Cracking the College Admissions Process, Part III: Beyond the Numbers

college admissions
By Sofía


college application process.

Tell a story that your stats just can’t

In my previous post in this series, I explored all the quantitative components of your application: grades, test scores, the deadlines you’ll choose, and even applying for financial aid. These stats form the backbone of your application, but there are also several open-ended parts that you will need to flesh out.

Test scores can only tell colleges so much about applicants—in fact, some colleges have de-emphasized the SAT as an evaluative component, and some have stopped requiring it altogether. But regardless of your prospective colleges’ SAT policies, they will absolutely expect that you put significant effort into your personal statement and supplemental essays. And though it’s not an essay, your activities list will help you tell a story about your interests, goals, and potential to grow into an even more engaged and energized college student. You may not have ever reflected or written about yourself as much as you will during this process, so let’s get acquainted with the different parts of your application that will help you showcase your unique potential.

Extracurriculars and Summers (ie, The Activities List)

Colleges don’t just care about who you are in the classroom (or the testing center). They want to know about your passions, your interests outside of school, and the things that inspire you. Throughout high school (ideally as soon as freshman year), invest your time in some extracurricular activities that you like and be prepared describe how they enrich your life. The activities section itself in the Common Application doesn’t have much room for description (just 50 characters per activity), but you still want this snapshot of your activities to paint a picture of the ways you spend your time outside of school.

This isn’t a throwaway section about what you like to do when you hang out with friends: your extracurricular activities can be a window into who you are and how you hope to grow. The common application has a limit of ten activities, but don’t feel you need to come up with ten activities just for the sake of filling in all the slots. You can list activities in order of significance, so being president of the astronomy club should probably go above your ensemble role in the school musical as a sophomore.

By the same token, make sure to find something meaningful to do with your summers while you’re in high school. Whether that means volunteer work, a language immersion program, a job that aligns with your interests and aspirations, athletic training, or participating in a summer camp, find a way to tie these activities back to your interests. On the Common Application, you will put your summer activities in the same list as your extracurriculars, and for each entry you’ll specify when you pursued that activity (at the level of detail of weeks per year and hours per week).

The Personal Statement

This is often the first thing that comes to mind whenever someone mentions college applications, and it’s certainly a crucial piece; though as we’ve seen, it’s just one factor in the interlocking puzzle that is your application. I’ll offer more advice about the personal statement in Part III, but for now I’ll just say this: take your time with this essay. This 250-650 word piece of writing may have the longest life cycle of anything you’ve written so far in high school, from initial brainstorm to outline to draft to revision after revision. Essay prompts for the Common Application are released in August, so you can be ready to get a jump on the personal statement essay before your senior year even begins. This is your chance to not only let colleges learn a bit more about who you are, but also showcase your flawless grammar and fluent writing style.

Supplemental Essays

It’s daunting to think about trying to capture the essence of your being in a maximum 650-word essay, so don’t think of the personal statement that way. Don’t try to say everything important there is to say about yourself in that one piece of writing. Each college that uses the Common Application will have an additional set of required supplemental essays, each with different prompts. While students sometimes think of these as pesky requirements to just be gotten through with gritted teeth, they can be a great opportunity to showcase parts of your life that didn’t get much airtime in your personal statement. In Part III, we’ll also explore more about how to do the supplements justice.            

Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges require one letter of recommendation from a teacher, and another from a school guidance counselor, and you may be able to submit a supplemental recommendation from another mentor figure such as a coach or advisor. Some elite colleges will require two recommendations from teachers, plus one from a counselor—so again, double check all the requirements for each school as soon as you’ve finalized your list!

When choosing teachers to ask for a recommendation, make sure to ask someone who knows you well, and who can speak to your academic strengths and personality. Ideally they’ll have taught you a core subject like English, math, science, or history, and they’ll be able to share something about you that isn’t already on your resumé. If you’re applying to a specific major or a competitive program in a particular field, it makes sense to have a recommendation from a teacher who can sing your praises in that subject. As for the counselor recommendation, hopefully you’ll already have an active relationship with your guidance counselor, since they may have helped you build your college list or strategize about what courses to take your senior year. So ideally, a conversation with them about writing a recommendation letter can come up pretty naturally.

The absolute latest you should ask a teacher for a letter recommendation is a month before the deadline. If you can, you should broach the subject early on in your senior fall, or even junior spring. Some teachers get flooded with requests for letters of recommendation around October, so if you have a feeling that ideal your recommender might be a popular choice among your classmates, you may want to get your request in sooner.


Not all colleges require interviews, but you may find yourself with an interview or two to prepare for. If interviews terrify you, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that interviews will not often make or break your admission decision. Instead, think of the interview as another way to demonstrate your interest in the school and showcase parts of your personality that may not have come through on your application. If you’re especially nervous, sometimes it helps to write out some answers to common interview questions ahead of time. You won’t be reading your answers like lines, but if you articulate them on paper before you have to do it on the spot, it can be easier to express your thoughts when you’re stressed out.

Even if you’re naturally outgoing and aren’t worried about an interview, you should still take ample time to research the college in question beforehand. If you can, do a couple practice interviews with parents or teachers. Have a few concrete questions prepared for your interviewer (and make sure those questions aren’t answered in the FAQ’s of the college’s website). Be prepared for questions about what you’d like to study in college, what you like to do outside of school, what makes you want to attend the college represented by the interviewer, current events, what you’ve read recently, and your academic strengths and weaknesses. After the interview, it’s a great idea to follow up via email and thank your interviewer for their time.

Take a deep breath and dive in

As is often the case with big difficult tasks, the hardest part is often getting started. Break your application up into chunks as small as you need for it to start feeling doable. Then pick a piece to focus on first, make a plan to keep evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your work as you go, and get started. Don’t be shy about asking for feedback from strong writers and the mentors and peers who know you best. We’ll talk more in Part IV about how to tackle the personal statement and the supplements. Through applying to college, arduous as it can feel, you’ll probably learn something about yourself—and that’s pretty cool.

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