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Colleges are looking for responsible, inspired, passionate students that will have a positive impact on their school culture. There are thousands of black students who check every one of those boxes.

The key is to communicate those values to admissions offices. Your student having strong grades is something to be proud of, but it’s not enough on its own to stand out. To get into top-tier colleges, their application needs to present something unique. It needs to highlight your student’s personality and character. That’s easy to say, but what does it look like? Below are a few tips and tactics to improve your student’s chances at impressing competitive colleges.

Tell Them Something Memorable

Admissions workers at competitive colleges often review hundreds or even thousands of applications. Many of those applications include pristine grades, impressive extracurriculars, and a well-written essay. So, listing your student’s accomplishments only goes so far. Think of it as a commercial. Advertisements that simply list a product’s features rarely stick with you, but there’s something about the Jake from State Farm commercial that makes everyone smile.

So how does that translate to a college application? One way is to tell a compelling story. In both their essay and interviews, tell your student to explain moments in their life that have made them who they are: e.g., the summer they spent taking care of a special needs sibling, the iron resolve they needed to make a comeback in a sports tournament, the first program they ever coded, what they learned about themselves from a character they played in a high school play, etc.

Don’t be afraid to include details in personal stories that are related to your student’s race. Black high school students have unique experiences and important stories to tell. Sharing the challenges they have overcome, or the way their family history has inspired their goals can create a powerful, memorable narrative.

Take Recommendations Seriously

References and recommendations can be tedious tasks, and many students place them low on the priority list for their college applications. But failing to take them seriously would be a mistake. A strong recommendation can validate what a student says about themself in an application. It’s one thing to call themselves a leader who finds and empowers other people’s strengths, it’s another for a former teacher to reinforce that narrative with a story of a successful group science project. It’s a good idea for your student to meet with their reference to talk about the qualities they’re highlighting in their application. Then they can brainstorm honest examples of those qualities and include them in the recommendation.

When It’s Time to Interview, Make Sure They Do Their Homework

This tip isn’t about your student getting their high school homework done, though that’s always a good idea. Like any other interview, one of the best ways to build rapport in a college interview is for your student to demonstrate that they’ve done some research about the school they’re applying to.

For example, knowing the major they are interested in is a good idea, but naming a specific professor or elective they’d be excited to take (and why) can demonstrate excitement and initiative. Or your student could find a black graduate from the college who they admire and explain in the interview how that motivates and inspires them. Preparing thoughtful anecdotes that highlight the overlap between your student’s personality and the values of the college can also go a long way in strengthening the case for admission.

One Final Thought

With the recent renewed focus on racial inequality, particularly for black Americans, it can seem complicated to decide how much to focus on or highlight your student’s ethnicity in their college application. The best approach is to be balanced. Suppressing details that reveal your student’s race can hurt their application by failing to give an authentic picture of who they are. But over-emphasizing their black experience can hurt the tone of their application. The most effective way for talented black high school students to get into the colleges of their dreams is to be proudly and authentically themselves at every stage of the admission process.


ScholarShare 529, California’s college savings plan, publishes the College Countdown website and articles to provide resources and to ease the minds of parents preparing to send their kids to college. Visit ScholarShare 529.