How to Stand Out in a Sea of Applicants: 15 Unique Tips

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A student with her notebook in the Library

How to Stand Out in a Sea of Applicants: 15 Unique Tips

Understanding how to stand out in a sea of applicants is essential for students targeting their dream colleges. With thousands of applications submitted each year, ensuring yours grabs attention is a significant challenge.

This blog is set to reveal 15 unique tips that offer new ways to catch the attention of college admissions officers. These strategies are designed to highlight your talents and interests compellingly.

Let’s explore these creative approaches to ensure your application stands out and makes a lasting impact.

15 Unique Tips to Stand Out in Your College Application

Applying to college is a significant step in a student’s educational journey, requiring careful presentation of one’s achievements, experiences, and personality to stand out in a competitive admissions process.

The following 15 tips guide students in showcasing their unique qualities and experiences in their college applications, increasing their chances of being noticed and accepted by their preferred institutions.

Female student explaining something to her classmate.

1. Showcase Your Unique Personality

Colleges are looking for real people behind the grades. Your essays and interviews are key opportunities to reveal your true self.

  • Essays: Choose topics that reflect your life experiences and personal growth. Share stories that show how you’ve evolved, highlighting moments that have shaped you. This approach makes your application memorable and gives admissions officers a glimpse into your character.
  • Interviews: Be ready to discuss what drives you, your interests, and the experiences that have shaped your views. Genuine conversations, sprinkled with personal anecdotes, can make a lasting impression, showing the depth of your personality.

2. Diversify Your Experiences

A wide range of interests shows you’re adaptable and eager to explore. This diversity makes you a more attractive candidate.

  • Sports: Participation in sports demonstrates teamwork and discipline. Share how sports have taught you valuable life lessons.
  • Arts: Involvement in the arts shows creativity and the ability to express complex ideas. Highlight how these experiences have enriched your perspective.
  • Coding Marathons/Hackathons: Engaging in technical challenges showcases your problem-solving skills. Talk about your projects and the innovative solutions you’ve developed, underscoring your analytical abilities.

3. Community Service That Matters

Authentic volunteer work indicates a commitment to positive impact. It’s an aspect that can significantly differentiate you in the application process.

  • Choosing Projects: Focus on volunteer work that aligns with your passions and reflects your values. Depth of involvement is key, as it shows genuine commitment.
  • Reflecting on Your Experience: Discuss your volunteer work’s impact on yourself and the community. Share specific examples of how you’ve contributed and what these experiences have taught you about service and leadership.

4. Internships and Work Experience

Internships and work experience are essential in learning how to stand out in a sea of applicants. These experiences teach you real-world skills that can set you apart. Here’s how:

  • Time Management: Learning to juggle work, studies, and personal life shows you can handle multiple responsibilities efficiently.
  • Teamwork: Working with others, especially from different backgrounds, improves your teamwork skills and shows you can adapt to diverse environments.
  • Problem-solving: Facing real-world problems helps develop your ability to think critically and develop solutions.
  • Leadership: Taking charge of tasks or projects demonstrates your leadership abilities, proving you’re ready to lead and inspire.

When discussing your internships and work experiences in your application, focus on what you’ve learned and how these lessons have prepared you for college and beyond.

5. Special Projects and Initiatives

Taking the lead on projects or initiatives is a powerful way to show colleges your leadership skills and ambition. Whether founding a club, starting a business, or organizing community events, these activities make your application stand out.

They show you’re not just a participant but someone who initiates change. Highlight what you achieved, the challenges you overcame, and the impact of your efforts. These experiences prove how you stand out in a sea of applicants.

6. Cultivating a Strong Online Presence

In today’s world, a positive online presence can be a significant asset. It’s an opportunity to showcase your achievements, projects, and what you’re passionate about. Here’s how to make the most of it:

  • Social Media: Use platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter to share your successes and interests. Keep your content professional and true to your goals.
  • Personal Websites and Blogs: Create a site or blog to document your journey, showcase your work, and share your thoughts on subjects you care about.
  • Digital Portfolios: For creative individuals, an online portfolio can visually present your work, offering a glimpse into your creative process and output.

