Realize that “recommended” equals “required”
The very first thing that any applicant to a selective US college should realize is that it is a competitive process. One might think of many parts of the application as optional—in fact, certain parts may even be presented that way in university application materials—but the reality is that anything that the university presents as “optional” or “recommended” is usually seen as “required” in the minds of admission officers.
Don’t hesitate to send in extra materials.
While it used to be the case that universities would state strongly that they would not accept additional material, that is no longer true in most cases, and in many cases universities will accept a wide range of material.
Extra material won’t suddenly make you competitive where you are not even in the running—but it could make the difference when you are on the borderline. The extra material has to be easy to receive and digest, compelling, and not something which looks overly produced. All of your other materials have to be in order as well. The worst that might happen is that someone won’t read the material, but at the same time it may make a difference. A video on Initialview, for example, can help you tell your story in which your communication skills are highlighted through a video interview.
Use your extra time wisely.
During school breaks, make sure that you are doing something that demonstrates your academic curiosity, your initiative, and/or your willingness to work hard. Bonus points if your activity produces something tangible that could be easily understood by admission offices, and if this activity is something you’ve been doing for two or more years. This could be rigorous online courses that you completed, an interesting and challenging internship that produces a report or other tangible result you can easily point to, or some leadership or volunteer work that is quantifiable (“I managed a humanitarian project with a US$10,000 budget and 10 volunteers who reported to me,” for example).
It’s important to demonstrate interest.
Admission officers want to admit students who are likely to come to their school. Part of that is human nature—if they say they “like” you by accepting you, then they want you to reciprocate—but this “demonstrated interest” also relates to how admission officers are measured in their profession.
One key overall admissions number that admission officers focus on is called “yield”, which is the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll in one’s school. For example, Harvard has a very high yield—pretty much anyone who gets into Harvard goes there—and as a result it is seen as very selective. As an applicant, if you are able to convince admission officers that you are serious about their school, then it is more likely that they are going to see you in a more positive light.
Be eager and focus on quality communication.
Like anything else in life, communicating well and taking a proactive stance will generally be to your benefit. Respond promptly to emails; send thank-you letters (even hand-written ones); and ask good and thoughtful questions. Language that might be ok when messaging your friends is almost certainly not the right tone when communicating with admission officers. It is likely that all of your email correspondence goes into your admission “file”, so you’ll want to make sure that all of it—like the content of your application—will withstand scrutiny by the admissions committee.