To anyone who works in University admission, what do students tend to ignore/put in their application, that would otherwise increase their chances of acceptance?

Following is some of the best advice from administrators and assistants who check university application for new students. If you are applying for college, this will be a great read for you.

Financial Aid

I didn’t work in admissions, but I have worked in billing/financial aid. They’re under the same branch (enrollment mgmt) so we had to go to a lot of the same events/seminars.

At one point, we learned that some students don’t realize that financial aid is a possibility for them. Students coming from difficult backgrounds at huge schools with maybe one guidance counselor per 100+ students don’t get the help they need when applying. I definitely understand that a student might not see the point in telling the difficult story of their lives, but it can really help your chances. In many ways, all we have to go on to learn about you is that essay. If you’ve got average grades, no extracurriculars, and you write a generic essay about how you’ve always wanted to be in such-and-such career, you’re less likely to be noticed.

Don’t be afraid to personalize your application. If you let the admissions team know that you were working two jobs after school to help your family pay rent, that really says a lot about you. We can read between the lines and see that’s why your application may not be stellar in other areas.

As a former billing counselor, I want to throw in some extra things here.

  1. Don’t be afraid to apply to your dream school just because you can’t afford it. They may be able to give you more help than you realize.
  2. That said, if you do get into your dream school, but the financial stars aren’t aligning, really weigh your options before you take on that extra debt. You can transfer in from another school to save money (my college even specifically partnered with another and gave those students transfer aid [which typically wasn’t a “thing”]). Really research your options. Some colleges (like mine, a private school) won’t give aid to transfers, only those coming in as freshman. BUT, that could still mean savings in the end. Others are fine with transfer aid. And it’s okay to ask them about it.

A DEGREE IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT. I wish that I could have said this to every student and parent who cried to me that Private College I Worked At was their DREAM SCHOOL, and can’t we please give them more financial aid?? (Edit: to be clear, I’m not mocking them. It was heartbreaking.) We didn’t have more aid to give. Please, think about your future. On more than one occasion, I witnessed a student turning down a large scholarship to another college for little to no aid from us because DREAM SCHOOL. I couldn’t tell them not to do that, so I’m telling you. PLEASE. A degree is what you make it. Look at your other options. —shmadorable

All The Requirements

I have worked in admissions for the last ten years for graduate programs at a tier 1 US university so I actually feel qualified to answer this. There are variations in requirements dependent on program and school, but the general ones are:

  1. Application form
  2. Resume/CV
  3. Transcripts
  4. Letter(s) of Recommendation
  5. Letter of Intent
  6. Topic Essay (Possibly)
  7. Application fee

To address each of these independently, I will lay it all out.

*1. Application form – This is usually very basic, but people make very stupid mistakes with it that can have serious implications down the road. Do not use an email address that you use with friends. Thinking that MLPlover69@whatever will not be noticed or recognized as a My Little Pony enthusiast is naive. If necessary, create a very PC new one for your application. Unique ones can be a bonus though, I recall one that used the pre-chosen letters for the last round of Wheel of Fortune as being recognized favourably by faculty for example. Ensure that all answers are correct. Many times people ticked the box for “Are you using active duty military tuition assistance to fund your education?” when they were actually using their GI Bill. This makes a big difference as you would be handled by separate departments. While these things will not determine the outcome of your application, they speak a lot to your ability to follow directions.

*2. A standard resume is fine, but make sure to have someone check it over first. I have seen so many unique mistakes on these, from a handwritten one, that appeared to be in crayon, to someone who misspelled “bacheler” degree with a 4.0 GPA, to ones missing dates of employment, contact information, and those that didn’t change their objective from the last time they were looking for “any job I can get, honestly I’m desperate”. Again the resume is usually not make or break, but attention to detail is important. One faculty member I worked closely with had a pet peeve about people who did not include their address on it and assumed they were homeless.