Your online presence should tell a cohesive story of your identity and highlight your unique qualities. A well-managed digital footprint can help you shine in a sea of applicants, providing a fuller picture of your abilities and potential.

7. Exceptional Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation boost your application, providing insights into your character from those who know you well.

It’s essential to select recommenders, such as teachers or mentors, who can detail your strengths and how you’ve grown and articulate how you stand out in a sea of applicants, emphasizing the unique contributions you can bring to the table.

Two women talking while looking at a piece of paper.


Selecting Your Recommenders

  • Choose Mentors Who Know You Beyond Academics: Look for those who have witnessed your growth personally and can share specific stories.
  • Guidance for Your Recommenders: Help them by summarizing your key achievements and goals, so they can write meaningful letters.

Key Elements of a Strong Letter

  • Personal Stories: The best letters include examples that highlight your skills and personality.
  • Growth Narrative: They should show how you’ve evolved, demonstrating your ability to learn and adapt.
  • Reflect College Values: Letters should align with your prospective college’s values, like teamwork or creativity.

8. Standout Essay Topics

Your college essay is a chance to speak directly to admissions officers. Choosing the right topic is crucial for showcasing your unique perspective.

Creating Your Essay

  • Focus on Impactful Experiences: Share moments that changed you or shaped your views.
  • Unique Angle on Common Topics: If you choose a well-known theme, present it from a perspective only you can.
  • Embrace Vulnerability: Being open about challenges and what they taught you can be very impactful.

Writing an Unforgettable Essay

  • Your Voice: Write in a natural way, ensuring the essay reflects your true self.
  • Detail and Specificity: Use detailed descriptions to bring your story to life.
  • Insight: Go beyond just telling a story; reflect on how it’s influenced you.

9. Exhibit Intellectual Curiosity

Showing a love for learning can make your application stand out. Colleges value applicants who are excited about exploring new ideas and knowledge.

Demonstrating Curiosity

  • Take Challenging Courses: Engaging in AP, IB, or honors classes shows you’re eager to challenge yourself.
  • Research Projects: Getting involved in research highlights your commitment to discovery and learning.
  • Independent Learning: Share how you’ve pursued knowledge through online courses or personal projects.

Highlighting Your Curiosity

  • In Your Essays: Use your essays to discuss what drives your curiosity and how it’s shaped your educational path.
  • During Interviews and Recommendations: Talk about your intellectual passions with those writing your recommendations and mention them in interviews.

10. Demonstrate Creativity

Creativity isn’t just an artistic trait; it’s a way of thinking that colleges deeply value. If you’re creative, share examples in your application. This could be through a portfolio or a project description that shows how you think differently and solve problems. Talk about how your creativity has led to real solutions or projects.

For instance, if you created something unique that helped others or addressed an issue, it shows you’re imaginative and practical. Colleges seek creative individuals because they bring new ideas and energy, enriching the campus community.

11. Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Courses

Choosing AP or IB courses tells colleges you’re serious about your education and ready for tough challenges. Instead of just listing these courses, explain what you gained from them. Share any special projects or research and how these experiences have prepared you for college.

Discussing your journey through challenging coursework shows you’re not only academically ambitious but also capable of handling complex material, making you a strong candidate for college.

12. Leadership Roles

Leadership is more about what you do than your title, especially when considering how to stand out in a sea of applicants. In your application, focus on what you achieved as a leader.

Describe the goals you set, the challenges you faced, and what you accomplished. Whether you led a team, ran a club, or organized an event, highlight how you made a difference.

Group of students talking in a room.

Showing the results of your leadership, like growing a club’s membership, improving a team’s performance, or making a significant impact in your community, demonstrates your ability to lead and make positive changes. Colleges seek students who not only aim for personal success but also contribute to the well-being of others.

13. Unique Hobbies or Skills

To understand how to stand out in a sea of applicants, showcasing unique hobbies or skills is key. These interests, such as beekeeping, astronomy, or historical reenactment, spotlight your individuality. Whether you’re a competitive chess player, an app developer, or a glassblower, these activities show your dedication and creativity.

For example, beekeeping might reflect your commitment to environmental sustainability, while astronomy could demonstrate your leadership in organizing educational events. Such hobbies make your application memorable by highlighting your unique talents and passions.

