OK, you’ve taken the first step: You’ve got a list of schools — some safety, some fit, some reach — based on your grades and your SAT or ACT scores. But now things have gotten confusing. There are lots of forms, lots of things to write. What’s best to mention? What do schools really care about? What are you supposed to say with your personal statement, school-specific essays, activities list and all that other stuff?
Well, this information has been verified by Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, which is a fantastic work of non-fiction that provides a uniquely insightful look into the admissions process at Wesleyan University, but I first learned about these three things during my experience applying to colleges, talking with admissions officers and guidance counselors. Later, long after I set foot on campus, I spoke with a couple of professors who have clout in admissions decisions, and I saw just how vital these things really are.
No matter what kind of school you’re applying to, whether it’s an elite high school, college, business school, law school or writing program, schools want to see passion and leadership. This shows that you care about something, that you have drive and that you’ll bring something to the community. You don’t have to be varsity soccer captain since freshman year, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in something “serious.” You started a Comic Club at your school? You’ve organized a fundraiser or concert? Schools want to hear that! Even if it’s not necessarily part of a formal activity, it’s probably worth noting if it paints you as a leader. You organized four friends to go around in the winter and volunteer to shovel snow for your elderly neighbors and to mow grass in the summer? That’s leadership and initiative and volunteer work — write that down!
If you’re an unusual applicant, or an unusual applicant for a particular college, you may get a boost. This isn’t to say that you should try to drastically change yourself to make yourself unusual, but if you’ve played oboe, and you’re not very good and you don’t really like it, but you’re not sure whether to put that on a list of activities, let’s clear that up: Put it on your list of activities. Maybe you’re a pole vaulter or a trivia buff, or maybe you never grew out of the I’m-going-to-be-an-astronaut phase of your childhood and you’re working toward that. Maybe you’re a conservative applying to one of the (many) left-of-center colleges. All these things and more would make you stand out as an applicant, which is exactly what we’re aiming for.
So how are you supposed to cram all this into one pesky personal statement? You’re not. Put a lot of it into a list of activities, but be sure it’s an informative list. Tell the admissions committee whether you’re a founder, president or secretary, and say what your responsibilities are, and what you’ve accomplished.
Use your essay to show a moment, or a series of moments, where you changed or learned something. Use your essay to talk about a lifelong dream and how that’s shaped who you are. Your essay doesn’t have to be flawless, and it certainly doesn’t have to be the-best-thing-an-admissions-officer-has-ever-seen. Of course, that would help, but mostly your essay should give the reader a glimpse of who you are, of what motivates and excites you. If you’re not sure what is “best” to write about (and most people aren’t!), brainstorm a list for a day or two of defining moments, experiences that changed or shaped you and things you really, really like. See whether one or two or three of those things on your list appeals to you, and then write a couple of experimental essays. Don’t worry about what someone else might think of it at this phase — just write it and see what you think.
Applying to college is a lot of work and can be very stressful. However, the more informed you are about the process and what you should do, the less stressful it will be.
Miranda Forman is a graduate of Brown University, with an Sc.B. in Cognitive Neuroscience and honors in Literary Arts. Out in the real world, she spends her days mentoring aspiring college students with the team of consultants at Admissionado, a boutique admissions consulting company that specializes in helping aspiring students navigate the undergraduate and graduate admissions process. You need advice on college apps? College life? Scholarships? Miranda’s your gal.