College Admissions Employees Share Tips For Students Who Want To Get Accepted

Getting into college is nerve racking simply because you don't always know what they are looking for other than great grades and extra curricular activities, not to mention all of the competition. What if you could have someone inside the system who can tell you just how to catch the eyes of the admissions department? Your lucky day is today!

feelinginside asks:

People who check University Applications. What do students tend to ignore/put in, that would otherwise increase their chances of acceptance?

Start taking notes from this ultimate cheat sheet!

No suck ups, it's about you!

Never write about the school you're applying to. Write about yourself. Who are you, what do you have to offer, what motivates you, who will you be one day?

Professional advice from University of Chicago

I read and evaluated applications for the University of Chicago and now, for the last ~6 years, have helped ~300 students apply to college as an admissions consultant, using the insight I gained within a top-5 admissions office.

  • I see so many students leave off extracurricular activities because they worry they're not prestigious enough. They leave off hobbies as they didn't realize the 10 hours a week they spent on independent art projects could count as an extracurricular. They don't mention their family obligations, such as having to take care of their 4 younger siblings for many hours each day as their single mom works two jobs. For more insight on what might count on your college app, see my post here.
  • They underestimate hours spent on an extracurricular activity. While it is obviously bad to lie/exaggerate your hours, it's not good to underestimate them, either! Last year I worked with an Olympic athlete on her applications. In looking at her original list of extracurricular activities, she had included 15 hours/week as an estimate for her commitment to her sport. I was surprised to hear how low of a time commitment that was, and she remarked "Oh, well, my mom and I have to travel, like, 4 hours roundtrip every day just to get to practice." 4 HOURS EACH DAY!? Add that significant travel time to your activities list, girl! If you, too, have an activity that requires travel time, you can include that time in your estimated hours/week time commitment on your applications. Check out my guide to the activities list for more tips like this.
  • Their essays are generic, too, because they fail to include how they think, feel, or view the world differently as a result of their experiences. I cannot tell you how many students' essays I've read that talk about football or piano or their research position and just gives an A to Z guide of their participation in the activity. After a lot of 1-on-1 brainstorming and revisions, the student wrote an excellent essay starting with really cool imagery about the origami artwork hanging from her bedroom ceiling before transitioning into her hobbies. She wrote something like, "Just as distinctly different are the [origami shape 1] and [origami shape 2] hanging above my head are my passions for [activity 1] and [music]---but they both hang in my heart." It was more well-written than that, but I'm pulling from the dregs of my memory. The essay turned out awesome, was super reflective of how the student thought, felt, or viewed the world differently as a result of her experiences and interests, and she's currently at an Ivy League university---in part because she wrote an essay at the Ivy League level.
  • Be extremely, extremely specific. Research the school extensively. Find classes that the university offers that you haven't seen at any other school (o-chem doesn't cut it). Mention the curriculum (Core at UChicago or Columbia, Open Curriculum at Brown, for example), and don't just say you like it---really dig into WHY that curriculum exists from a fundamental educational level and what sort of catalyst it will be for your own thinking. Search the school's online newspaper for some cool programs that other prospective students might not know about, talk to current students/alumni (if possible) and incorporate things that you learned. Ask them what underlying qualities the student body possesses (for UChicago, it's a thirst for knowledge, and at Georgetown, it might be some Jesuit value), and evidence your possession of those very same characteristics in your essay. Mention specific professors under whom you wish to study/research, and connect their classes/research back to your own intellectual interests. Better yet, email the professor, have an awesome conversation with them, and incorporate some element of that conversation in your essay. Don't think professors will give you the time of day? This strategy has worked for my 1-on-1 students at Stanford, UChicago, Yale, Princeton, Penn, and many more schools. You can download my guide to emailing professors here. Bottom line: If the essay can be copied and pasted to fit any other university, be more specific.

If you have any questions, I'm all ears. And if you're applying to college or graduate school and want to work with me 1-on-1, check out my website at or engage with me on r/ApplyingToCollege.

References and confidence are everything for grad school

Wow, I can answer this since I work in American higher education! For graduate school, recommendations are absolutely crucial, so be very careful with who you pick. It's normally the first thing universities look at. I recommend someone who will write passionately but honestly about you. It can sometimes be helpful to send your writer your resume and essay submissions as well (and if they're willing to look at and incorporate those documents, they're probably a good writer for you).

Also, self-advocacy is key for your essay submissions, so don't be afraid of coming off as bragging. A lot of students try to be humble (or even vague), which hurts their application since admissions doesn't have time to interpret their essay.

If you have any specific questions about applications, feel free to ask me!

For those applying abroad

The strongest bit of advice for students applying to a European (particularly UK) University course - don't send a US style personal statement.

