Lessons from a College Admissions Success Story

How do you attain college admissions success?

Well, how much time do you have? 🙂 Of course, we could sit down and chat about this topic for hours. Or days! But we thought we’d go straight to the source: a successful college applicant.

We were so thrilled when Admissionado Mentor Stephen Black (and Harvard alum!) passed along this email from his client, Susie. (That’s not her real name, of course.)

Thank you so much for working with me on these ten packages!!

I’m glad that you were there for every step of the way, answering even the smallest questions and (of course) checking me on my essays. I agree that I’ve grown as a writer…thanks to your guidance! Your edits are invaluable, and I really appreciate all of the work you’ve put into them. I’m also grateful for those times when you helped me get unstuck during the application process!

[See: Us doing a little jig upon reading this email.]

After working with Stephen on her applications this year, Susie found out that she got accepted early action to her dream school: University of Virginia. Awesome, right? But rather than leave you hanging on just that little tidbit, we decided to chat with Stephen about Susie’s process so that YOU can benefit from her success. What did she do right that YOU can do, too? What were her struggles, and how did she overcome them? Find out below in our Q&A with Stephen.

1. Tell us about Susie’s profile. What stood out to you?

Aside from high SATs and a stellar GPA, Susie stood out because of her excellent and unique extracurricular activities. She didn’t necessarily have a laundry list; rather, she had a handful of great ones that were truly meaningful. Best of all, they were all interconnected, yet each showed off a different facet of her personality. She was the host of a music radio show at her school, she started a blog that tracked and reviewed a specific genre of music, and she worked layout for her school’s design magazine. Her participation was so extensive that she could have written an outstanding essay based on her experience with any single one of these activities.

2. What were some major strengths that Susie brought to the table?

Susie’s major strength is her natural ability to write. She is skilled with the written word, and she definitely doesn’t need any instruction in style. However, it is important to remember that natural born writers don’t always create wonderful essays on their own. Personal essays exist as a very specific subset of writing in general. What separated Susie from other writers was her willingness to learn within this subset and adapt to its specific needs. Talent will only get you so far; it’s determination that carries you the rest of the way.

3. What was familiar about Susie’s case? What was different?

What was familiar about Susie’s case was that, on the outside, she seemed like a typically high-achieving applicant. In other words, there wasn’t any single glaring weakness in her application, and each area was solid. However, countless applicants with these same general qualifications get rejected across the board each year. Why? Because they fail to differentiate themselves within the applicant pool. Susie was able to do just that, especially by focusing on her specific academic and extracurricular interests, which aligned with her detailed future plan of study in college.

4. What was the biggest challenge that Susie had to overcome?

The biggest challenge that Susie had to overcome was learning the importance of rewriting. Since she’s such a naturally talented writer, she spent so much time crafting every single sentence, even in first drafts. Sometimes this resulted in an inability to take a step back and examine the bigger picture. Throughout our work together, Susie got better and better at tackling the larger problems in early drafts, and then addressing specific, sentence-level issues in later drafts.

5. What was your strategy for helping Susie meet those challenges?

My main strategy was to continually encourage Susie during the early draft stages. When she would get a bit frustrated that a first draft wasn’t totally working, I would explain that this is quite normal—it’s actually to be expected. Writing is an ongoing process, and ideally, each draft should be a little bit better than the previous one. That’s the main goal, since nobody writes perfect first drafts. Once Susie realized that she could solve her problems over the course of four drafts—rather than just one—she adapted to the process and flourished.

6. Why do you think Susie was successful in the end?

As cliché as it may sound, Susie was successful because she remained true to herself. It was impossible to find an ounce of pretense or misrepresentation in any of her essays; she was confident in her character and translated this onto the page. Susie foregrounded her strengths and also had a specific battle-plan regarding how she was going to attack her future education. When an applicant is both strong in character and prepared for the future, any AdCom can’t help but take notice.

7. What can other applicants do to be successful like Susie?

Other applicants can learn three important lessons from Susie. First, the ability to connect past experience with future goals is key to any successful application. Susie connected her academic and extracurricular experiences directly to what she wants to study in college and ultimately pursue in her career. Second, quality always trumps quantity. Susie didn’t have two dozen extracurricular activities; instead, she had a handful of meaningful ones. Finally, hard work and persistence always pays off in the application process. Rather than tiring as application season wore on, Susie actually gained momentum, learning important lessons along the way, and putting them to use, too.

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