Students Share Tips on Applying to Top National Universities

Successful applicants say extra effort was the key to admission at the top universities they attend.

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Go the extra mile when applying to a prestigious school by attending university events and tailoring your application to the program’s strengths.
Go the extra mile when applying to a top school by attending university events and tailoring your application to the program’s strengths.

Applying to college is a taxing process for many students, and that stress can certainly increase when a prestigious school is on their wish list. Students applying to any of the top 25 National Universities in the U.S. could benefit from the personal experiences shared by those who landed a spot at some of these schools.

Rice University senior Courtney Applewhite found that she was attracted to the way many of these schools treated their students, in addition to the remarkable academic standards they upheld. The close student culture they promoted was an important factor. 

"All of these schools had excellent accolades and I believed they would be very challenging," says Applewhite. "I chose these schools over others because they stood apart in their dedication to students." 

To adequately explain to the school why you're a great fit in your application essay or alumni interview, you must also know why you find that school special. Perhaps you respect the specific type of well-versed students the institution admits, or you appreciate the personalized opportunities offered in some of its programs. 

[Check out photos of the top National Universities.] 

It can also be the seemingly little things that might push you ahead in the long run. To gain acceptance into a more selective university, you must go that extra mile. 

Wyatt Prominski, a freshman at Vanderbilt University, credits much of his success to the strong relationship he developed with his high school counselor.

"Vanderbilt was my first choice from the start," he said, and conveying that to his counselor not only led her to make contact with the school on his behalf, but also helped her to advise him to apply early decision. 

"The decision to go early decision at a place like Vanderbilt could be what gets you accepted or denied," he says. 

If you're going after a particular program at the school, put the extra effort into impressing the decision-makers behind that entity. Madelyn Avjean, a first-year student at the University of California—Los Angeles, used supplemental materials to her best advantage when applying to the school's design media arts program. 

"I submitted over 20 design pieces," she said. "Academically, I was probably the same as most of the other UCLA applicants, but this supplement gave me the opportunity to display one of my unique talents." 

[Consider three reasons to apply early action to college.] 

Instead of just showing why you're an impressive candidate, display how you're an impressive candidate for that school. Emory University senior Ralston Medouze found that at the time he was applying, attending the university's official events could boost admissions status. 

"I really made an effort to show my interest in the school since I heard that might be a factor in the application process," Medouze said. "I attended every Emory event that I could." 

[Avoid making these top college admissions interview mistakes.] 

If you start feeling overwhelmed, don't throw in the towel just yet. Applying to a top university can certainly provoke anxiety, but it can also be well worth it in the end. Avjean encourages students to not shy away from applying, even if they find themselves doubting their chances. 

"I nearly didn't apply to UCLA because I figured there was no way I could get into such a prestigious public university that receives so many applications," says Avjean. "I cannot be any more grateful that I ended up giving it a chance and applying." 

Along those lines, it is key to be true to yourself when applying to these schools. Universities look for certain types of students. If you fabricate details or stretch the truth about yourself, you might gain acceptance into a school for which you are not a great fit. 

"The best way to find a school where you will succeed is to present your application as a brutally truthful expression of who you are," Prominski said. "Your application shouldn't trick colleges into thinking you're someone other than what you are." 

Instead, he says, they should be an honest depiction of what you value and your identity. 

Cathryn Sloane is a marketing coordinator for Varsity Tutors. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Iowa.