Applications in the US tend to be handled by admin staff whereas in the UK/EU by academic staff. These academic staff do not want to read several pages on your non academic interests and skills, it's a waste of their time - focus entirely on your subject based interest and experience. It's often not even worth saying why you want to attend that particular Uni on a UK application, unless it's due to the strength of the department or the teaching staff on the course you are actually taking.

Remember the basics!

Spellcheck, and check your grammar.

People often forget to answer the most important question: what do you want to study, and why? You'd be surprised how many personal statements I read that are full of fantastic achievements etc, but none of that matters if I can't tell what you're applying for!

No sloppiness, only specificity

I work in the admissions office of my school. Improper emails, misspellings, terrible handwriting all make us critical of whatever you're going to say next. The thing that agitated me the most however , and probably the people that the actual decisions is your level of research on your career. "Elementary school math teacher" is not what you put in the blank for major, "Education" is a major. It's astounding how many potential students don't do research before applying. Last week we had an applicant that wanted to go to the NFL.... we don't have a football team.

Submit everything online

Submit your application online. I work in admissions and getting paper applications is not only annoying but it slows down the whole process. For one the amount of spelling errors is alarming and we end up having to call people to see how the correct way to spell their first name. Second as much as it sucks, sometimes paper apps get lost. Get lots in the mail, doesn't get filed properly. Things just move a lot quicker online.

A list of undergrad and graduate tips

I've worked in admissions to an undergrad honors program.

  • Humor is fine, but morbid humor is generally hit or miss.
  • I'm scanning your recommendations for actual examples of your awesomeness, as everything is generally going to be boilerplate "best ever!" so if your recommendations have a particulary example "he wrote an essay that made me cry"/"he was the fastest at (whatever)"/"he always stayed to help after" it's helpful. Remind your recommenders of these moments before.
  • Also on recs: I've read some REAL BAD ONES. Every once and awhile there is a person who asked the wrong teacher. If a teacher seems reluctant DO NOT TAKE THEIR REC ASK SOMEONE ELSE.
  • I'm expecting you to have reasonably good grades, so I'm probably scanning your grades for "mistake" grades that you need to explain elsewhere. Why did you get that D? What classes are your weaker classes? if you got below a C- in a class, you probably need to explain that to me.
  • Let someone read your essays for cringe. Please don't write an essay about how a 2 day volunteer trip changed your life unless you actually started volunteering everywhere else/created an NGO for that cause after. I'd rather hear more about your life and activities/hobbies as a whole. Please, if you're going to exaggerate, don't make it something which is basically a lie.
  • If you choose to write the diversity essay, be careful and sensitive with what you say.

For graduate school (I've sat on an admissions board here/field specific to social science):

  • The rec thing above TIMES A BILLION MORE. Don't just go for a big name if they don't know you, s/he will write you a 1 paragraph s*** rec.
  • Your statement of purpose should display (1) your research interest (2) how you've previously done work with it (3) who EXACTLY you will work with. Depending on the school, you can and should reach out to professors to discuss with them, especially in smaller schools.
  • Rewrite your statement of purpose over and over, with outside eyes. If you are in undergrad, the career office will and should help you with this.
  • Submit everything on time!
  • Yes, your GRE counts. Yes, that sucks. If your GRE is below a certain threshold, if your GPA is below a certain threshold, if your recs were less than glowing, or if your SoP was less than well-matched, any of these alone can disqualify you depending on the school.

Explains the holes or deficiencies

If there are problematic areas in your application (for example, some bad grades or weak extracurricular activities), give me some context. I want to understand why you're still a good candidate. I really want to admit you. As a college, we need the tuition and financial aid money you can provide, and we can't get that unless you're admitted and enroll. So explain those bad grades or other problems that might make me think you would struggle in college. Be careful not to shrug off responsibility for your own actions, though. Ideally, I want to see you take ownership of your struggles and that you've learned from them, with evidence that you've improved.

Always do more

Show your effort, in any way you can. This doesn't mean to try those gimmicks or to pester the school with unsolicited materials, but do take advantage of every single opportunity and option they offer. Don't just do the standard or minimum amount of effort if you can do more.

Update your info, yikes!

You'd be surprised how often people use a copy and pasted response to questions, or even their entire admission letter. You can have the best application ever seen, but your chances drop instantly if your admission letter for University X still says "for these reasons and so many more, I believe University Y is the perfect fit for me."

Ok, so go to University Y. Application rejected

Depends on the school...

I guess this is just at select institutions. I worked in an admissions office for a 8 years and the institution I worked at just cared if you had the correct high school credits, GPA, test scores, no criminal record. If you met that you were admitted and many times even if you did not you still get in. Funding was based on numbers so they didn't give a rats a** about you or your ambitions.

Some specific advice on sharing your dreams

Hi there, I'm a former Admissions officer for a private liberal arts college.

