Handling Your College Application
Explainer: Understanding College Admissions


People Decide to Admit You

Admissions officers (AO's) are ­people who come from different backgrounds and lived experiences. They will completely review your application and read all of your essays. They are human beings with feelings, emotions, good moods, bad moods, personal biases, prejudices and opinions that make them who they are.

AO's are always on the lookout for applicants who stand out, who have a good chance at succeeding academically and who will add something special or unique to life on campus. Keep that in mind as you navigate through the application process. Whether online, on the phone or in person, any contact you have with an AO about your application will leave an impression on them about you.

Each college has its own way of assessing applicants, but in general, there are four main steps to selective admissions:

  • Screen & Sort: Thousands of applications are screened, organized and then sent to the appropriate admissions officer for first review.
  • Individual Reads: One, two, three, or more individuals will read your application to form a first impression about your potential.
  • Committee: A group deliberates over applications to weed out those who are not going to make the cut and advances those who might.
  • Final Decision: Applicants are selected, financial aid packages are created and acceptance letters mailed out.

You Never Have a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Because people are assessing your suitability for college and can advance your file or throw it on the 'no' pile, it is good practice to play it safe in your essays and think about how you present yourself to admissions in person and on paper.

Your communications with an AO should be polite and reflect your maturity. The essays you submit should show the reader who you are, letting them see and feel the various aspects of your character. And because you don’t want to turn anyone away from admitting you, the topics you chose to write about in your essays should show that you take the process seriously, avoiding controversy or opinions that might offend others.

Play it safe in your essays and interviews and focus on getting that admission offer. Once admitted, you can then be as funny, weird or controversial as you like. 

Submit Your Own Work

It is a huge mistake to assume that because your classmate was accepted to Stanford last year that if you copy his or her essay format that you too will be accepted. Admissions use software to check essays for plagiarism and may also recall reading the same set of essays from a previous year's applicant. Why would they admit someone who plagiarizes others?

Admissions are also aware of the many guidebooks, ghost writers and standard essay formulas sold to students who wish to use those to beat/cheat the system. They see the same essays and formats over and over again, so your boilerplate essays will not be unique or stand out in any way.

Being proud of your achievements, and innovative in the way you describe them, will help you stand out from others and get noticed. Being unique and genuine in your essays is what gets you admitted to the best schools, not just admitted to the good ones. Looking average will reduce your chance for admission to a great school, impact on your choice of major and hamper your ability to access different types of financial aid.

Be Realistic About Your Past Experience

Were you really the greatest student in the history of your school? In the 2 weeks you were an intern did you really come up with a complex strategy that earned that bank an extra USD 200 million per year? 

Students sometimes write boastful (ridiculous) claims in essays that make them sound like Superman or Superwoman. No one believes such fantastic stories. There is way more value in focusing on what you did learn in your internship, like how to behave in an office environment, how to be on time, how to interact with professionals as well as the chance to take on some small roles that helped you apply some of your knowledge and confirmed your interest in your intended field of study and career goals.

Even a menial and unimportant internship job or life experience can be a useful demonstration of your ability to learn if you show the impact it had on you. For example, washing dishes as a part-time job to earn money is not glamorous, but it does show that you have a sense of responsibility, a desire for financial independence and know how to work. Whatever your past experience, discuss what you learned proudly and show how your experiences impacted you in some meaningful way.

Avoid Trying to ‘Look Smart’

Whatever you do, do not just flatter yourself because you think that looking smart or saying it many times over (usually with no evidence to support such claims) will impress admissions. In fact, your lack of substance and evidence will simply turn them off because you have nothing worthwhile to show to them. You will of course not be admitted, arrogant people usually add nothing to campus life.

AO's want to read an essay that ticks all of their boxes and that leaves them feeling like they want to know more about you. You can accomplish that in your essay by telling your personal story in a unique way that highlights how past events have impacted you, changed you, caused you to learn and grow into a mature young woman or man who is clearly ready for college.

Writing an essay in a passive tone that tells a story about what happened one time is not going to achieve that, so be sure to read and understand the information in modules 1, 2 and 3 and also review some of the essays in the EssayVault to know what the expectation is.

AO's Want to Help You Succeed

It's an AO's job to recruit great candidates for the school. If you are a reasonable person, AO's will be a great source of information and support through the application process, so try to make a connection.

If you write a reasonable essay, you will make their job of choosing you for an offer of admission much easier. Keep in mind that one AO is managing the applications of many students, so anything you can do to make things easy for them, like submitting great essays that are easy to read and not peppering them with multiple emails that ask about things you can find on their website, will be highly welcomed and appreciated.

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