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The WOW Factor

Updated: Mar 17

7 Ways to Stand Out in College Admissions


When applying to colleges, you have one shot to impress. Along with top grades and a solid SAT or ACT, you will need a Resume showing 3 years of Leadership, Awards, Honors, Service, and general extracurriculars.

But what do you need to push you over the edge at elite universities?

1. Be The Best

This is the most straight forward of the wow factor categories. What it means is that you are basically the best in the world at something or best in YOUR world at something. For most top colleges (top 10 colleges) we’d want to see you be the best at something in your state, top 20 in the country, or the best at your school at several things.

Examples: Recognized top junior pianist in Iowa. Best All-League Baseball picture in Florida. Or top 100 scorer on the American International Math Exam.

2. Create Something Noticeable

When it comes to original projects we like to see things that aren’t necessarily formal activities but show an incredible amount of creativity or entrepreneurship. They show that you’re a self starter and that you just get out there and do things without being told to do so.

Examples: Create a prototype or invent something then get an investor or public recognition for it. Writing a novel, create giant sculptures for public display, producing a play, etc.

3. Be a Headline-Maker

In addition to doing somethings where you accomplish feats, get awards or doing thing things that adults would do, you could also gain traction in your college application if you can be really popular. This has to be measurable attention for it to be impressive enough and classify as a wow factor (say, 10,000 people subscribed or engaged at minimum). Anything you could do that can get press coverage of or bring together thousands of people for something you do will be adequate to include in your application.

Examples: Get thousands of subscribers to your app or Youtube site. Sell your novel for a significant financial reward. Get pictures of your sculptures in a national newspaper, etc.

4. Do Something Original

Sometimes all you have to do is stand out and doing something that is atypical . If it is something atypical and intellectual or exhibits curiosity and passion, all the better! Being different will expose you to experiences that you can write about in your application essay, and if you also get national attention for your unique thing, then all the better.

Examples: Create a jousting club then get them on a TV News show. Start a website that collects unused diapers then distribute the donations to local women's shelter. Intern with a blacksmith then start your own medieval weapons production.

5. Be A Leader

In the past, being a leader was enough to get you into top colleges, but with admission rates plummeting due to over-demand, you have to be a leader and do something else to create a wow factor. So definitely take on leadership roles in traditional ways like being the head of your school’s student council or senior troop leader, but you also want to be a leader in a way that’s more authentic and less title-oriented. If you can tell a story (in your college essay) about particular conflicts that are very contemporary and talk about how you were able to negotiate those conflicts, that can be a wow factor. Being a leader not only in title but in spirit might give you an extra push.

Examples: Start an anti-bullying initiative at your high school while serving as president of the senior class. Create a suicide prevention effort after the issue affected your school.

6. Show Grit

This one is one that is hard to manufacture but if you have had a particularly challenging circumstances in your life that you have bounced back from, then make it part of your package. To achieve this, you just have to be the kind of person who when terrible things happen to you, you are able to power through them, make opportunity where there is little, and have a positive attitude. So if you find yourself being bullied or dealing with chronic illness (either you or a family member), step up and turn things to your advantage.

Examples: Don't let an illness, family issues, or even growing up on foster care slow you down. Whether surviving cancer or dealing with a geographical move your senior year, if you can turn it around and into something noticeably positive, it is a wow factor! And it could change you life in great ways.

7. Be Grown Up

Sometimes your situation or personality just doesn't fit in to those other categories. You can still be impressive just by stepping up and starting your adult life now. Do not go out and get the typical teenage job (tutoring, pet sitting, lawn mowing, etc). Got and and find a job with a wow factor, such as writing articles for newspapers that get published, creating your own successful web store or forum, creating a startup business that actually makes money and employees others, etc.

Some entrepreneurship programs that can help students form a startup include Startup School (YCombinator), LaunchX, Founder’s Bootcamp, and MIT Bootcamps.

Whatever your story is, if you’ve been able to surmount and overcome obstacles, be sure to tell your story and use it as your wow factor.

Remember that if you don’t have a wow factor that falls under these categories that it doesn’t mean you can’t get in to a top school, it would just be harder.


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