I spent the past year working as an admissions officer at Amherst College. My predominant responsibility was to recruit students and review their applications. When I’d meet with eager high-schoolers and their white-knuckled parents, I was often bombarded with questions I couldn’t answer. Even a prompt as reasonable as “What are you looking for in an application?” yielded a terrible blankness of mind. I found myself resorting to the obvious, vaguely citing “academic excellence” as a particularly reliable harbinger of good news.

I don’t mean to suggest that my canned response was dishonest, but rather that referencing “academic excellence” manages to avoid answering the question helpfully. So what are we looking for in an application? While I contend that it’s an impossible question to answer well, I simultaneously contend that it’s a question very much worth posing anyway.

The short answer: it depends. The slightly less short answer: it’s so complex that a decontextualized answer wouldn’t make sense. Not the insight you were hoping for, eh?

College admission is a notoriously opaque and convoluted process, but it’s not an especially opaque and convoluted process. Imagine asking a judge to describe how she determines a defendant’s guilt or innocence. In my mind, this is exactly analogous to asking an admissions officer to weight application criteria. The judge would answer, for example, “evidence.” “Well, Your Honor,” you might continue, “what kind of ‘evidence’ makes someone innocent?”

Obviously, there are many kinds of evidence that would lead to such a verdict, just as there are many routes through which a student can demonstrate academic excellence, just as there are many ways to skin a cat.

Attempting to demystify the opaque and convoluted machinery behind admission decisions is probably not an effective use of your time. Even if you did sneak a glance under the proverbial hood—though your curiosity would be momentarily sated—you wouldn’t have learned anything useful, anything that would help you predict or affect the inevitable outcome. This cat simply cannot be skinned.

The good news, then, is that you don’t have to worry about demystifying admissions procedures at all. As stressful and nervewracking as applying to college can be, I nevertheless encourage you to have faith in the process. The applicants who are most successful, in my opinion, are those who approach the experience with an open mind, those who acknowledge the wide array of collegiate possibilities on the horizon, those who understand that there’s no such thing as a singularly perfect college and no such thing as a singularly perfect applicant.

Based on these observations, I have assembled a list of six recommendations that will aid anyone applying to any college. This list has two major purposes: firstly, to help you discover schools that will be a good fit. (This, I think, is a fundamentally different project—and fundamentally better project—than helping you gain acceptance to the nation’s Top Five Shmanciest Colleges.) Secondly, the list intends to help you add distinction to your application through practical, cost-effective means.

Anyone who claims to have discovered the secret to getting accepted should not be taken seriously. The only secret, of course, is that there is no secret at all. Yes, admissions is an imperfect process administered by imperfect people. But, as one of my colleagues used to joke, “It’s slightly better than random selection.”

I hope you’ll find these recommendations to be relevant and helpful. Trust your intuitions, rely on common sense, and have fun. The application process does not have to be overwhelming or dramatic—that is, unless you’d like it to be.

1) Be Yourself

The less you try to turn yourself into the sort of applicant a college would want to admit, the better off you’ll be. Take the high school courses that you’re interested in, not the courses that you think will look impressive to an admissions officer. Participate in the extracurricular activities that you find fulfilling, not the activities that will pad your resume. Work hard, yes, but also allow yourself to have fun. I’ve read countless applications from students who have taken every available AP course and participated in 75 extracurricular activities, but that read as flat and uninspired. That you’re a genuine, passionate and self-aware person will shine through in your application, I promise.

2) Ignore the Rankings

This means US News and World Report, Forbes, The Princeton Review, and anything else that establishes a hierarchy of better and worse institutions. Instead, spend time imagining your ideal college: what will it look like? Where’s it located? What’s the size of the student body? What special programs does it offer? How much does it cost? Draft three lists: “must have,” “would be nice,” and “cannot have,” and work from there. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should be looking for. Remember, the college search should be about fit, not about prestige.

3) Consider Cost

College costs are rising rapidly. The average student debt, according to CNN, is approaching $30,000. Make sure to ask colleges about their financial aid practices: are they need-blind institutions? Do they pledge to meet full financial need? Do they only offer need-based scholarships, or are merit and athletic scholarships also available? What percentage of students graduate with debt? What’s the average student debt upon graduation? If you find yourself swimming in unfamiliar vocabulary, visit www.asa.org or www.mefa.org for excellent, comprehensive introductions to the world of college financing. For a well-organized scholarship resource and database, visit www.fastweb.com.

4) Study for the Tests

Whether or not you agree with standardized testing practices, most colleges will require you to submit scores, so get used to it. No one is above studying for the SAT or ACT. Preparing will improve your score. Check out sat.collegeboard.org/practice for free advice and preparation material. Start early. Six months before you take the test, begin by practicing one hour per week, incrementally increasing your time commitment as the date approaches. Enroll in a preparatory course through Kaplan, Veritas Prep, or Princeton Review, if you can afford to. Take practice tests. Study with your friends. Make it as fun and painless a project as possible.

5) Share Your Story

When my younger cousin was applying to college, she was particularly anxious about writing the essay. “Nothing remarkable has ever happened to me,” she said. “Then write about what that feels like,” I told her. Admissions officers don’t expect that you’ve overcome alcoholism or cured cancer—they just want to know who you are and what makes you tick. What’s most important is that you write something that you identify with, and that you’re excited to share. If you’re having trouble, ask a teacher, parent, friend or writing tutor for assistance. Make sure to proofread your essay before you submit it. Share your story!

6) Submit Optional


Many colleges allow you to submit optional supplementary material. If you’re given the opportunity, definitely do so if you’re able to. This might include sending in a sample of artistic work, writing an abstract on science research you’ve conducted, speaking with a coach about playing varsity-level sports, or signing up for an on-campus or alumni interview. Apart from having a terrible interview, these optional supplements will never hurt your application—they will either neutrally impact or help improve your odds. This is the easiest way to distinguish yourself from other applicants, and it rarely costs additional money.•