Five underutilized ways to impress colleges

Standing out. It’s the challenge so many college applicants face. How can you help colleges see what you have to offer when so many other students are equally high-achieving, high-scoring, and high-reaching? Here are five underutilized ways to impress colleges. Done correctly, your chosen option should be something that makes you happy, not something that you dread but accept as part of your college preparation.

1. Act locally.
Lots of people, places, and things need help, time, or attention. Pick up trash in a local park that needs a facelift. Coach a pee wee baseball team. Offer to teach senior citizens how to start a blog or use Instagram. You don’t have to do something splashy like start a non-profit to get into college. In fact, most admissions officers would be even more impressed with a student who just rolls her sleeves up and gets to work acting—and making a difference—locally.

2. Connect a tribe.
People at your school, in your community, or out there in the internet universe are interested in the same things you are. What if you brought them together? Start a regular book club for people who like the same type of literature. Organize outings to watch your local professional sports franchise. Start a website for fellow poets to share each other’s writing, DJs to swap successful playlists, or vegetarians to post their dishes that even meat eaters happily scarf down. This might sound trivial on the surface. But if you keep it up, you just might end up connecting dozens or hundreds or thousands of people who look to you as their linchpin. And that will get a college’s attention.

3. Learn (a lot) about something.
Colleges love a student with curiosity and the drive to satisfy it. And your interest doesn’t necessarily need to be academic. Learn how to play the bass parts for every one of your favorite band’s songs. Use online resources to achieve near-expert level cooking for your favorite cuisine. Learn to fix your own car, computer, or kitchen sink. It’s never been easier or cheaper to learn something. A teacher is often just one blog post or YouTube video away. And while you won’t get much extra credit just for dabbling in something, if you can share a legitimate talent or interest that you worked hard to learn on your own, you’ll be demonstrating that love of learning that never goes out of admissions style.

4. Hold a regular job.
I define a regular job as one that you had to apply for and that requires you to show up at regular days and times (as opposed to the occasional babysitting gig). Flip burgers. Bag groceries. Pour coffee or wait tables or scoop snack bar popcorn. Even at the nation’s most selective colleges, there is something irresistibly admissions-likeable about a teenager who earns an honest dollar, especially one who stays on for more than just one summer and maybe even rises up the work ranks.

5. Take a hobby to a productive extreme.
One challenge with standing out is that so many of the available activities exist at virtually every high school. But a hobby is yours, one that you can take in any direction you’d like. Play the trumpet in a local jazz, funk, or mariachi band. Write movie reviews online. One former Collegewise student learned to throw clay and make pots, which he eventually sold at local flea markets twice a month. He’d earned several thousand dollars by the time he applied to college (and today, he’s a graduate of Columbia University).

Here’s the common thread with all of these—they’re driven only by your own concern, interest, or curiosity, not concocted as a strategy to impress colleges. Colleges see plenty of students who start non-profits or intern at law firms or enroll at expensive programs at prestigious colleges. But many (certainly not all, but many) of those same students also cut bait and abandon those supposed interests or commitments as soon as they’ve done enough to list them on their college applications. Admissions officers are savvy enough to see through that. That’s why it’s so refreshing to come across the student who coached youth hockey or painted the local senior center or tossed pizza dough just because she wanted to.