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Building a Winning College Application File

When reviewing prospective students’ college applications, each institution is looking for certain academic benchmarks students must meet on a basic level, but they also have institutional goals that go beyond test scores and grade point averages. So through your college application form and accompanying documents, you need to tell your full story, showing off your smarts and demonstrating that you are well-rounded and a good match for that particular school.

What Colleges Want in Your College Application

The colleges and universities you are applying to want applicants who are driven to graduate successfully and who will go on to become proud alumni. To accomplish this, schools put a lot of work into preparing for and enrolling a class of new students who will benefit as members of the college community and contribute positively to campus life -- both in and out of the classroom. To help colleges and universities with this task, you need to create a top-notch college application file.

Putting together your college application file is a lot like baking a cake: You need the right ingredients (grades, courses, test scores, recommendations), you have to watch the time (deadlines), and your goal is to pass the “taste test” (decision to admit or deny).

Here are the common college application file ingredients:

  •     Academic record (grades, course selection, test scores, awards)

  •     Co-curricular and extracurricular activities

  •     College essay(s)

  •     Recommendations

  •     Subjective factors (special categories, demonstrated interest)

  •     College-specific application requirements 


Remember: Most paper applications require you to submit information in at least two parts. The first part will ask for demographics -- basic information about you, your family and other things that will identify you in the applicant pool. The second part will include your college essays, your official transcript and test scores, your counselor and teacher recommendations, your school’s profile, and any other information the college requires for making its decision.

The College Essay

Most selective colleges will require you to write and submit at least one essay as part of your college application. College essays provide admissions officers with a sense of who you are beyond your grades and scores. Admissions officers and/or admissions committees will read your essays, looking at how you communicate in writing as well as what the essay reveals about you and how you would fit into their academic program.

Parents, teachers and friends may proofread or critique your college essay, but the actual writing must be your own work. Because admissions officers are skilled at detecting which essays have been written by someone other than the applicant, you don’t want to take a chance on ruining your image by submitting a bogus essay.

Even if you are not the best writer in the world, your voice is very important in the admissions process. Simply offer your best writing, capture the reader’s attention, and be authentic. Personal stories of achievement or overcoming obstacles are often received well.

If your high school offers workshops or advisory sessions on writing college essays, don’t pass them up. You may also have the chance to delve into this topic in your junior or senior year English classes.

Practice writing college essays using topics found in old applications on file in your high school’s guidance office or college resource room. Ask your English teacher to take a look at your practice essays as well as your real college application essays before you send them off. This way you can ask for suggestions for improving your writing.

Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges and universities require a recommendation or endorsement letter from your high school as part of your application. Many also ask for additional letters of recommendation from your teachers or coaches. Sometimes the requests are specific (teachers in specific subjects), and sometimes you can choose who recommends you. If you get to pick, choose teachers who know you well enough to be able to truly attest to your character and really make you shine.


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Don Munce