14. Cultural Experiences

Your cultural background offers a rich tapestry of experiences that can enhance your college application. Explaining how your heritage has shaped your views and values helps admissions officers see the diverse perspectives you can bring to their campus.

Whether it’s through understanding multiple cultural norms at home or engaging in cultural festivals, these experiences demonstrate your adaptability and appreciation for diversity.

Sharing these aspects of your life provides depth to your application, showcasing how you can contribute to a more inclusive community.

15. Personal Growth Stories

Admissions officers value applicants who have shown resilience and growth. Sharing stories of personal challenges you’ve overcome provides insight into your character and maturity. Focus on a specific challenge, detailing the journey, what you learned, and how you’ve grown from the experience.

Whether overcoming a personal setback or achieving a seemingly impossible goal, these narratives reveal your ability to manage life’s hurdles. By including these stories, you illustrate your resilience and capacity for reflection and adaptation.

Understanding What Colleges Look For

In the competitive world of college admissions, it’s essential to grasp what colleges value in candidates. This insight guides the preparation of your application to reflect these expectations and ensures you present yourself authentically, resonating with admissions committees.

Below is a streamlined overview of key attributes colleges seek and strategies for showcasing them, crucial for those pondering how to stand out in a sea of applicants.


Colleges seek individuals who embody integrity and ethical values, demonstrated through actions and decisions. This includes how you’ve managed challenges and contributed positively to your surroundings.

Your character shines through in essays, recommendations, and interviews, indicating to colleges the kind of impact you’ll bring to their campus.

Three students talking while walking.


Leadership extends beyond conventional titles, including any initiative where you’ve guided others or spearheaded projects. It’s about showing readiness to engage actively in your education and college life.

Illustrating varied leadership experiences indicates you’re a proactive, contributing community member.

Passion for Learning

A deep interest in learning, showcased by challenging coursework, extracurriculars related to academic interests, or independent projects, is highly attractive to admissions boards.

This passion suggests you’re an engaged learner eager to explore new ideas, promising a vibrant contribution to academic discussions.

Potential to Contribute

Colleges also assess your potential to enhance campus life through extracurricular activities, community service, or personal attributes. Demonstrating how you’ve enriched your community or plan to engage with the college community can set you apart.

Aligning Your Application

Effectively reflecting these qualities in your application is about crafting a narrative highlighting your integrity, initiative, intellectual curiosity, and communal spirit.

Every component, from essays to recommendations, should build a cohesive image of your unique contributions, ensuring you know how to stand out in a sea of applicants.

Crafting a Memorable College Essay

Crafting a memorable college essay is a key chance to show how to stand out in a sea of applicants. Here’s how to make yours resonate:

  • Reflect on Your Life: Think deeply about experiences that shaped you. Identify moments that reveal your character, such as overcoming obstacles or achieving something significant. This introspection can uncover unique stories for your essay.
  • Choose a Meaningful Topic: Pick an important topic to you, whether it’s a personal challenge, a unique experience, or an activity you’re passionate about. Your essay should offer a window into your values or dreams.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Use detailed descriptions to bring your story to life. Show your qualities through stories, not just by stating them. This approach makes your essay engaging and memorable.
  • Be Authentic and Clear: Write in your voice. Avoid overly formal language or guessing what admissions officers want to hear. Your genuine voice is more impactful than a polished facade.
  • Be Specific Yet Concise: Be detailed but keep an eye on word count. Focus on making your point without unnecessary fluff. Specific details help your story stand out but avoid dragging your narrative with too much information.
  • Highlight Your Growth: Discuss how your experiences have shaped you. Colleges look for applicants who demonstrate growth and the ability to learn from their experiences. This shows you’re ready for the challenges of college life.
  • Seek Feedback but Keep Your Voice: Feedback is valuable, but your essay should remain true to you. Use advice to improve your essay without losing your unique voice or perspective.
  • Proofread: Ensure your essay is free from errors. A clean, error-free essay shows you care about your application. However, focus on maintaining your voice and authenticity.

The Role of Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are more than just items to fill space on your college application. They’re an opportunity to showcase your passions and dedication. When figuring out how to stand out in a sea of applicants, your activities can set you apart.

