I’ve been asked an awful lot of questions lately about how to “play the game” or “tell the admissions officers what they want to hear.” Almost all of those questions generally come from anxious parents who want the best for their children. On the other hand, the student is the applicant and has spent more than three years in high school attending classes, exploring academic fields of interest, being involved in music, sports, theatre, and participating in a plethora of activities. Admissions officers yearn to read about what the students have done, what their passions are, and what they hope to accomplish. Will they be contributing members of the community at the school they hope to attend? Exaggerating the truth or fabricating stories not only gives the officers an inaccurate picture of the student but is unethical. It is somewhat depressing to think that applicants don’t have enough truth to tell to present a verbal self-portrait that will allow schools to judge them on their own merits.
It is vital that reason and rationality prevail during this process. Asha Rangappa (“Unrigging the Admissions System”) urges applicants:
Make sure your application is 100 percent free of typos, grammatical errors, and incorrect punctuation. Don’t write your essay on cringe-worthy topics like naked yoga (true story), or in “clever” formats like rap and iambic pentameter. And don’t stalk me or the admissions office; don’t send food, gifts, or money.
Often, applicants need an outsider to help them get some perspective about what is special about them. Many things that they take for granted will be viewed as quite unique to an admissions officer! Years ago, well before the advent of the internet, one of my students told me that there was nothing special about him. After a long discussion, I discovered that he would get up early on Saturday mornings, take the train from Long Island into Manhattan, and spend the day at the New York Public Library reading disarmament treaties. “And you don’t think that would interest an admissions officer?” I asked him. Needless to say, he went on to fine schools and is now the author of the highly acclaimed biography of a Supreme Court justice.
Yes, as in everything else, there are some elements of the process that are unfair, but the reality is that colleges need to build their sports teams, that they want to craft a class that is diverse, and that the children whose parents graduated from a particular school and who are active alumni are considered “legacy.” There are applicants who are exceptional trombone players, who speak fluent Mandarin, who teach themselves foreign languages, and who are immersed in robotics. Every difference makes a difference in any application process.