Applying to College from a Competitive High School: How to Stand Out

Padya Paramita

Applying to College from a Competitive High School: How to Stand Out

You’ve worked hard to get into a prestigious high school such as Thomas Jefferson or Stuyvesant. However, the work is hardly over. While attending a top high school does provide you with resources and guidance that can help you build an impeccable resume, it’s only one step forward rather than a guaranteed spot at a top college. In fact, because you’ll be read against your own classmates, you’ll be held to an even higher standard than students applying from less competitive schools. If you are applying to college from a competitive high school, keep reading. We have compiled tips from admissions officers as well as our own students’ results to provide you with tips on how to you can best stand out.

What is Considered a Competitive High School?

Highly selective high schools, which have rigorous requirements for admission, alongside state-of-the-art facilities and resources from course offerings to laboratories are considered competitive high schools. At these schools, students have high GPAs and SAT scores, as well as a high percentage of AP enrollment. Here are some of the schools in the country that fall in this category:

  • Thomas Jefferson High School, Virginia
  • Brooklyn Technical High School, New York
  • Stuyvesant High School, New York
  • Bronx High School of Science, New York
  • Staten Island Technical High School, New York
  • Carnegie Vanguard High School, Texas
  • Liberal Arts and Science Academy High School, Texas
  • Gilbert Classical Academy, Arizona
  • University High School, Arizona
  • Stanton College Preparatory School, Florida
  • International Academy, Michigan
  • Downingtown STEM Academy, Pennsylvania
  • Bergen County Academies, New Jersey
  • Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, Georgia
  • Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, Illinois
  • Northside College Preparatory High School, Illinois
  • Mission San Jose High School, California

These colleges have the means to support their students on their journey to becoming competitive candidates for the best colleges and universities. However, because almost all of a graduating class consists of top contenders, it can often be difficult to stand out in the college application process if one is applying to college from a competitive high school.

How do Admissions Officers View Applicants from Competitive High Schools?

Colleges are well-aware of competitive admissions processes at prestigious high schools and therefore hold students applying from a competitive high school to a high standard.

Admissions officers consider the amount of opportunities available to these students in terms of classes and extracurricular activities alike. Grades and scores that are considered high at other schools may not be impressive if you go to TJ or Stuyvesant—you have to stand out as the best of the best. Students will also be compared to candidates from other competitive high schools.

According to our esteemed team of Former Admissions Officers, while the application review process for students applying to college from a competitive high school is the same, the expectations are different. Here’s what one of our counselors, who read at top national universities and a top liberal arts college said: 

“There is definitely a higher expectation, standard, and "bar" for students at schools like this. My step-by-step process didn't change for a kid at [a competitive high school], but what I was looking for and the expectations I had were much higher. And this is because the strength of their academics is so high and their involvement outside of school is so exceptional. If you're at a college that gets a bunch of applications from [a competitive high school], you have to be discerning about what makes someone stand out when EVERYONE is so strong. It means being even more critical about their grades, courses, recommendation letters, etc. But also, looking for qualities that make an application different from the rest.”

Another one of our counselors, who determined scholarship recipients at a top 10 school added that, “it is rare for more than one student from the same school to be awarded the same scholarship in the same cohort.” At certain top schools, it is rare for multiple students to be awarded the same scholarship in the same cohort. Take this into consideration as you build your school list.

So, schools consider the academic records of students applying from a competitive high school, they will want to see a high GPA. However, almost all students applying to schools such as TJ, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant will bring high GPAs. Therefore, admissions officers will check the rigor of your classes, read your letters of recommendation, and see how you’ve pursued your academic interests outside school.  You must also shine through your extracurriculars and your application essays. 

How to Stand Out When Applying to College from a Competitive High School

If you’re a student applying to college from a competitive high school, just getting all A’s isn't enough. Here are a few ways you can build a profile that leaves a unique impression on your admissions readers:


Students who want to stand out academically need to take the most rigorous course load, especially in their subject of interest. For STEM students, that includes top math and science courses, going above Calc BC, and high-level science courses. Students need to balance grades with rigor; minimal variation in both GPA and course load are ideal. Students taking and excelling in Calc BC as sophomores will be competitive for top tier STEM schools such as MIT whereas students taking Calc BC junior year will be more competitive at second-tier STEM schools such as Georgia Tech. Top students should be taking post-AP level course-work senior year and maxing out class options in their desired field. It’s essential for students to maintain a rigorous course load senior year, including taking a math class.


If you’re applying to college from a competitive high school, just being president of your science club isn’t enough to land a spot at an Ivy. Many students at TJ and Bronx Science focus heavily on academics and are involved in the same STEM-related extracurriculars such as ISEF (Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair). As a result, students from competitive schools need to consider each of their extracurriculars and showcase a high level of participation and dedication that maximizes impact. Remember that these high schools set a very high standard that all of its students are judged by in the admissions process.

Look for unique and varied (but always authentic) ways to explore your STEM interests. This might look like public health instead of med school or food science rather than biology. We encourage you to take on at least one leadership position in a unique extracurricular. You should also seek out practical experience such as an internship, a job, or shadowing (if you’re a prospective pre-med student). You could also pursue independent research—and see if you can get the research published. Find activities that make an impact and showcase your personality. Find ways to connect seemingly disparate interests such as English and Physics, or Environmental Science and art. These can help you stick out as memorable!

Letters Of Recommendation

As a student applying to college from a competitive high school, it’s important to build strong relationships with your teachers. Don’t underestimate the value of a good letter of recommendation. Our Former Admissions Officers saw a lot of variation in the quality of letters of recommendation from students at top schools. When a teacher writes letters for multiple candidates, admissions officers can tell who the teachers are genuinely excited about when compared. Whenever possible, an additional recommendation from someone such as a research supervisor emphasizes a student’s academic potential and stands out significantly.

Additional Information

Don’t forget to take advantage of the Common App additional information section! For students with especially impressive extracurricular backgrounds, provide a separate resume whenever possible in your application and take advantage of the additional information section.

You definitely have your work cut out if you’re applying to college from a competitive high school. However, it’s certainly not impossible to attend a top college. Work hard and figure out how to best combine your skills and interests to create a unique profile. Good luck!

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