How to Make Your Application Stand Out

David Kerman

Itʼs arguably the most popular question that admissions offices receive—and weʼre going to break it down for you

“How Do I Make My Application Stand Out?”

When I reflect on the conversations I have and the questions I receive most often, there’s one that takes the cake. I can’t believe it, but I’ve spent the last seven years working in college admissions. In that time, I’ve worked with students in more than 20 countries and have had countless conversations about applying to college. Despite where Iʼve gone, who I’ve talked to, and how long Iʼve been doing this work, questions about how to make your application stand out are always the most popular.
It’s a very fair question—one that the numbers will prompt. Last year, NYU received more than 100,000 applications for admission to our three degree-granting campuses. That’s the largest number of applications to any private university in the United States. At our New York City campus, we admitted 12.8 percent of the students who applied—12.8 percent. It’s hard to look at that number and not wonder how to ensure you’ll stand out from the crowd.
Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered! After reading thousands of applications, I can assure you there are some simple steps you can take to ensure you stand out. Let’s break them down.
An NYU student playing the violin.

Research Is Everything

Long before you open the Common Application, you’ll need to conduct research on the schools and opportunities that you’re interested in. Leveraging that research when you make your list of schools and complete your application will do several things for you.
First and foremost, it will ensure you apply to schools and programs that are the right fit for you. This is your prime directive! We want you to end up at a school that’s the right fit. If you donʼt conduct research into what your schools of interest offer, you won’t be able to ensure this. Aim to determine not only where you want to apply but also what specifically you’re applying for. Why are you interested in studying there? What do you hope to gain over the next four years? What makes that school different from all the others?
Second, leveraging your research to answer your application questions will show the committee that you’re serious. When we review your application, we’re looking for details. We’re looking to see that you know what you want to pursue, why this university stands out to you, and how we’re going to help you achieve your goals with the resources you’ll have at your disposal here. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to have every tiny little thing sorted out. If you don’t know what you want to major in, for example, that’s perfectly OK! Instead, think about broad academic areas that you’re interested in, clubs and organizations, research opportunities, study abroad, and the like. At the same time, through your research, make sure that you’re applying to an undecided program that best fits your interests. We have more than one option!
A student working with lab equipment.

Little Details Can Have a Large Impact

I can’t emphasize this one enough! There are two main elements to this category that are easy to overlook—but can have a big impact.
When you’re doing your research, while learning more about us, make sure that you’re aware of what the process entails. We’re a big place with multiple campuses and programs, some of which have different requirements. Make special note of our deadlines. More specifically, the application and financial aid deadlines. We have a lot of applications and supplemental materials to process each year. We’re strict about deadlines so that we can ensure every application receives a fair amount of time for a thorough review. That means that we can’t always accept materials once the deadline has passed. That’s especially true for financial aid deadlines. Don’t wait until the last minute to get started! Start early so that you can take your time and ensure you submit everything before the deadline.


The second element lies in your application itself: proofreading. I know this seems like a very, very small part of the process, but it’s the easiest to overlook. It can also have a big impact on making your application stand out. A minor typo might not seem like the biggest deal. But it can be a big deal if you accidentally paste the wrong essay into the Common Application or if you accidentally write another institution’s name in your essay (or vice versa!). Ultimately, if you need to make changes to your application, we can help you do that. But every university will have different philosophies surrounding these mistakes, so it’s best to ensure that you don’t make them. You want to put your best foot forward wherever possible, and that extends to the finer details. 


This Isnʼt About Us—Itʼs About You!

We often get asked questions about what we’re looking for in applications. What kinds of essays do we want to read? Which grades are good enough? Which clubs should you showcase? Instead, try to focus less on what you think we want to read and more about what you want to showcase.

At NYU, we’re a very diverse place. Students come to us from over 100 countries/nationalities, and they’ve studied in equally diverse environments. Not everyone has access to the same opportunities—and we get that! In most cases, we’re not looking for you to have taken specific courses or to have been part of a specific club. We’re looking to see how you challenged yourself in the classes that you had at your disposal. We also want to learn what your passions are and how you pursued them at school or in your community. Everyone is unique—and we want to see your uniqueness! Don’t worry about what other students are putting on their applications. Focus on telling us more about who you are and what you’ve done.

Three students working at a table.

Think Twice Before You Skip Questions

Of course, there are sections on the application where it’s OK to skip a question. If something doesn’t apply to you, then it’s OK to leave it blank. But before you do so, think about whether it’s wise to put something else there. For example, some students study at schools that don’t have guidance counselors. So when they reach the section where we ask for your counselor’s name and contact information, they skip this section. But is there another teacher or school contact that’s coordinating this process with you? Is there a particular person who will send your documents to us? If so, it might be helpful to list them there so that we can reach out to them if we have questions!
I mentioned earlier that proofreading is vital. When doing so, you’ll want to make sure you aren’t skipping any essential sections. The Common App won’t usually let you proceed if you’re missing anything that’s required. But it might shock you to learn how many students somehow fail to submit their Why NYU? essay! Don’t be that person. The university-specific sections are incredibly important. Make sure that you answer the prompts and complete them. Additionally, make sure the content you put there is the content you actually want to submit!

There Is No Magic Formula

There isn’t one way to gain admission to your dream school. Every student follows a unique path with unique passions in a school community with different opportunities. We use information that you and your school will submit to account for these differences in our process. However, doing the above—conducting research, proofreading, being aware of deadlines, demonstrating your interest in us—will go a long way in helping your application stand out! At the end of the day, while you’re preparing your materials, remember that our doors are always open. We want to admit you—we don’t get our jollies out of denying students! If you have questions about the process, our requirements, or how to make your application stand out—don’t hesitate to give us a call. And when you finally hit “submit,” you can learn more about what happens next.