If the school(s) you're applying to take the Common App, try your best to make it stand out with unique stories or big dreams you have. Admissions offices receive tens of thousands of Common Apps every year, and many of these admissions offices are bored of reading about your 4.0 and involvement in 17 different leadership groups. Our office wants to know why you should get a chance at a stellar secondary education, not why you're already such a smart cookie. We want to put the best and brightest people in a position to succeed for the rest of their life, and as most people know here, GRADES AND CLUBS MEAN NOTHING AFTER GRADUATION.

A good way to address this within the Common App essay: "What have you experienced in your life that made you try to enact a change, better yourself, or cause deep reflection?" Some examples that I read about include, a woman who used her popularity as homecoming queen to organize a school-wide flood cleanup effort, a former athlete whose career-ending injury made him look into his true passion of astronomy, and a programmer who at age 23 wanted so badly to start his own company, but wanted to take management courses to round himself out.

Oh, and of course, spell check, spell check, spell check. Have someone else read your essay for you. Read it out loud in front of a mirror. Make sure the grammar works verbally too.

You're going to be okay. Best of luck to everyone currently working on their applications! :)

How to stand out for the right reasons

Finally something I can answer about my work.

I assist with admissions for a graduate program at a large University (40,000+ student population). Our program sees over 400 applications per year, first an online application, and then we do in-person interviews. You're probably doing most things right when applying, spell checking your submissions, make sure your references are strong, meet all the requirements, etc..

Things you DON'T want to do - make yourself stand out in a negative way. Any applicant who doesn't submit docs on time, whose interactions with staff are rude/negative/pushy (including reception) - we note and keep track of all of that and you will not be getting an interview, despite what your GPA may be. If you waited until two weeks before the submission deadline to ask a referee to send a letter and they didn't get around to it? Don't call and ask for additional time, there's a deadline and it was your responsibility to meet it. Didn't like the answer you got to an emailed question? Don't come in after seeing our note that we don't do in-person advising, and try and pressure staff into giving you a different answer. Don't, for the love of god, have your parent call or come in on your behalf. There are privacy laws for a reason and we don't want a student who can't ask their own questions. Unsure if your documents reached us? Don't call or email to ask about them; read the instructions we listed that stated to check your online application as all updates will be made there and that we won't take call to confirm. Don't ask to speak to the Department Head or an Admissions Committee member because you have a 'unique' situation. We note everything. We receive enough applications from students who exceed all of our minimum requirements that we can afford to be extremely picky.

The people who do stand out are the ones who did everything that was asked of them; submitted all documents on time, met and completed all requirements, didn't come in when we said not to, didn't make a fuss, were passionate, enthusiastic and had a positive interaction to everyone they interact with.

Devote yourself to something, it will pay off

Don't just be a resume filler. One year in the environmental club, one year in the history club, one year in the robotics club, etc. shows your just trying to con your way in. Find something you really enjoy and stay devoted to it. Show you're willing to put in work for something you care about, not just go through the motions.

A job looks great!

Part-time jobs. In this day and age a lot of kids go to college never having held a job. If you did have a part-time job and can get a letter of recommendation from your boss (responsible, hard working, gets along well with others, reliable, honest), it goes a LONG way.

Always submit as much as you can

I'm a student who works for admissions, so I don't technically decide whether or not you get in, but I do have a good tip.

I'm from a state (hint, it's Delaware) where there is a heavy emphasis on "test-optional" submissions, especially for in-state students, and lots of people think that they will just ignore the test scores and judge you without them.

While this is true, this puts you at a HEAVY disadvantage with the admissions team. They look at test-optionals last, so if they've already gotten close to their admissions quota, they will be much more scrupulous, and it'll be harder to get in. Their logic is that if you don't submit your test scores, you either don't test well, or "aren't smart enough" for the university, which is unfortunate.

So if you want to submit test-optional to a certain large university in Delaware, please please PLEASE only do it if you've got a great GPA, a large amount of extra-, and recommendations from teachers/administrators. Even mediocre test scores are better than no test scores, it seems.

Think about what they are looking for

Supplementary advice:

Put yourself in the place of the admissions reader. Just imagine how many apps you have to read. Imagine how boring they are. Imagine how many sound like clones. Imagine how many times you have to see the same adjectives. Imagine how happy you are when an original one comes along! In other words, personalize your app. Make it serious, but fun. Show how distinct and creative you are.

Basically, what you want to demonstrate is that you are smart, creative, and above all else, that you will contribute something positive and unique to the University Community.

Grading thousands of college papers each year, I cannot tell you how happy I am when I see someone who thinks differently, who takes the assignment seriously, has fun with it, and who doesn't just offer up the routine stuff.

Good luck!

There is a process

I used to work in the admissions department of a university in Florida. One thing I learned about the admissions process there: although you're required to submit an essay, it won't even get read unless they can't make up their mind on grades alone. So the best tip I can give is to just not f*** around in high school.

Please don't!

I used to work in an Admission office and it was remarkable how many students used text language, i.e. LOL, BTW, etc. Just embarrassing

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