When it comes time to apply to colleges, students grades, resumes and extracurriculars are largely set and the only difference-makers left are the applications themselves —and they matter a whole lot more than students think. These 3 things inform successful applications:
#1: Colleges Look for a Return on Investment
Colleges are fundamentally self-interested organizations that compete with each other for prestige. What’s unique about the higher education sector is that students themselves are the most important contributors to prestige. Thus, colleges accept students on the basis of how the students will contribute to the college’s prestige, directly or indirectly. A student who becomes a Supreme Court Justice will directly contribute to a university’s prestige, whereas a student who helps promote a vibrant campus that attracts new enrollments will indirectly contribute. What students often fail to realize is that merit alone does not compel admissions people to accept students. It must be paired with a deliverable, or “return on investment.”
#2: Colleges Hate Getting Burned
Colleges hate when accepted students reject them for a different school. Getting burned hurts a college’s reputation in two ways: it forces them to become less selective, and it reduces the yield rate —the proportion of accepted students who ultimately enroll. Both those figures improve when accepted students enroll. That’s why colleges collect troves of data on their applicants to determine who is likely to attend and who is likely to burn them. When students are rejected from safety schools —which happens— it is because the safety school knew it wasn’t a serious contender. Conversely, when the admissions department knows a student will attend, they are more likely to roll the dice on that student.
#3: Admissions Officers Love a Good Story
Students sometimes assume that admissions officers are detectives who will read between the lines in their application and make inferences about their character or achievements. Admissions officers are well-meaning and would love to do detective work to find “hidden gems,” but they simply don’t have sufficient time to analyze each application. Instead, they look to the application essay for a “story” that puts the entire application into context. For example, a student may have taken an early interest in jazz and found a second interest in physics so they could better understand the nature of sounds they love. That’s a nice story. Imagine the student just listed jazz as an extracurricular and physics as the intended major. Not quite as compelling…