By Nina Berler of unCommon Apps

In advisory sessions, parents and students nearly always ask about standardized tests, deemed optional for the foreseeable future by nearly all colleges. My response: As colleges move away from tests and more into holistic reviews, there’s never been a more important time for candidates to differentiate themselves. Fortunately, there are some very good ways for you to set yourself apart. Let’s have a look.

Supplemental essays have been around for generations, and there’s a good reason: they enable admissions officers to see just how serious a candidate is about a target college. That’s particularly important in this test-optional climate, which is characterized by unprecedented application volumes, especially to selective colleges and universities.

According to an article in the Cornell Sun, supplemental essays are reviewed at multiple steps in a complex applicant review process. We are told, “The essay is the opportunity for students to demonstrate both their writing skills and that they have taken the time to research and learn about Cornell.”

  • “Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s ‘any person…any study’ founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.”  –Cornell Admissions

Videos are another great opportunity to showcase your strengths, and any applicant with a smartphone can readily put something together to impress colleges. After all, unscripted videos let them get a feel for the applicant. Brown, my alma mater, introduced video to its application in 2020, telling applicants they could share a clip of no more than two minutes in lieu of an alumni interview. Other colleges, including Bowdoin, provide specific prompts to candidates. As you set up a college portal, look for opportunities to upload your video. (By the way, when I taught essay writing at a New Jersey independent school, all students were required to submit a two-minute video and include the link in emails or insert it in the Additional Information box.

  • The video response is completely optional and affords you the opportunity to add a different dimension to your application. –Bowdoin Admissions  

This is also the time for applicants to consider establishing a proactive profile on social media. After all, what if you could interact with colleges, including admissions officers and professors through Twitter or LinkedIn? What if you applied for a scholarship and the college decided to do a quick internet search? In Kaplan’s 2020 survey, almost two-thirds of respondents saw “no issue with social media being part of the admissions equation.” In fact, “36 percent of admissions officers polled visit social media profiles like Facebook, TikTok and Instagram to learn more about them.” Moreover, 42 percent of those who do look at profiles indicated that “what they found has had a positive impact on [the admissibility of] prospective students.”

Finally, you can use services developed by a company called InitialView, which has helped international applicants engage with admissions officers. Through a product called EPIC, you can give virtual high-fives by sending videos to select colleges, demonstrating interest. InitialView will also help you send a virtual Elevator Pitch to any college, not just those participating in EPIC. (This feature is not available for Early Decision candidates.)

We never really know what will happen in a given year; institutions of higher education have priorities that they never reveal to the public. But to maximize your chances of success, be sure to nail your college-specific essays and take advantage of other oppoortunites to supplement the college supplement.

About the Author: Nina Berler is a college counselor and author of Supplementing the College Supplement, available on Apple Books or through her website. Nina has an AB with Honors from Brown University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University. She holds a Certificate with Distinction in College Counseling from UCLA Extension. Nina is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).