One of the most frustrating things about the college admissions process is that there’s really no formula that you can follow that’ll get you into the college of your choice.
What gives? What are admissions officers thinking, and how can you become exactly what they’re looking for if there’s no way of knowing what that is?
Ironically enough, the best way to become what they’re looking for is to be yourself.
You Do You
No one expects you to be Paul Farmer or Steve Jobs. It’s alright to admit that you spend most of your time at your local indie movie theater or playing your favorite instrument, when you could be putting all your time and energy to community service initiatives that save the world.
Admissions essays that talk about community service trips to Latin America may seem like locks; they tell interesting stories and paint students as compassionate and well traveled. This is why thousands of applicants write these types of essays. If the experience marked your life and made you better, then write about it. But if you’ve never left your home state, don’t fret: I got into an Ivy League school by writing an introspective piece about the relationship between my fear of mortality and my favorite song (The Beatles’ “In My Life”). I chose that topic because I’d had a comfortable life and I hadn’t traveled that often, so I thought I had no interesting story to tell. It may not seem riveting, but I wrote it passionately and it got me into my school of choice.
Pursuing Things With Passion
This “be authentic” thing goes beyond the admissions essay. Don’t feel forced to participate in dozens of extracurricular activities because you think that’s what colleges look for. While it’s true that extracurriculars are important, colleges don’t really care about how many their applicants can list. Admissions officers will be much more impressed by your passion towards them. Helping out with your local Little League team can be the best sort of extracurricular activity if you can show them why the experience helped you to grow.
Showing that you’re comfortable enough with yourself to do what you love and to pursue your interests reflects a fundamental maturity that admissions offices will take note of. Obviously, there are exceptions to this – don’t write about how much you love to drink – but, overall, your most attractive qualities may be those that you find most quotidian about yourself. Always remember, though, to be succinct and honest about what you learned from all of these experiences. If you do this, you’re almost guaranteed to have a leg up over other applicants who have similar scores as you but who fall into the trap of painting themselves to be someone they’re not.
So be genuine. It’s the best way to stand out from the crowd.