Experts' Guide to US College Applications

  • Alma_Matters
  • 16 Sep, 2022

Experts' Guide to US College Applications

By Alma_Matters

September 15, 2022


To help and guide students and their parents, we created a 10-Segment Podcast Series with Experts -  A Guide to Build Standout US Application.

Applications to US Colleges are “Holistic”, meaning that colleges look beyond the grades and test scores, and evaluate an applicant in totality.

In this article, we have identified the key components of that holistic US college application, with index to the relevant Experts' guidance:

  1. College Application Strategy 
  2. About Extracurriculars
  3. College Essays - What and How to Write
  4. College Selection
  5. Financial Aid


1. College Application Strategy

To create a strategy to build a standout application: 

  1. “Capture” all your achievements and accomplishments as High Schooler, and
  2. Articulate and present your case in a compelling manner in the College Application.

To do the above, here is a 2-Step Process:

  • Step 1: Create, what is called, a “Working Vision” based on your Profile;
  • Step 2: Embed the Working Vision into the various parts of your College Application.

Working Vision is a self-portrait. It is a picture of yourself to show to colleges who you are, what you care about, and why you're a good fit for their college.

To create a Working Vision, we break it down into three categories that are going to correspond to three different sentences. 

  • The first is a sentence about academics, all of the grades, test scores, what you're interested in studying at a college and maybe beyond; 
  • The second sentence is on extracurriculars, what you're doing outside of the classroom, and why you're interested in that;
  • And then the third part is personal. So what are the character traits that you're displaying, in general that make you a great candidate and will make you a great contributor to whatever school you attend. 

These three categories align with what a lot of schools are looking for in their criteria. and they help you think about how you show that you're bound for future success.

=> To create your Working Vision and for more details and examples, refer to the Podcast on Application Strategy.


2. About Extracurriculars

Extracurriculars can be a vehicle for understanding a student's personality in a way that grades just aren't able to capture. We know that in so many other systems, admission to universities is driven primarily by the grades and the test scores. It's very quantitative. US colleges are all about holistic admissions. 

There are number of ways to provide the information about your Extracurriculars in the Application:

  • Activities List. So almost all schools are going to give you a chance to talk about how long you put so the name of the activity, the positions you might have held in that activity, how long you've done it, how many hours per week, and even a short summary about the significance or the impact of that activity in your life or on your community. 
  • Supplemental Essays where you have 150 to 300 words to talk about the significance and expand on the information about the activities. 
  • Personal Statement/Essay - If the extracurricular was such an important part of your high school career and it's really made a difference in your life, you might even want to write about it for one of your main personal statements. 

There are so many ways that you can use extracurriculars to help make the case that you have what it takes to not only get into that college, but to really contribute once you reach campus.

=> To build your Extracurricular List, and to get more details, refer to the Podcast on Extracurriculars.


3. College Essays - What and How to Write

The “What to Write?” is a 2-Step Process:

  • Step 1: Select 2 Traits or Attributes from the Working Vision you want to highlight;
  • Step 2: Create, what is called, a Substantiating Narrative based on the Traits from Step 1.

A Substantiating Narrative is like a movie about that trait - tell the story of how it started, how you developed or invested in that trait, and an ending that, for example, positions you for the future you envision.

=> To develop your Substantiating Narrative for your college essay and guidance check out the Podcast on What to Write.


The “How to Write” entails the following: 

  • A Framework for the Essay - commonly called “The Hero’s Journey”
  • Styles to Make Your Essay Standout
  • Giving the Essay Your Personality “touch”
  • A way to determine the most effective way to tell  your story.

=> To create drafts of your college essay here is a comprehensive discussion on the Podcast on How to Write.


4. College Selection

The question before you is  “How to pick colleges that are right for you?”

To answer this question, you have to take an approach, I will call Funneling, whereby you can systematically & iteratively refine the list of Colleges to arrive at a bunch of colleges that would be right for you:

  • Building “My Colleges” List to Explore
  • Tools to help build that list

=> To make an Initial List of Colleges listen or read the transcript to the Podcast on Building the Initial List.


With that Initial List,

  • You will Explore each college on that list based on a set of parameters, and 
  • Narrow that List based on some strategies based on your profile and aspirations. 

=> To build your Final List of Colleges see the strategies in the 3 Case Studies on the Podcast on Narrowing the College List


5. Financial Aid

There are two main kinds of financial aid: Merit-based which is given on the basis of academic merit, or athletic merit. Then there is what's called Need-based, which is given on the basis of a family's financial need. 

Now, both of these are essentially discounts on the cost of education.

=> If you are applying for Merit-based Financial Aid, check out the information on the  Podcast on Merit-based Financial Aid.


If you follow the set of the steps and the work on the deliverables in each step, you should have the main pieces of the application done and you would be well on your way to completing your college application.

Good Luck!

Many thanks to College Counselors Athena Lao, Rob Franklin, Nick Wyville from Admissionado and Ben Stern from IvyAchievement for making the Series possible with their expertise and support.

To learn more or for additional guidance and listen to the 10-Segments or Read the Transcripts of the Podcast Series A Guide to Build Standout US Application.


Subscribe or Follow our podcast College Matters. Alma Matters at any of these locations: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Breaker, Anchor.

Trending Articles

    Is College in US for you?