Choose What You Love

The activities you pick should reflect what you genuinely enjoy and are interested in. Colleges can tell when students select activities just to impress admissions officers versus when they are truly passionate about them.

Showing real interest and commitment is key, whether it’s sports, arts, community service, or academic clubs.

Male student reading a book in the hallway.

Focus on Fewer, Meaningful Activities

Colleges prefer to see you deeply involved in a few activities rather than lightly involved in many. Deep involvement, where you’ve shown leadership, growth, and impact, is much more valuable. This depth shows you can commit and make a significant difference in areas you care about.

Leadership and Teamwork

Holding leadership positions in your activities is a great way to highlight your ability to initiate, inspire, and make positive changes. These roles show your leadership skills and your ability to work with others toward a common goal.

Teamwork skills are also important, as they show you can collaborate effectively, a trait highly valued in college settings.

Reflect Your Identity and Values

Your activities also reflect your personal values and identity. They give colleges insight into what matters to you and how you contribute to your community. Choosing activities aligning with your values helps your application stand out by offering a complete picture of who you are.

Highlight Your Contributions

When listing your activities, go beyond just naming the roles. Describe what you did, the challenges you overcame, and what you achieved.

Where possible, quantify your impact to make it more concrete. This could include amounts raised, people impacted, or growth achieved under your leadership.

A Balanced Portfolio

A mix of individual and team activities shows you’re versatile and adaptable. Individual pursuits highlight self-motivation and discipline, while team activities show you’re a good collaborator. This balance demonstrates you’re well-rounded, an attractive quality to colleges.

Final Checklist Before Submitting Your Application

Before submitting your college application, it’s crucial to double-check every detail. This last review is your chance to ensure your application meets all the criteria and effectively showcases who you are. Here’s a streamlined checklist for your final review:

  • Review Instructions: Ensure you’ve followed all application guidelines for each college. Don’t miss any specific requirements they’ve outlined.
  • Proofread Essays: Check your essays for grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. They should read smoothly and reflect your personality. Getting feedback from a teacher or friend can also offer valuable insights.
  • Complete All Sections: Ensure you’ve filled out every part of the application. Even optional sections can provide a chance to share more about yourself and help you understand how to stand out in a sea of applicants.
  • Check Test Scores and Transcripts: Confirm that colleges have received your test scores (if required) and transcripts. Keep track of any confirmations or updates.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Make sure all your recommendations are submitted. It’s polite to thank those who wrote them and confirm they’ve sent them.
  • Extracurriculars and Awards: Review how you’ve listed your activities and achievements. This section should highlight your contributions and successes.
  • Portfolio or Audition Materials: If your program requires a portfolio or audition, double-check that these materials meet the program’s standards and showcase your talent.
  • Ensure Cohesiveness: Your application should present a consistent and coherent story about your achievements and goals. Make sure the different parts complement each other and highlight your strengths.
  • Application Fees: Verify if the application fee has been paid or if a fee waiver has been received. Ensure no payments are pending.
  • Backup Your Work: Save copies of your application, including essays. This is useful for future reference or in case of submission issues.
  • Submit Early: Submit your application before the deadline to avoid any last-minute problems. Keep track of deadlines and set reminders.
  • Reflect: Acknowledge the effort you’ve put into your application. Recognize your hard work in preparing an application that stands out.

a student writing for internship

This checklist ensures your application is complete and polished, showcasing your best self. It’s your last chance to make adjustments that could help you stand out in a sea of applicants.

With this checklist, you can submit your application confidently, knowing you’ve done everything to present a compelling case to your chosen colleges.


In the quest for college admissions, mastering how to stand out in a sea of applicants is crucial. This blog offers 15 key strategies to elevate your application. It emphasizes authenticity and showcases your unique traits through essays, interviews, and your online presence.

We’ve outlined how diverse experiences, meaningful community service, internships, and special projects can showcase your skills and character.

We stress the importance of strong recommendations, standout essays, intellectual curiosity, creativity, and leadership roles. Unique hobbies, cultural experiences, and personal growth stories add depth to your application, making it memorable.

Remember, standing out means being true to yourself and highlighting your journey, accomplishments, and ambitions. With these strategies, you can confidently manage the admissions process and secure your spot in your desired college.


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