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We Ask Admissions Officers: What's the #1 Fact You Wish Applicants Knew?


College admissions can be confusing, with a lot of contradictory information thrown around. It's hard to separate fact from fiction, which is frustrating since the stakes are high and you may not realize you made mistakes until it's far too late.

In this exclusive article, we decided to consult university admissions officers and counselors around the country to break through the noise.

We asked them a simple question: "What's the #1 fact you wish college applicants knew about admissions?" The results might surprise you. 


#1: We Want a Well-Rounded Class, Not Well-Rounded Students

We've all heard the adage of schools liking well-rounded students, so many hopeful applicants try to do a little bit of everything at once. This might be a huge mistake.

Jeannine Lalonde, Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at University of Virginia, tells us:

The area that students seem to divert so much applicant time and energy away from more important things is the extracurricular section of the application.

When I was in school, someone came up with the phrase "the well-rounded student" and I fear that term has become and albatross that hangs around everyone high school student's neck. They think there's a check list that we use as we read and we want to see leadership, athletics, community service, something creative, something academic, etc. They think that if they don't do everything, then they must be an expert in one thing. So either be a jack of all trades, or headed to the Olympics. The fact is that the philosophy at my school and many others has evolved. We're looking to build a well-rounded class. A well-rounded class has all kinds of students in it.

Really, though, academics will always come first. So amount of community service will make an admission officer forget that a student didn't challenge themselves in high school. When I read a file, most of my time is spend analyzing the transcript, reading the recommendations, and reading essays. Extracurricular activities are...extra!




#2: Demonstrate Your Character - Be Someone Colleges Want In Their Community

Applications aren't just about your test results and achievements. Colleges want you to be someone they're comfortable accepting in their community. Your job is to demonstrate that you have the character to be this person.

Carol Barash, former English professor and admissions counselor at U Michigan, Rutgers, and Douglass College, writes:

The thing that matters most--the one thing you can control in the admissions process and for the rest of your life--is your character. When you show up, what can people count on you for? This is really what colleges want to know. Colleges are communities, and admissions officers are building diverse communities of individuals who will coalesce and work together--in classrooms, dorm rooms, and across the broad range of activities that make up the college community.

Use the college process to explore your character: what are your strengths, your passions, and especially your commitments? Once you have a sense of where you are going, look back into your life experience and uncover the stories that are connected to that place you are going. Where are the moments when you changed, grew or made a difference? Those defining moments are the cauldron of character; those are the moments you want to write about in your college admission and scholarship essays.




#3: Use the Admissions Office to Your Advantage

Admissions offices seem daunting - they can decide your fate and thousands of other students in a single stroke. But you should realize that the office is made up of people who care about the school and about their students.

Jeff Knox, former Admissions Officer at University of Pittsburgh, advises:

The average college admissions professional is young, usually in her 20s. Students tend to think admissions committees are made up of a bunch of older curmudgeons perusing their applications and essays over bifocals. 

Don’t be afraid to call or email the admissions offices. They are (almost always) super nice and helpful. In my experience, I deal with a lot of students stressing out over pretty simple questions that could easily be answered with a simple phone call. Especially because colleges have different policies and preferences and because student questions are often so specific, it’s important to go to the source with many questions. Rather than guessing or trying to figure it out on your own, just contact the admissions office directly.




#4: Maximize the Effectiveness of the Supplemental Essay

Private admissions counselor and Harvard PhD Robert Kohen believes that students underestimate the value of the supplemental essay. Treating this as an afterthought is a big mistake:

Students dedicate so much time to perfecting their personal essay that they often forget to leave adequate time for the smaller, supplemental questions that most colleges ask on the application. These essays usually ask about why the student wants to attend a particular school. It's imperative that students both spend adequate time researching the college and fine-tuning these essays.

The most common mistake students make is simply repeating generic information about the university: it's in a great city, its academics are spectacular, and the campus is beautiful to boot. Instead, students should write about specific details that align with their own interests and show they've done their homework. For example, does the university offer a particular type of student group unique to that school? Does it have a particular professor the student is interested in working with, or a special research institute that speaks to the student's academic interests? It's critical that students include these types of details in their supplemental essays in order to stand out from the crowd.


What's Next?

Is there a burning question you want answered by college admissions officers? We'll reach out to our network. Just leave a comment below about what you want us to ask.

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.

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