Oct 12, 2021 |

What Are the Critical Components of a Great College Admissions Application?

By Gravitas

college applicant

The college admissions process is more competitive and complex than ever before. How can your student be sure they are putting their best foot forward? How can they stand out amongst thousands of other bright and hopeful applicants? Below are key guidelines to keep in mind and integral components to include when crafting their applications. Before we delve into the critical components of a great college application, however, we must touch on the importance of your student doing their research to develop a short list of colleges (ideally a maximum of 10) that meet their interests, needs, and level of academic preparation and competitiveness. Having a well-researched college list is a solid foundation for your child applying to schools that are truly a good fit for them. In turn, by intentionally highlighting their fit for their chosen colleges in each respective application, your child will increase their probability of being admitted.

1. The Full Picture

Your student will not be in the room when the admissions committee reviews their application. It is vital that they think of the college application as an opportunity to show the full picture of who they are and how they will contribute to academic and community life on the college campus. With careful planning, thoughtfulness, and a bit of creativity, your child can utilize each aspect of their application to craft a multi-faceted picture of who they are as a student and person.

2. An Honest Academic Self-Assessment (and Transcript, of course!)

Being honest and transparent about their high school academic performance and overall abilities is the best approach for your student to take when crafting their college applications. Admissions officers appreciate when students convey a mature self-awareness of their abilities and aspirations. In addition to your child’s school sending colleges and universities their academic transcripts and other school information, it is valuable for your child to craft their application with an eye toward being as self-aware, mature, and honest as possible about their abilities and setbacks. For instance, if there is a course or overall subject that they have struggled in, they may want to write a brief note about this in the Additional Information section. Admissions officers notice blips in the academic transcript and generally appreciate receiving context about why the challenge occurred and how a student has worked to overcome it. They do not have time to go searching for background information, so transparency and thoroughness in the application is very important.

3. An Authentic Personal Statement

The personal statement (aka the college essay) will go to all schools to which your student applies, so it should not mention a specific college’s name. This piece of writing is a key opportunity for your child to share information about themselves in a way that provides more depth and dimension to their application. The essay must be in their voice and about them. Even if they choose to write about a person or experience that has impacted them, they must ultimately put more emphasis on the impact itself. The essay must be personal, so that admissions officers learn something about your child’s character, perspective, goals, passions, etcetera. Your college applicant will not be in the room when their admissions review takes place. However, the personal statement is a chance for your student to enter the committee room and influence the admissions officers through their writing! The focus of your child’s essay could be on something simple like a particular moment in time or on a longer-term experience, relationship, or challenge overcome. Regardless of the prompt or topic they choose, their writing must be personal, concise, impeccable, and authentically them if they want it to be impactful!

4. A Strong Supplement (if applicable)

Your student can save much time by using a platform like the Common App, which transmits their application materials to several schools at once. Most colleges on the Common App require applicants to submit a supplement. The supplement will include questions specific to the college in question as well as short essays that highlight your student’s interest in and fit for that school. Admissions officers know how simple it is for your child to check a box and add a college to the list of schools receiving their Common Application. They will want to see that your child has taken the time and care to research and write thoughtfully about why they are applying to their school in particular. Though short, the supplemental essays should not be disregarded as unimportant nor left to the last minute. A supplement that is hastily written, copy-pasted (i.e. a repeat of the personal statement), generic, or too short can negatively impact your student’s admissions outcome. The supplement is a key opportunity for your student to show a college their excitement and fit for that particular school.

5. Impactful Recommendation Letters

Many schools require between two and four letters of recommendation, usually from core subject teachers and a counselor. Your student needs to ask for these letters early (i.e. end of junior year if possible and early senior year at the latest). They should ask teachers who know them and their academic ability well enough to write a strong letter on their behalf. They should choose their teachers carefully and strategically (i.e. including teachers from advanced STEM courses if they plan to apply to STEM programs). Additionally, they must waive their right to see the letters as this will show admissions officers that the teacher has the freedom to write an authentic and accurate letter.

6. Additional Information and Materials

When your student takes a birds-eye-view of their application, they should see a comprehensive and multi-dimensional document that gives admissions officers an understanding of the different aspects of who they are as a student and person. If anything important about them is missing or does not fit in the available sections of the application, they can use the Additional Information section to share this information. Examples are moves or school changes, illnesses or other obstacles overcome, and additional details about their life that the admissions committee should know. This is also an area where your student can provide links to videos, projects, art, and other unique things that they have created as part of their co- and extracurricular activities. Please note that materials such as required art portfolios or musical recordings are typically submitted through the websites of particular colleges and universities that require them for niche programs. Your child will be prepared to submit these extra required materials if they have done in-depth research on the admissions webpages of each college on their list.

7. A Meaningful Extra-Curricular Overview

The Extracurricular and Work Experience section of your child’s college application is the place for them to strategically list the most important activities, work, and/or community service they have done outside of their academic classes over the past four years. They will want to list the most important and time-intensive activities first to show that those are the activities they value and enjoy most. This section really is more about the quality than the number of activities. If your student has many extracurricular activities they enjoy, they may want to include a separate resume with their application. However, this document should be one page long and should not be a repetition of the Extracurricular section of the application. Some colleges and universities may require a resume, so this is something to research and prepare for. Your student should keep in mind that there is usually not a specific extracurricular profile that colleges seek, but they want to see that your student has engaged in interests and activities outside of their academics. Most schools offer a great variety of clubs and activities that enrich the student experience. The admissions committee will assess your child’s application to get a sense of how they might get involved in and impact this aspect of life on their campus if admitted.

If your student starts their application process with genuine self-reflection and in-depth research to find colleges and universities that are a great fit for them, they will begin their college admissions quest from a solid position. An admission officer can tell whether your student has done their homework about the college in question. If not, they may question the authenticity of your student’s interest in their school. They will also be looking at the application materials to see how your student can contribute to the campus community academically and socially. There are no guarantees in the world of selective college admissions, and, at the most competitive schools, even super-qualified students are denied admittance due to limited space. By being attentive to the themes and components listed above, your student will have a leg up in navigating the competitive admissions landscape and reaching a great college destination.


Gravitas is the global extension of The Stony Brook School (SBS), a renowned 100-year-old day and boarding school on Long Island, New York. In addition to extending SBS’s extraordinary college preparatory academics and counseling resources to students worldwide, Gravitas also teaches its students about character formation and human flourishing to ensure they thrive in school and life beyond! To learn more and enroll your child, inquire here today.

By: Alyssa Orrantia Bieneme, Director of Admissions, Financial Aid, and College Counseling at Gravitas

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