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Seven Ways to Stand Out as an Applicant

Seven steps to improve your chances of standing out as an applicant to U.S. colleges and universities.

The final stage of the undergraduate and graduate application process yields both relief and stress for prospective students. Applications have been submitted, and now comes a period of time that can be a bit stressful: waiting for the decision of the admissions committee.
Based on our experience reviewing thousands of undergrad and grad school applications over nearly three decades, here are seven ways to help you stand out as an applicant:


1. Relax
The application process is a major learning experience. Staying positive and calm allows you to be reflective. Worrying and obsessing during the final stages of putting the application together will likely hinder your ability to think clearly and prepare the best application possible.


2. Allow enough time
Take a few weeks to gather and compile all of the required material. Then check and recheck. Do not wait until the last second before pushing the send button for your application. Believe us; admissions personnel can tell because often there are mistakes, missing information or essays that were clearly written for another program.


3. Follow directions
Not doing so raises major questions about how the candidate might adhere to policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled. If there is a word limit for essay questions, follow it. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, do not send more. If you are asked not to follow up via email or phone, don’t.


4. Be professional
Studying overseas in the United States is a big deal and can be stressful. You should be confident and self-assured, but not to the point of being perceived as overly aggressive, abrasive or demanding. If something goes wrong, keep your cool. This makes a positive impression.


5. Focus on content and presentation
A candidate might have the greatest standardized test scores, a superb grade point average (GPA) and impressive letters of recommendation. But if the application contains obvious misspellings or grammatical mistakes, it’s going to be a problem. Admissions committees will assume the applicant was not entirely serious about his or her application.


6. Stay true to yourself
Embellishing your application or making excuses for weaker parts of your application will not help. Presenting yourself in a genuine and honest way is very important. As the saying goes: “Be yourself—everyone else is already taken.”


7. Ask the right questions
It is very disheartening for the admissions staff when applicants ask questions for which answers have been repeatedly provided on the admissions office website or in printed materials. Two of the questions are, “What are your application deadlines?” and “Do you offer financial aid?” They clearly demonstrate either a lack of real interest in an institution or program, or lack of initiative in doing some research, or both. Ask questions that show you took time to thoroughly investigate the program/institution to which you are applying.


Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern; and author of “Road Map for Graduate Study.”
Wesley Teter is a former regional director for EducationUSA in New Delhi. He is also the editor of the multimedia outreach campaign, 10 Steps to Study in the United States.