Personal advice on applying to selective colleges

By Mohamed Adan

Originally published in the November 2014 issue.

The nation’s top colleges and universities need you, and community college transfers bring the socioeconomic diversity and richness of life experience that are vital to creating vibrant learning communities. Read on to get the tips necessary to be a strong applicant at highly selective institutions.

Coursework at Central

Selective colleges expect to see challenging courses and exceptional grades. Your classes should be across a wide spectrum of the liberal arts—math, literature, history, science. While Central does offer strong courses in business, communications, hospitality and so on these and other courses which prepare students directly for a job are considered “vocational” and generally are not accepted for credit by most selective colleges.

Extracurricular Activities   

Volunteering at the animal shelter once a year isn’t going to cut it. Selective colleges look for extracurricular activities that demonstrate commitment, leadership, and civic engagement. Join a student organization and take a leadership role, found a new club, volunteer serious time with a local nonprofit like the Refugee Women’s Alliance, apply to join a city advisory commission. The best extracurricular activities are around issues you are passionate about; the worst are ones you select simply to look good—the superficiality will show and it will look bad.

The Application Process

The application process for any college is time consuming and stressful— selective colleges even more so. It is not something that can be done the week before the deadline; give yourself months of prep time. In addition to the application, you will need to submit secondary school reports, test scores, essays, and a few recommendations. Let’s review each component:


Most selective colleges use The Common Application (“Common App”). The Common App is a website that allows you to submit applications to dozens of different schools from their online application. By creating a profile you will be able to submit your application, excluding test scores and transcripts which are mailed independently. However despite the convenience of all the applications being in one spot, the Common App is still very time consuming. Plan accordingly, start early.

Test Scores:

Unfortunately the SAT is still a thing. While some selective colleges do not require test scores from people transferring after two years in college, the majority do. If you haven’t taken the test, order the official SAT blue book and go through it. You might also supplement the blue book with other prep books like the Princeton Review. If you have taken the SAT and did not receive a good score, try retaking the test if you believe you can improve your score by a hundred points or more. (If you come from a fabulously wealthy family, you might consider hiring a private SAT tutor—they only run $300 an hour.)


The essay is the most important part of your application. Grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities all tell a story about you, but your essay gives you the power to give your story meaning, context, and humanity. Essays that are fresh, meaningful, and authentic give life to an application. Essays that are cliché or exhibit poor use of the English language (or both) severely undermine an application. On Writing the College Application Essay by Henry Bauld, a book written by a former Ivy League admissions officer, is an excellent resource for those needing guidance in writing their essays.

Letter[s] of Recommendation:

Pick an instructor that knows your work and writes well to be your recommender. Make your request several months before the recommendations are due. If an instructor drops subtle hints that they might not be the best one to vouch for you, find someone else.


Work hard, and plan wisely. That’s your best bet for transferring into a selective college. The benefits of attending a selective college are many: better financial aid, better job placement, strong academics. But even if that doesn’t work out for you, following the recommendations in this article will strengthen your application wherever and for whatever you apply.


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