How to stand out when applying to your dream college

If you’re going into your junior or senior year of high school, the thought of applying to college is probably in the forefront of your mind.

Competition is more intense than ever, with select colleges having acceptance rates in the single digits (5.2% for Harvard, 5.1% for MIT, 6.3% for Yale), meaning 1 out of 20 get accepted; 19 out of 20 do not. Additionally, one million international students will enroll in U.S. colleges this year.

Being valedictorian, Eagle Scout, or National Merit Scholar is not as unique as it once was, so along with good grades, you can compete differently and stand out above your competition when applying to the college of your dreams.

Many students are “standard strong,” meaning they look good on paper. They have a great grade-point average and near perfect SAT or ACT test scores, but to be memorable, you want to show you’ve done something that has benefited others. Community work is great but it’s even better if you create something unique that is authentic to your interests.

For example, my middle daughter was on her high school swim team. I helped her create a swim-a-thon to raise money for digging wells to provide clean drinking water in Africa. She organized the team so that each swimmer had their friends and family support their efforts by pledging money for each lap swum. We contacted the local newspaper and they wrote about this event. My daughter submitted this information along with her college application and she was accepted early into Brown University.

Another example is a friend’s son who wanted to go to Rutgers, which was a reach school for him. His passion was fishing so we created a fundraiser where he got people to pledge money for the number of pounds of fish he caught and the proceeds were donated to a local children’s hospital. A local magazine and newspaper wrote about this event, and we submitted it with this application, and he was accepted into Rutgers.

So why does this approach work? Because many students look good on paper but to stand out, you want to put a face with a name. Creating something unique that gets press coverage showcases that student’s uniqueness and highlights his or her passion. This helps the admissions officer to lobby for that student when they meet in committee to decide who gets accepted.

In fact, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education recently published its recommendations for college admissions titled, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.” It states, “Encourage students to engage in meaningful, sustained community service and get involved in causes that speak to them.”

Top schools, like Yale and MIT, are focusing on this when considering applicants. “We want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, (like) authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good,” says Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University.

This approach of doing good works in one’s own community, and getting local news coverage is a strategy I employed years ago when I was applying to top MBA programs directly out of a state university. My GPA was very good, but my standardized test scores were low, and I lacked the four to five years of work experience top programs seek. By creating a fundraising event that was newsworthy for the American Cancer Society and submitting this information at application time, I was accepted to both Columbia University and New York University’s MBA programs directly after college.

Ron Feuchs is the father of three daughters who have all gone through the college-application process, so he knows firsthand the anxiety and tension both parents and their children experience. He developed Stand Out for College, a business that helps students get an edge in the college application process.