For many, the idea of getting into a top college or university is practically unheard of. With some of the most prestigious schools only letting in less than 4% of the total applicants, the competition is fiercer than ever before. In 2022, more people than ever applied to the top of the top schools since more than ¾ of colleges and universities have stopped mandating entrance exams. With that massive barrier removed, students are trying their luck at more selective schools. With such an overwhelming number of applicants, college admissions officers are having to rush through applications, meaning you need to stand out more than ever before if you want to be considered for entry at a top school.

Although it may seem hopeless to get into your dream school with the surge in competition, there are still tips and tricks you can use to make yourself stand out. Before you give up your dream of going to Harvard to study economics, read this article to understand why college admissions have become so competitive and figure out how to set yourself apart from your peers. While grades and standardized testing are still factors weighed into your admissions status, there is much more that goes into a solid college applicant than an A in science class.

Why are applications increasing?

There are several factors that contribute to the increase in college applications, including students applying to more schools, intentional recruitment, and implementation of test-optional or test-blind policies spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic. When many schools were still remote in 2020, application growth slowed. Between November 2019 and November 2020, the Common Application reported a 16% decrease in applications from students who qualified for an application fee waiver and from first-generation students. The COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to reevaluate their admissions process so that they could better understand what barriers existed for students.

With so much volatility in admissions brought on by COVID-19, students are applying to more schools than ever before. In 2020, students applied to an average of 6.1 schools, but by 2021 that number had jumped up to 7. This may be in part due to the fact that many students were looking for more financially viable school options during this time, so they need to have more choices. The competitive college environment also created a self-fulfilling prophecy- when there is more competition, students will apply to more schools.

The coronavirus pandemic also forced schools to switch from in-person to virtual recruitment, which allowed them to reach more potential applicants. COVID-19 not only forced schools to rethink their recruitment strategies but also forced them to consider changing some admissions requirements. Since standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are exams proctored in-person and the pandemic halted all in-person gatherings, many exams were cancelled. This made some schools change their admissions to test-optional or test-blind, although some schools already started switching to these policies before the pandemic even began.

The test-optional policies give students ability to decide whether or not they want to submit standardized test scores and test-blind schools don’t consider them at all, even if you do submit them with your application. Standardized testing has proven to be a significant barrier for a lot of students, so test-optional policies opened more students up to the possibilities on more prestigious schools, particularly for students of color and low-income students. According to a study conducted by EAB, 15% of students reportedly applied to a college specifically because it was test-optional. This statistic was higher among applicants of color, with 24% of black students and 21% of Hispanic students applying to a school because of its test-optional policies.

How can you make yourself stand out in the college admissions process?

The first step to make yourself stand out in the college admissions process is to consult with a highly-qualified college admissions advisor. College admissions advisors know the ins and outs of the process and know what colleges and universities are looking for. Each school is its own unique community with established norms, traditions, and values. Schools want to know what about you would add to their community. With some schools becoming test-blind, students need to focus on what else makes them stand out besides for their grades and standardized test scores. Below, you’ll find some tips from top college admissions experts on how to best stand out.

Have diverse extracurricular activities

Schools love to see students have passions outside of their academics, whether that’s sports, theatre, choir, community engagement, activism, or something else. While doing extracurricular activities is great, pretty much every one of your peers also does extracurricular activities. One way to make yourself stand out when it comes to extracurriculars is to diversify them. For example, maybe you play soccer. While this is good by itself, a lot of students play an organized sport. A student that plays soccer, participates in choir, and volunteers at the homeless shelter is a much more intriguing applicant than a student that just plays soccer.

Push yourself

Even with some schools turning to test-optional and test-blind policies, college admissions are still looking for students to push themselves academically. This doesn’t mean you need to take all honors classes, but taking one or two certainly wouldn’t hurt. For example, instead of just taking the normal science class your school offers, opt for a course that shows that you wanted to go a little bit deeper, like psychology or environmental science. Bonus points if this course lines up with some of your extracurriculars. A student that opted to take environmental science and does environmental activism as one of their extracurriculars will looks a lot better to college admissions than a student that just took the default science class.

Another way to challenge yourself in high school is to take part in a dual enrollment class or program, which is a program that allows high school students to take classes for college credit. Some of these programs will send student directly to a college campus for these classes, while others are either taught at the high school itself or online.

Although some schools are test-optional now, it can’t necessarily hurt your application to send in your ACT and SAT scores. If you can, you should take advantage of standardized test preparation tutoring services to improve your scores. For schools that are test-optional, they will still look at your scores if you send them in with your application. Especially if you did particularly well on your exams, this can make you stand out from your peers.

Write a unique college essay

When college admissions officers are reading your college essay, they are looking to understand you as an individual better. Admissions officers are looking for a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. Write something that reveals positives about your character and offers an intellectual perspective through a real experience. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on our every day lives, many students are opting to write their college essays on how coronavirus-related disruptions impacted their high school experience. Even though this is authentic, it is something that college admissions officers will have ultimately read a lot of and will not help you stand out. While finding the perfect topic to write about is very important, make sure you don’t forget that they’re also looking for solid writing skills and proper grammar.

Schedule an admissions interview if possible

Although admissions interviews are not required and are not even conducted by every college and university, it can be a good way to stand out as an applicant if you can get one. Admissions interviews help colleges better understand who you are and why you want to go to that specific institution. An interview can be especially beneficial for an applicant that is on the cusp of getting in but just needs one little boost to get them over the edge.


Overall, college admissions have become more competitive than ever, with a high volume of applicants and very selective acceptance rates. College admissions are starting to place a lot more emphasis on the well-roundedness of applicants and not just their standardized test scores. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions dissipating, the college admissions landscape has been permanently changed forever.


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