests; they want students who will go out into the world and make an outsized impact that will reflect back positively on their university. This is where prioritizing generous, outward-focused service comes into play.
If your teen has already mastered the top grades, a unique skill and achievement, and a breadth of diverse club or team involvement, then perhaps dedication to an independent philanthropic initiative could be the one pursuit to round them out.
Plus, there’s really no way to put a negative spin on time spent positively impacting the world, saving the environment, or helping the less fortunate. It builds character and a selfless mindset that will make your teen a better person and contributor to society in the long-term.
6. What you can do for them
So much of high school surrounds following instructions and meeting or exceeding clearly defined criteria. However, high school tasks, tests, and assignments don’t usually require teens to put themselves in the shoes of a judge or audience and strategically illustrate how they can be an asset to said audience. Nonetheless, that’s a life skill they’ll need over and over (in applying to jobs, asking for raises, and pitching new ideas to groups and teams). It’s also a key skill necessary for an ideal college application.
Sure, the college application is a student’s opportunity to shine and convey all that they’ve accomplished. That said, the admissions officer on the other end isn’t sitting there overcome by your impressive stats and feats; they’re trying to critically assess and determine whether you’d be a valuable enough addition to their university and student body to grant one of their limited and coveted spots for acceptance.
If you haven’t yet thought about how you could benefit the university, the hole you could fill, or the ways in which you’d contribute, you may not have taken that last crucial step in proving why you deserve that limited spot. If you want to make the college admissions process easy on yourself, make it easy on the admissions officers by presenting your value-add and tailored future contribution to their university so they can’t afford not to grant you admission.
7. No real-world experience
Since colleges aim to accept impactful people and the future change-makers of the world, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the greatest demonstrations of that potential may happen outside the classroom. Nonetheless, so many top students completely neglect to include any real-world impact they’ve made that wasn’t a part of an organized group, glass, or club.
One of the easiest ways for your student to stand out from the crowd and impress admissions officers is by taking the initiative to gain some real-world experience and document the skills they acquired, the perspective they gained, and the outcome they created. This offers an impressive depiction of a student’s future real-world potential and proves them more mature, independent, and dedicated to making true strides in the world than any grade in class or leadership position in a club.
8. Their GPA or SAT is the most impressive thing about them
Even if your student has the #1 class rank, the highest GPA, and a perfect SAT and ACT score, none of those stats should come close to being the most impressive thing about them. Whether you’re a student or parent, it’s important to remind yourself that colleges aren’t just seeking professional test-takers; they’re seeking value-adding contributors who can round out their student body, introduce new and uncommon perspectives, and forge unique paths.
It should be obvious at first glance exactly what makes your student such an impressive standout even if their GPA and test scores were removed altogether from the application criteria and resume; if that isn’t the case, your teen may need to revisit their resume, personal statement, and packaging, as something may be lacking.
9. They don’t know or convey their why
As much as a student’s application should convey what they can bring to the table for a certain college or university, it should also communicate why this university is such a meaningful and desirable target for the student. This is your teen’s opportunity to both personalize their application and leverage their research surrounding the school to prove why the match made in heaven goes both ways. An ideal applicant will be just as much a fit for a university as that university is a fit for them, and an ideal application will convey that prominently.
10. Misusing their hardships
Has your teen ever experienced a challenge, hardship, or obstacle? For 99% of teens – and people in general – the answer is going to be a resounding yes. However, most teens ignore or misuse those challenges on their applications, when they in fact provide perfect fodder for a great heroic setup.
The most strategic, impressive teens know how to present their path by including the obstacles that plagued their journey and turn those negatives into hero stories, rather than sob stories or blips to be swept under a rug. The better choice is to show how you overcame hardships that made your journey unique and more impressive than a straight path; this adds credibility to all your accomplishments, as it shows you’re not afraid to open up about the imperfections or pitfalls in your past.
This also demonstrates your strength, drive, and undeterred dedication to seeking solutions, rather than allowing problems or unfortunate external circumstances to defeat you. Any university would be eager to admit a student with such mental and emotional fortitude and the vulnerability to share it gracefully.
11. They’re living in the past, not the future
Though much of your resume and college application harkens back to your past accomplishments and experiences, colleges are equally interested in what you plan to do in the future, and they’re hoping you’ve started to think ahead, too. Thus, one of the most solvable errors far too many high-achieving students commit unknowingly on their college applications that can give more forward-thinking peers a leg up is omitting any mention of your future plans, hopes, and dreams.
If your teen hasn’t illustrated what they plan to do and pursue during and post-college with respect to their education, career, and world-impacting goals, they may be metaphorically “leaving money on the table”.
In other words, this is a low-hanging-fruit opportunity that can quickly bolster your teen’s application and show an admissions officer that your teen’s high school track record is just the beginning of a much greater and more impressive future journey with which they would be lucky to have their university associated. No college wants a burnt-out student who’s already peaked in their high school days, nor do they want a candidate who has yet to probe into what their ideal future goals might look like.
12. Misjudge your options and cast the wrong net
Unfortunately, the college application rat race has become a bit of a status comparison, especially among high-achieving teens who want to prove to themselves, their parents, and their peers that they can get into the best and most selective schools possible. While it’s great for teens to stretch themselves and apply to those more prestigious and competitive universities, many teens shortchange themselves by putting far too little research and emphasis on the non-reach schools on their list.
A school’s ranking, acceptance rate, and name notoriety shouldn’t be the only or primary reasons a teen applies there. Even the most high-achieving students should open-mindedly explore which schools might be the best-fit for their interests and future goals, and that might not always be limited to the Ivy Leagues.
For example, a student’s “safety school” might have the country’s #1 department for a specific discipline that student plans to major in and pursue a career in; they shouldn’t omit that school from their application list and shortlist for consideration simply because it isn’t ranked in the top 10 universities by an education blog.
Sometimes those niche departments and unique programs only offered at select schools trump the cache of an Ivy League name, and it takes a confident student to admit that and apply to the schools that will truly serve them best in the future, not just impress their high school graduating class.
College applications are an exercise in marketing
Many high schools fail to offer sales or marketing classes, but the college application process is akin to a real-world exercise in teens being able to pitch, market, and sell themselves to target universities. Teens who are unaware of this objective and simply believe college applications are a tedious process that should be fully automated or come down to GPA alone are missing the point.
When your teen applies to college, they’re demonstrating their ability to package, pitch, and professionally communicate their historical accomplishments, their fitness for the target university, and their likelihood of future success and positive impacts. If more teens viewed the application process as such, they may be reinvigorated by the opportunity to polish their persona and embrace this first taste of personal branding, marketing, and persuasion.
Furthermore, as a parent, being armed with these 12 reasons your teen isn’t going to stand out on college applications if they simply regurgitate their scores and accomplishments should empower you to proactively help them address those common pitfalls early. College applications should be viewed as an exciting challenge to tackle, not a tedious chore to dread, and your teen’s perspective towards the process just may impact the outcome they receive.