Often times I get questions from my BlueStamp Engineering students on what the best method is for applying to college. After having conversations with many people in this space such as high school students, college students, parents, admissions counselors, and college counselors, I have a few suggestions that may help a student which I'd like to share here. However when asking for advice on any subjective topic such as this, please remember that different people have different approaches which can result in conflicting advice. It is up to the applicant to take all advice and determine what resonates with them in order to determine which advice should be taken. Also, please note that I am not a college admissions counselor so I can only speak to how I would attempt to gain admittance, not what actually works for getting into a school.
I believe that colleges want to accept students who are trying to benefit directly from the ability gained from the institutions' classes, facilities, and faculty. These are the students who will turn into some of the most remarkable people in their field, completing the mission that most colleges share of providing meaningful education. They are less excited about people who are trying to go to college because it is the next step, or because they feel that they need any 'ol degree just to get a job. It is easiest to educate students who are excited, motivated, and will turn a college education into a lifetime of success, while those just looking for a degree are likely to come out unaffected, unimpressed, and/or disillusioned with the college experience.
I would suggest using the application process simply to tell the story of "Why I want to attend this college" is the best approach. Many may think that it is a good idea to tell the college what they want to hear, however I find that it will be more effective in the long run for the applicant to tell this story as honestly as possible. The people that review your application are the same people that review all other applications, and they will use their admissions process as a way to define a specific type of person that fits at their institution. If being honest results in not gaining admittance to the college, should the applicant really want to go there?
The best part of the story to focus on is to say what it is that one wants to do with their life, and explain how the college can help reach those goals. Want to be an engineer? A writer? A scientist? It's okay if those goals aren't specifically defined yet, however anyone going to college should have at least a general purpose. From there, I would talk about what in the past has given the drive that currently motivates the applicant to work towards that goal. I would also explain the aspects of that specific college can help the applicant succeed. What programs, teachers, research, co-op, facilities, clubs, etc... does the college provide that is attractive to the applicant? Showing that significant consideration has gone into selecting this path to apply will go a long way. Finally, I would explain why the applicant is capable of attaining the goal of graduation from college, as well as the goals that may have been set for beyond college. Throughout this narrative that the applicant is building, one wants to exude all of the candid motivation, joy, and personality to accurately describe the applicant.
Most colleges have an application process that does not fit easily with my advice above. It is not a question of filling out your name, SAT score, GPA, and writing an essay from my prompt described here. Instead they will have their own questions and other requirements and recommendation requests that will give them the information needed to make their admission decision. I would suggest trying to fit the applicant's story into their application process while still answering all other questions they may ask that do not relate to the prompt. Splitting the story up into different sections can work well. For instance using the short answer section to tell what the applicant wants to do, then using the essay sections to explain how the applicant plans reach those goals thanks to the collegiate experience may work out great. Also, fitting things in that showcase your personality and experiences like links to a personal webpage can go a long way in showing who the applicant is. Then one could ask the people writing the recommendations to highlight a specific aspect of the applicant's experiences, depicting how past performance suggests future success to round out the story.
Which brings me to my next point: references. These are the people who have known the applicant and will be able to stand behind them in their application. Selecting who will be asked for a reference is an important part of the process, and one should consider it carefully. I know many college counselors will write recommendations on behalf of students they barely know the name of based on information the student provides. I would suggest steering away from these 'arms-length' recommendations whenever possible. Instead, look for people who have real experience watching the applicant learn, struggle, grow, and succeed. Teachers that have observed work in the past would be a good place to start. It can be a sensitive thing to ask for a specific topic to be discussed by a reference, however few would be offended if one were to politely say, "Please write about whatever you see fit, but I was thinking you might be able to talk about the time that I __________ in your class. I think that experience really shows _____ about me."
Finally, it can be difficult to set a tone when describing oneself and how they fit with the college. Being able to strike a balance between boasting and selling oneself short is a skill which will serve anyone well throughout their life. It is impolite to gloat, yet important to show confidence in what has been completed and faith that one can continue such success. Similarly, applicants should not suck-up to the college by talking about how perfect they are, but also don't be shy to describe what it is that the applicant finds attractive about the school. It can be helpful to ask others' if the right balance has been struck, however in the end it is the personal comfort level that should make the final decision on balance.
In the end, I think an excited, confident, honest approach to college applications is the best. It's not about getting into the best school according to some faceless bureaucrat behind a desk, it's about getting into the best school for the applicant and his or her goals. Good Luck!