How to stand out when applying to colleges: The search for "future trailblazers"

How to stand out when applying to college

In our School Matters series, we are focusing on the price of college admission – especially when you play by the rules.

In the current landscape of the competitive college admissions process, where the acceptance rates at many elite schools are in the single digits, how can a student stand out in the crowd?

"These admissions officers, they're going to be reading sometimes hundreds of applications a day, thousands a week, so you want to surprise them and you want to move them," said Sara Harberson, founder of Admissions Revolution and former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. "Any student who's doing something a little bit differently is going to stand out to those admissions officers. So I look for, when I'm working with students, I want not just the doers, but the future trailblazers. Those are the students that admissions officers get really excited about."

You also have to be competitive "on an objective level," she added.

"They've got to have the right classes. They have to have the right grades — and near-perfect grades for these highly selective schools. And high test scores… That's just basic," Harberson said. "And then it's all the other pieces of the application that really give it texture and flavor."

Harberson, who also served as former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College, said she wasn't surprised by the massive college admissions scandal where federal prosecutors charged 50 people involved in bribery schemes last week.

"There are a handful of parents across the country that not only help their kids with little things in the application process, but that they go too far. And sometimes they are living out their dreams," Harberson said.

She peeled back the curtain on the admissions process that's "very private," especially at selective colleges.

"It's all done behind closed doors. Once in a while, we would have a visitor or reporter come in and observe the admissions committee and we would basically admit everyone and spend plenty of time talking about these great, regular kids. But the fact is, as soon as that reporter left or as soon as we had to cut back because we had to make room for other students who were well connected, those wonderful, regular kids would get pulled out of the class," Harberson said.

Regular kids might be labeled "untagged," while other students would be "tagged."

"If a student is a recruited athlete, is a child of a big donor, or knows someone, their application is usually tagged. And the admissions officer, even if it's a young 22-year-old admissions officer right out of college, they know you have to be really careful with that application. And that application will get many different sets of eyes," she explained.

"There is a sculpting process that happens after all the applications are read and evaluated. Last two weeks before decision letters go out, lots of movement happens. Students who are not tagged probably get pulled out of the class to make room for more of those tagged kids," Harberson added.