Reader Questions: Setting Yourself Apart

Today, we are back to our “Reader Questions” series! Have a burning question about school, college, or graduate admissions, or even high school in general? Please shoot us an email and we will make sure to address it in a future post!

Q: Every college counselor says that teenagers need to “set themselves apart,” but what does that even mean? Why is this important anyway?

A: First of all, you don’t really need to worry about this unless your student is trying to go to a highly competitive school. Less competitive colleges won’t be focused on whether an applicant is unique or not; they have other priorities.

The reason this becomes important for students applying to the most selective colleges and universities has to do with the quality of the applicant pool to those institutions: in other words, most of the applicants are completely qualified for admission! There are so many kids applying to the same programs with the same straight As and the same test scores. When an admissions officer reads a hundred files from excellent students and has to pick five of them, which will she pick? The ones that stand out. The applicants that “set themselves apart” are the ones that stand out from the rest of the pack in positive ways.

Twenty years ago, stellar grades and exceptional SAT/ACT scores were essentially a guarantee that a student would get into a highly selective college. Now that times have changed, we suggest that students hoping to gain acceptance to America’s most selective colleges and universities consider building their own unique brand at the start of ninth grade. The good news? It sounds more complicated than it is. If you do this right, it won’t be difficult at all.


1.  Discover your passions

What do you love?  What gets you out of bed early on a Saturday morning?  You’re more than just a student and you’ll want to show that to colleges.  Are you passionate about community service or a cause?  Can you connect that to your favorite musical instrument or sport?  Have you dreamed of starting your own business and selling your artwork?

Take some time early on in your high school career to reflect and brainstorm how you want to spend your time when your head isn’t in a book.  Don’t just sign up to be a volunteer because you think that will look good down the road to admissions counselors.  Instead, choose activities and organizations that align with your strengths, values and passions.  When you combine what you’re good at with what you love, you’re pretty much destined for success!

2.  Show commitment

How will colleges know that you’ll be a dedicated student and a great ambassador for the university?  They will not simply look at what you do outside of school - they will delve deeper and look at your level of commitment.  The longer you’ve been involved with a team, a program, or a non-profit, the better.

If you’ve been a key contributor to an organization for years, you’re proving to the admissions counselors that you take commitment seriously and are involved for the right reasons.  It also shows that you’re personable, work well with others and understand responsibility.  

Here at DC College Counseling, we always encourage our students to show, rather than tell.

3.  Go above and beyond

Get out of the “good enough” mindset.  Even if you have no clue where you want to go to school or which majors interest you most, you can still lay the foundation for an impressive college application by trying your best and making the right choices - even when you don’t think anyone else is paying attention. In the long run, your hard work will pay off.

Don’t be shy.  Always think: “What could I do to improve the world around me?” If you think of an idea to improve your community, your school, or an organization, don’t keep that information to yourself. If you end up with achievements as a result, reach out to your local media or nominate your work for a coveted award.  A little publicity can always affect and improve the quality of your brand.