By: Jason Lum, JD (Berkeley), MPP (Harvard), BA (Washington University in St. Louis)
President, ScholarEdge College Consulting
Every time I visit a college – and I’ve visited over 300 of them – I always ask about the secret to getting in. What’s remarkable to me is that whenever I talk to admissions staff from small colleges to the largest universities, the one piece of advice that always pops up is: be authentic.
Authenticity. What does that really mean?
An authentic story more often than not is a story that surprisingly has nothing to do with academics. Think of it this way: when you apply to college, the college will have your transcript. Your Common Application will reveal your honors, awards, and standardized test scores. Therefore, why regurgitate your grades and test scores in your college essays? In fact, when I worked for the Harvard Admissions Office, we almost never denied a student because we felt that he or she would not be able to graduate from Harvard. Rather, it was simply a matter of choosing the very best and most interesting students from our very qualified pool of applicants.
You separate yourself from other students when you are able to passionately, enthusiastically, and concisely tell a story that captures who you are as a person. Tell the committee what it is about you that would add value to the college. I’ve worked with a student who wrote about living in a battered women’s shelter and another who devoted his essay to his love of Madonna songs. The stories could not have been more different. Yet for both students who wrote these essays, they got admission letters to top-flight Ivy League schools.
For that reason, when I work with students I usually steer them away from talking too much about academics unless they’ve done something truly remarkable that would raise eyebrows even among the most overworked admissions officer. If you have authored or co-authored a major groundbreaking piece of scholarly material, then I would write about that. But let’s be honest: that’s not most students.
The absolute worst way to approach getting into college is to write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You don’t want to tell them how smart you are because honestly most of your competition has grades as good or even better than yours. You don’t need to tell them that you’ve wanted to be a doctor since you were three years old – who can possibly be excited about an essay with that sort of theme? And please, try to avoid giving a book report about the Scarlet Letter – how does that spotlight you?
Always maintain perspective in this process. There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States. There truly is a college for every student in this country