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This is part 1 of a 2-part series on 9 Insider Tips for Mastering the College Admissions Process.

Getting noticed and accepted by the college or university of your dreams is the end goal of all prospective students, whether you’re going to college for the first time or returning to school as an adult. 

We spoke with Lindsay Tulloss, Senior Manager of Client Success and Operations at Peterson’s, and a former Assistant Director for the Office of Enrollment at a national university, with 10+ years of admissions experience working with both private and public colleges. Tulloss provided insider tips on what colleges are looking for in prospective candidates, how to stand apart from competing candidates, and how soon to begin the application process.

What are colleges looking for in a candidate, and how do candidates make themselves stand apart from thousands of other candidates?

There are two main pillars used to review a candidate for admissions, academic factors and non-academic factors.  

Academic factors include your school transcripts, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation. For your school transcripts, make sure you are meeting the minimum admissions requirements for the school or program you are applying for, which typically include a set number of academic classes that students need to complete in high school such as math, science, English, social science, and foreign language courses. Many times these will reflect your graduation requirements but it is always best to double check especially if you are applying for a specific program such as engineering. In addition to the minimum requirements, make sure you are taking a challenging course load while maintaining good grades. Do not feel that you need to take every advanced class your school offers only to have your GPA suffer under the pressure of taking an overly-challenging course load. However, if you are earning good grades, be willing to challenge yourself.

For the letter of recommendation, make sure you are asking teachers you have interacted with in high school who can speak both to your academic ability and presence in the classroom. Letters of recommendation can take time, so make sure you are giving your teachers plenty of time to write a good letter of recommendation before the admissions deadline. 

For standardized tests, make sure to practice, practice, practice. There are plenty of resources to help prepare you for these tests. If standardized testing is not for you, many colleges are moving to a test optional or test flexible policy. 

Non-academic factors include the college essay, activities and supplemental essays. 


The essay is the best way to introduce yourself to the college outside of the academic factors. Take your time with the essay and make sure it is written in your own words and voice. It is not cheating to have your English teacher, parent, or friend look over your college essay. Try to make your college essay unique. Ask your friends what they are writing about for their college essay and then try to write about something that is different and unique to you. Most common topics include winning the big game, a student’s mission trip, and I would imagine many essays this upcoming year will include student experience with the COVID-19 crisis.

Oftentimes, the college essay prompts do not change much year to year. View 2019-2020 essay prompts for the Common Application and the Coalition Application.  

Insider Tip: By using these prompts, you can begin brainstorming and writing your essay over the summer to reduce the college application stress during your senior year. 

Activities list

Insider Tip: Try to keep a running list of all the activities you have participated in throughout high school, no matter how big or small that activity might be. Document how you spend your free time outside of school. Whether you are involved in a school-related activity or something separate such as holding a job or helping to take care of family members, colleges want to know how you spend your free time. Make sure to highlight any leadership opportunities you have had throughout your high school years including leadership at a job.  

Supplemental Essays

Supplemental essays are additional essays that are unique to a specific school and a great opportunity to explain why you are applying to that particular school. Make sure your answers are unique to that specific college. 

Insider Tip: Writing about something specific or unique to the school shows your interest in the school and how you would be a good fit. Spend fifteen minutes reviewing the school’s website to identify a specific class, professor or research opportunity that stands out to you. This is a great way to take your supplemental essay to the next level. 

Insider Tip: If you have questions about what a certain institution is looking for, reach out to your admissions counselor. Admissions representatives love to help students find their perfect college fit! You can typically find contact information on the school’s website. I recommend trying to meet with a counselor when they are in your area, whether in person or virtually. This is a great opportunity to show your interest in the school while picking up helpful hints about the college application process. 

Insider Tip: Fall can be a very busy time for admissions counselors. If possible, reach out to counselors during the summer or give your counselor plenty of time to respond if you are reaching out in the fall. 

Logistically speaking, how do colleges filter through thousands of applications?

Processing all of the applications is a hurdle at any school. There are a variety of different approaches that schools take when tackling this task. In general, an admissions counselor will spend anywhere from 7-20 minutes on each application to review, make notes, and pass along their recommendation. Often the admissions counselor that is assigned to travel to a region will also review the applications from that region as well. In addition to the staff reading applications, schools might contract outside reviewers during the application assessment season. 

In 2013, the University of Pennsylvania created the committee-based reading system, a new method whereby one staff member reviews the academic portion of all applications including the letters of recommendation, academic transcript(s), and standardized test scores, whereas another staff member would review the non-academic accomplishments including application essay, activity list, and supplemental essays. This method can reduce the time it takes to review an application by almost half. As a result of its efficiency, many colleges and universities have since adopted this system

How is the admissions process changing in the wake of COVID-19, and do you see that as being a temporary change or do you think it will shape the way colleges admit candidates moving forward?

This is a topic that is being discussed at length within the field of admissions. Many schools are offering flexibility especially when it comes to SAT and ACT testing for the 2020-21 school year. 

Insider Tip: While most schools have not made this an official policy for future years, I can see many more schools becoming test optional or test flexible in the future. 

In general, this is an unprecedented time for all schools, and policies are constantly changing. Follow the school’s social media channels and website for the most up-to-date information. When in doubt, ask your admissions counselor directly. Try to be flexible and understanding since many colleges are still in the process of finalizing their fall plans.

Related: 9 Insider Tips for Mastering the College Admissions Process, Part 2