How to Stand Out for College Admissions if You're an 'Ordinary' Applicant


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



8 min read

How to Stand Out for College Admissions if You're an 'Ordinary' Applicant


While it's common advice that prospective college students should stand out in their applications, many students grapple with the challenge of distinguishing themselves through their essays, especially when their lives may seem fairly ordinary. However, remember that the magic lies not in the extraordinary nature of the topic, but in the extraordinary way you present yourself. An "ordinary" subject can be transformed into an exceptional essay if approached with creativity and sincerity. Let's break down some practical steps for this process, incorporating my insights from years of experience in college admissions.

The Essence of a Compelling College Essay

A standout college essay aims to present a complete picture of the applicant, showcasing the unique personality, values, and skills that lie beneath the academic achievements. It's not necessarily about weaving a tale around an unusual event or experience; instead, it's about making everyday experiences meaningful and representative of your character and growth.

Indeed, stepping into the shoes of an admissions officer can be an enlightening exercise. Imagine, for a moment, sifting through thousands of essays filled with tales of life-changing experiences, exceptional achievements, and extraordinary circumstances. Over time, these might become overwhelming, repetitive, and somewhat disconnected from the reality of typical teenage lives. Now imagine reading a sincere, well-articulated essay that reflects on a seemingly ordinary experience but reveals a student's personal growth, values, and individuality. Such an essay, believe it or not, tends to be more relatable, engaging, and, ultimately, memorable.

Typically, engaging college essays can be crafted around:

1. A distinctive hobby or interest 2. A pursuit contrasting with your general profile 3. An ordinary moment that encapsulates broader life themes 4. Regular experiences or objects used metaphorically to elucidate your personality 5. A narrative of a crucial life event

Notice that only one of these hints at something "extraordinary". It's essential to shift away from the notion that an essay has to be about an extraordinary experience. Instead, focus on presenting yourself as a promising individual who would add value to the university community.

The inherent flexibility of the college essay is one of its most potent aspects. The college essay is not a rigid academic assignment; it's an opportunity to showcase who you are as an individual. It's your personal stage, your spotlight. The essay doesn't demand grandeur or sensationalism. Instead, it craves authenticity. It seeks your story, the story that only you can tell.

Facing uncertainties regarding your college admissions chances? We've got a tool that can help! Our acceptance rate calculator takes into account your academic profile and the universities you're considering, and it provides an estimated acceptance rate. This personalized tool can offer insights into your standing among applicants and guide you in making strategic application decisions. We've designed it to give you a more concrete understanding of the admission landscape, ultimately enabling you to approach the application process with confidence and clarity.

Avoid Pitfalls in College Essays

Crafting a compelling college essay requires not only following the right steps but also avoiding common pitfalls that can hinder the effectiveness of your writing. Here are some additional pitfalls to steer clear of when working on your college essay:

1. Overusing Thesaurus: While it's important to showcase your vocabulary skills, overusing a thesaurus can backfire. Using excessively complex or obscure words can make your essay sound unnatural and disjointed. Instead, focus on clarity and authenticity, using language that feels comfortable and true to your voice.

2. Lack of Authenticity: One of the biggest mistakes you can make is trying to be someone you're not in your essay. Admission officers are looking for genuine, unique voices that reflect who you are as an individual. Avoid the temptation to portray yourself as someone you think the admissions committee wants to see. Be true to yourself and write from your own experiences and perspectives.

3. Overloading with Information: While it's important to provide enough context and details to engage the reader, be cautious about overwhelming your essay with excessive information. Stay focused on your main point and avoid going off on tangents or including irrelevant details. Remember, your essay should be concise and impactful, allowing the reader to connect with your story without getting lost in unnecessary information.

4. Lack of Self-Reflection: A compelling college essay goes beyond describing an experience or event. It should also demonstrate self-reflection and introspection. Don't just narrate what happened; delve into the deeper meaning and personal growth that resulted from the experience. Show the admissions committee how you have developed as an individual and how the experience has shaped your values, perspectives, or goals.

5. Neglecting Proofreading and Editing: Even the most well-crafted essay can be marred by grammar mistakes, typos, or unclear phrasing. Proofreading and editing are crucial steps in the writing process. Take the time to review your essay carefully, checking for errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Ensure that your sentences are clear and concise, and that your ideas flow smoothly from one paragraph to another. Consider seeking feedback from teachers, mentors, or family members to catch any issues you may have missed.

By avoiding these pitfalls and staying true to your unique voice and experiences, you can create a compelling college essay that stands out and leaves a lasting impression on the admissions officers. Remember, the goal is to present a genuine reflection of who you are and what you can bring to the university community.

How to Craft a Memorable Essay from an "Ordinary" Topic

The following strategy, drawn from my professional experience, can guide you in writing a captivating essay about an "ordinary" subject.

1. Begin Brainstorming:

This first step can involve techniques like freewriting, listing, or creating outlines. Ask yourself probing questions to dig into what truly matters to you. This could range from recent news you found intriguing, to a personal accomplishment you're proud of, to a fear you've confronted, to a topic you've independently researched, to lessons from your community, to a recent significant change in your viewpoint.

Your essay should essentially be a conversation between you and the admissions officer. Consider your essay as a chance to invite the reader into your world, your experiences, your perspectives. This intimate conversation can revolve around anything that's significant to you – even if it seems 'ordinary' to the world.

2. Define Your Core Value:

Your essay must convey something profound about you. Reflect on your core values or essential truths that define you as a person. These values needn't always be positive, but if they aren't, you'll need to weave in self-awareness throughout your essay.

Remember, universities are looking for diverse cohorts of students, and your unique values will contribute to this diversity. The key is to articulate these values effectively and connect them with your experiences and aspirations.

3. Select Your Experience:

Identify an instance, anecdote, or example that reflects your chosen value. This could be a seemingly insignificant incident with significant implications, a routine activity, or a relationship that is emblematic of your values.

The experience you choose should be able to serve as a vessel for your thoughts, allowing you to navigate the sea of self-reflection and introspection. It should act as a window to your personality, inviting the reader to see the world from your viewpoint.

4. Make Your Story Shine:

Remember that it's not just about the experience, but about the perspective, reflection, and growth stemming from it. Your aim should be to engage your reader and make them feel connected to you. Details are crucial in painting a vivid picture of your narrative.

Indeed, a critical aspect of making your story shine is providing detailed, sensory descriptions that allow the reader to envision your narrative vividly. This writing style can make even the most 'ordinary' experience come alive in the reader's mind.

Feeling lost or unsure about what to write? We have a comprehensive resource to aid you – a database filled with thousands of successful college essays. Reading through these essays will not only give you inspiration but also provide a sense of what worked for others. You can witness a spectrum of styles, tones, structures, and topics. This exposure can spark ideas and help you find a unique angle to your own story.


A superb essay may not compensate for significantly deficient academic qualifications, but it can certainly tip the scales in your favor, especially at highly competitive institutions. It can make the difference for an applicant on the cusp of admission by humanizing you and helping admission officers connect with your story. Conversely, a poorly written essay can be detrimental.

In case of doubts, seek feedback. A fresh pair of eyes can often identify if your voice is truly shining through your words. Remember, feedback is any writer's most valuable resource for improvement! If you're still lost, be sure to check out our database of thousands of successful college essays!

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