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Your College Application: Key Elements

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, January 30, 2013

College applications have many key elements that students need to complete in order to help themselves stand out. Essays, interviews, letters, portfolios, and the college application form itself can help you to present yourself successfully and personally.

Strong recommendations help college application

In terms of recommendation letters, you can control which teachers to ask, but you cannot determine who will write the counselor recommendation or what any of your recommenders will say.

You might ask for additional letters from an employer, coach, arts or music instructor, volunteer service coordinator, religious leader, or other person who knows you well. Some colleges even include a peer reference form. Choose additional letter writers carefully, and only ask for letters that will help colleges to learn more about you than they will find in your academic recommendations.

Essays crucial to application for college

College essays typically include a combination of one longer personal statement (250 to 500 words); a short answer about a meaningful activity or volunteer or work experience (150 words); and a question on a topic such as "why are you interested in College X and why is it a good match for you?" See these essays as opportunities to reveal different sides of yourself: What makes you different? What are your major academic and non-academic interests and strengths? What are your goals for college and beyond?

The essays are puzzle pieces that you can lock together to showcase who you are. Don't be afraid to modify essays written for one college to address specific questions of another. In fact, if you use the college common application, you may be answering the same basic questions. Plan to write at least several drafts, sharing your work with trusted friends, parents, teachers, and counselors who can provide you with constructive criticism and suggestions.

Need help with your essay? Try EssayEdge.

Letters to the college may be necessary
During the admission process, you might also write letters from time to time. Perhaps you have an interest in a sport, activity, or particular academic area. You can e-mail or write the appropriate representative at the college to learn more. You can write to update a college about your academics and activities in the winter of senior year, or when you have won an award or done very well in school. If a problem has arisen, you should also contact colleges to explain.

While some students attempt to gain favor for their college applications by staying in constant contact, don't worry about schools counting the number of e-mails and letters and calls. Several key, meaningful contacts are of much greater value than pestering busy admission staff with trivial updates or questions.

Take advantage of on-campus interviews
On-campus interviews are not offered as part of the application for college at many schools these days. Take advantage of them where you can, but recognize that they are not typically an evaluative component of your admission process. View them as information sessions, a chance for you to ask questions and demonstrate interest in a college.

Do keep in mind that while an interview won't be the sole factor that gets you in, proven interest can be a tipping factor in a college's decision to admit you. Take advantage of these opportunities to learn about colleges, demonstrate your interest, and detail your goals and strengths.

Supplemental materials may be part of college application

Supplemental materials should be submitted only when required by a special college program, such as an arts school, or when a music CD, art portfolio, or writing sample will really help you stand out. Work with an experienced teacher to help you pull together samples and decide whether it makes sense to submit them. Check colleges' Web sites to see if they encourage or discourage these kinds of materials, and whether they have guidelines as to how to submit them. Extra materials can help you shine, but they can also become a burden if they are unnecessary.

Online college applications

Many colleges are strongly urging students to apply online, and we second the motion. This path is safe, quick, and fairly simple. Most public universities are receiving most of their applications through their own state Web sites, and some, like California, have their own online college application form. If you're applying to multiple colleges online, make sure to address particular college programs, characteristics, and other reasons why you are applying to each school in your essays.

Regardless of how you apply, treat every element of your written applications with care — the overall impression of a college application often has just as much impact on a reader as the substance of your essay.

By Howard and Matthew Greene, the hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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