Applying to college is more than just a collection of grades and test scores. It's an opportunity to present a holistic view of yourself, showcasing not only your academic prowess but also your personality, interests, and contributions beyond the classroom.
Here are ten elements that can significantly enhance your college application:
1. A Passion Project
Diving deep into a personal interest or cause not only demonstrates commitment and motivation, but also showcases your unique identity. Whether it's founding a community service initiative, starting a blog, or conducting independent research, a passion project illustrates your drive and dedication. Consider resources like volunteer organizations, online courses, or local mentors to support your endeavors. College admissions officers value the initiative and leadership cultivated through such ventures, seeing them as indicators of future potential. We’ve identified some great passion project ideas for you to check out here!
2. Leadership Roles
Holding positions of responsibility within school clubs, sports teams, or community organizations speaks volumes about your ability to lead and collaborate. Whether you're a team captain, club president, or community group organizer, these roles demonstrate your capacity to manage, inspire, and effect change. Highlight the impact of your leadership and the lessons learned in your application essays. Admissions officers appreciate the skills honed and the commitment shown in these positions. Here are some great leadership programs and activities for you to consider.
3. Academic Achievements Beyond Grades
Showcasing academic accomplishments beyond grades can bolster your application. This could include research projects, winning competitions, publishing articles, or presenting at conferences. Highlight these achievements to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity and contributions to your field of interest.
We would recommend a research mentorship program or internship in a subject area of your choice.
During research mentorship programs, you’ll work side-by-side with an experienced researcher to design and develop an academic project in the field of your choice. You’ll receive personal support on designing your methodology and carrying out your research — ultimately, within these mentorships, you’ll work towards creating a research paper eligible for publication, conference presentations, and/or competitions.
If you’re wondering about where to find programs to pursue your research interests alongside an experienced mentor, there are a variety of opportunities based on your academic pursuits.
Veritas AI is a program founded and designed by Harvard graduate students, working to bolster the skills and experiences of motivated students interested in AI and data science. Under the mentorship of expert computer scientists from Harvard, you can design a project in the areas of computational and AI that you’re most passionate about.
If you’re searching for an opportunity that caters to students across academic disciplines, check out the Lumiere Research Scholars Program, led by researchers from Harvard and Oxford. This selective program provides 1-on-1 guidance from a top PhD researcher. While many programs are limited to a specific area of study, Lumiere Research offers academic mentorships for students across STEM, social sciences, and the humanities.
Finding an internship can be another compelling way to build your profile. By gaining competence in your desired academic field, you’ll show clear preparation for high-level work and knowledge of the topic outside of the high school curriculum.
One good option to check out when exploring internship opportunities is Ladder Internship, a selective program for high school students to work with start-ups, where you’ll show both academic skill and contribution to a growing industry.
Ladder Startups work in fields including technology, machine learning and AI, finance, environmental science and sustainability, business and marketing, healthcare and medicine, media and journalism, and more. You can explore all the options here on their application form.
4. Building a Cohesive Profile
In the second round of review, an admissions officer will present your profile to the committee in a 1-2 minute pitch for why you should be accepted. Your job? Make this pitch as clear and compelling as possible.
5. Internships and Work Experience
Real-world experience can be invaluable. Whether it's an internship in your field of interest or part-time work, these experiences offer insights beyond the classroom. They demonstrate your initiative, work ethic, and ability to apply theoretical knowledge in practical settings. Reflect on how these experiences have shaped your goals and aspirations in your college application essays.
6. Exceptional Essays
Your personal statement and supplemental essays offer a glimpse into your personality and aspirations. Craft compelling narratives that go beyond listing achievements, focusing instead on moments that define you or experiences that shaped your worldview. “Showing” not “telling” is crucial — your essays should let admissions officers see you in action, allow them to imagine you on campus and the role you’d play in its community.
7. Strategic Letters of Recommendation
Recommendations from teachers, mentors, or employers offer a third-party perspective on your character and abilities. Choose individuals who can speak to different facets of your strengths and accomplishments, both academic and personal. Your recommendation should highlight standout performance in class, discussing your academic skills in context. But beyond the coursework level, strong recommendations should emphasize your character and learning style — traits like commitment to improving areas of difficulty, active participation in seminars, and effectively leading group projects will show that you’re more than just intelligent, you’re a good student.
It is often effective to provide recommenders with a brief description of what you’d like them to highlight in particular, from personal strengths to your strongest moments in their class.
Make sure to keep practical strategies in mind as well: It is almost always best to receive recommendations from both a STEM and a humanities instructor. Prioritize recommendations from teachers you know best; “impressive” recommenders are not advantageous if they only have limited personal knowledge of you.
8. Demonstrated Interest
Showing genuine interest in a college can strengthen your application. Attend information sessions, connect with current students or alumni, and visit the campus if possible. Expressing your enthusiasm for a college can set you apart and demonstrate your commitment to being part of their community. As colleges are motivated to have high yield rates from accepted students, showing your passion for the school will show that you’re a committed candidate, and more likely to attend. This engagement will frame you as a “strategic” choice for the school.
Unfortunately, many of the most competitive schools do not take demonstrated interest into consideration.
9. Cultural or Global Experiences
Immersing yourself in different cultures or engaging in global experiences can broaden your perspective. Whether it's studying abroad, participating in cultural exchange programs, or volunteering internationally, these experiences demonstrate adaptability, cultural awareness, and a global outlook, qualities highly valued by colleges.
10. Reaching Beyond Your Community
Not all impressive accomplishments are evaluated in the same way; the reach of what you do is a critical component. The strength of your involvement — leadership positions, awards, outreach, volunteering — is largely informed by its scope. The goal of broadening the impact of your accomplishments is to progress from your school or city to your region or state to a national or international level.
Remember, a compelling college application goes beyond ticking off a checklist. It's about showcasing your authentic self, your passions, your growth, and your potential contributions to the college community. Each element you choose to highlight should reflect who you are and what you can bring to the table. Good luck!
One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
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