The student news site of Southfield High School

How to Make Your College Application Shine

November 17, 2016

Like millions of other high school seniors, Shelby Moore of Southfield High School is in the process of applying to colleges. And like millions of others, he is struggling with the application essays.

“In an essay I like to get  to the point,” Moore says. “It says use 500 words or less, and I’m usually at 200-250 because I get to the point of what I wanted to talk about.”

But that could be a mistake, according to Shen Van Buren, admissions Counselor at Michigan State University. He advises against submitting an “extremely brief” essay and encourages applicants to “make their essay thoughtful.”

Van Buren encourages applicants to highlight their accomplishments, community service and especially their leadership – even if they were not the official leader in an activity.

Highlight Leadership

Van Buren says, “For extra curriculars, we want to see students involved and striving to be leaders, but we also know that not everyone is going to have the opportunity of being an “official” leader in their group. Students should find a way to express what they have done to show  leadership in their activity, even if they aren’t the elected or designated leader. i.e. How have they taken a leadership role, if even on a small scale?”

Focus on the Unique


When it comes to writing the application essay, Van Buren, who has worked in the Office of Admissions since 2002, advises, “Students should think outside of the box. Don’t just answer the question with general ideas. Find a way to make yourself stand out by talking about the unique things that make their situation different from that of others.”

Avoid Recycling Essays

He advises against reusing an essay written for another school. If students do recycle an essay, by all means at least remember to change the name of the school in the essay, he says.

Other tips from Van Buren:

  • Explain drops in grades if there is a good reason for the drop.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. . “We don’t like seeing students forget to proofread the personal statement/essay.
  • Write your own essay. “A very big mistake is having someone else write the student’s essay.”
  • Don’t use big words just to impress. “We can usually figure out that  the student has opened up their thesaurus and just plugged in big words, especially, when the words don’t really make sense.”
  • Don’t overextend yourself academically. “We do not want to see students who take a large number of AP and Dual Enrolled Classes, but have poor grades in them.”
  • Be honest. “A big issue is when students do not disclose a crime and conduct issue on their application. We don’t want to see students who lie on the application.”

Write From the Heart

Anthony Webster, who has been in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan for four and a half years, said, ”We in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions understand that students are more than just a GPA and test score, which is why we have a very holistic application review process. This allows us to go beyond the numbers to see the whole student and not just certain aspects of them.”

When it comes to the essay, Webster says, ” A student’s college essay is essentially their opportunity to let their voice be heard. So often, there is a story to be told and we want to make sure students have that chance. When speaking to students about college essays we encourage them to write from their heart and be themselves.  Essays allow us to learn more about a student.”

All About You

Senior Kody Lewis, like her classmate Shelby Moore, is also in the process of applying to colleges.  While Moore struggles to write essays that meet the length requirement, Lewis says that’s not an issue for her.

Lewis says she plans to write about her diverse high school extra-curricular activities.  “What makes me stand out is I’m in National Honor Society, Social Circle, Scholars Plus and softball. One of the most important things is your personal essay –  it  just has to be about you.”


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