Question: I took second place at national music composition contest. Will this help me get into a highly competitive college?
Congratulations on your win. Generally speaking, success in any sort of national competition is a plus in admission officers' eyes. At the most competitive colleges, it won't go a long way to make up for mediocre test scores or grades, but it will help an already-good applicant stand out in a pool of other strong contenders. The vast majority of applicants to Ivy League colleges (and their hypercompetitive equivalents) are already qualified to attend, so admission officials are always on the look-out for other accomplishments or traits that make some candidates a cut above the others. However, they are also accustomed to a proliferation of competitions and "national" awards, and many officials have thus become somewhat jaded when it comes to distinguishing the legitimate honors from those that may be less so.
When it's time for you to apply to colleges, keep in mind that most admission officials are not especially knowledgeable about the world of music. Simply naming the national music competition you earned your honors in--even if it's an extremely renowned one--may not have the desired effect. In other words, if you really want to wow those admission folks who will be evaluating your application, we would suggest that you make contact directly with one or more music faculty members at all the colleges on your list. Get the names of appropriate professors--those who specialize in your field--from each school's Web site or catalog and then send an e-mail describing your interest in their college and specialty. Make sure to include the details of your competition finish and ask if they might be willing to write a letter to the office of admission to support your candidacy. If a professor responds, ask if he or she would like to see the music you composed. Any faculty member who is impressed with your achievements will be eager to put in a good word for you and help get you admitted.
If, however, you are applying to a college (or program within a university) that requires an audition or other specific submissions (e.g., samples of your composition work), then your procedure will be different. You may be expected to submit a tape (usually a must for performers, and sometimes for composers, too). You will also submit a resume of your achievements that will be evaluated by faculty members or staff who should be familiar with the national competitions.
By the way, if there's a college that you really want to attend, perhaps you should put your composition skills to work and pen a unique "Ode to Amherst" or "Symphony for Stanford!"