*3. Some schools will only require the transcript from the school you graduated from, others(usually more prestigious schools), will want all of them. Any transfer credits, military credits, post-graduate work, certificates, community colleges, you name it. Be ready for this as some people do balk at it if they have attended multiple institutions. They usually need to be official, which means they must come directly from the school you attended to ours. I cannot stress enough to ensure you are having them sent to the correct address as well. Going online and finding a random address will likely mean they get sent to someone who has no idea who you are and tracking these down is a major issue as most universities are HUGE. Do not have them sent to yourself first and send them all together as some will still consider these unofficial and schools sometimes mark them as “Sent to student.”.

*4. In my experience letters of recommendation hold less weight than people assume. With that said, this is an area where I have seen some of the biggest mistakes. I have seen letters saying not to accept someone because they were about to be fired, those from little brothers(again written in crayon), and those from employees of the applicant. It is assumed that anyone can get people to write nice things about them, but those with the most impact are, in order, academic references, supervisors, or those in the public eye. In other words, those that actually are staking their reputation on you in a way. Anyone who is simply a colleague(except in exceptional circumstances), an underling, friend, Pastor/Rabbi/Clergyman(Perhaps different at religious schools), family member(even if they are relevant/famous) does not matter one bit and will actually harm your chances. Make sure the reference is on letterhead and includes contact information.

*5. Different schools and programs will have unique instructions, but the most common is “Why you want to get in, why you have chosen to apply to this program in particular, and what you hope to accomplish after completing the degree.” My number one recommendation is that you follow all instructions implicitly. Consider this your first assignment, spelling, grammar, passion, and content are all equally scrutinized. This part is why it is important to actually speak to someone familiar with the admissions committee if at all possible as they can provide unique insight into what they look for, as it will change by program and department, even within the same university. I know of one faculty member who pretty much automatically accepted anyone who said that they were the first in their family to pursue higher education, regardless of previous academic performance. This is the make or break part. It gives you a chance to explain that you drank your way through first year ten years ago, yet your professional career since speaks volumes about who you are. Perhaps you lost a family member while studying, you had to work three jobs as no one was supporting you, or any other hardships you overcame. The most important part is that you overcame whatever it was. You need to demonstrate that you are a capable individual that needs or wants this degree for a specific reason. The people reading these generally want to let you in, but they don’t want to set people up for failure. GPA requirement is usually not a hard cut-off, everyone is looked at holistically, so don’t be afraid to apply to a program that you may not qualify for on paper if you are truly passionate about it.

*6. If a topic essay is required, my only instruction is that you follow the directions to the letter and have multiple, QUALIFIED, people look it over. Again, dependent on program, this is your first assignment and is make or break.

*7. Most will have an application fee associated with it, however this can sometimes be waived under certain circumstances. It is not a bad idea to ask, but don’t be disappointed if it can’t. It is usually a lot of paperwork on the school’s side to make this happen, but if those you speak with feel for you they want to do it. Again, a lot of times they simply can’t so don’t push the issue. With that said, don’t let a fee that is truly an investment in yourself stop you for applying to even a school you don’t think you can get into.

In conclusion, take the entire process seriously, I’ve seen too many people who either half-ass it, assume they are entitled to it for whatever reason, or otherwise don’t give it the care it deserves. I have seen people with multiple doctorates rejected for a master’s program so nothing is guaranteed. Put your best work and attention into it and more times than not you will be accepted. —adj1

Essay, what to write about ?

Never write about the school you’re applying to. Write about yourself. Who are you, what do you have to offer, what motivates you, who will you be one day?

There’s a story that the folks down at Rice tell when they’re doing tours. Their application has a little box in the middle of a page, with the instructions to fill the box with something unique that expresses why they should accept you. Back in the 80s, some kid filled the box with glue and then dumped uncooked rice on it, so that there was just a rectangle of dry rice in the middle of the app. They tell everyone this so that they know it has been done, and will result in your application being rejected immediately.

Seriously. The admissions people anywhere see a dozen apps a day that talk about how good the school is, or its history, or its alumni, etc. They’ve seen all of it before, and none of that means a damn thing when it comes to what you will bring to the school.

The objective of your average admissions department is to find students who will do two things: finish at least one degree, and become rich so they give back to the school someday in the future. If you can convince your admissions officer that you’re not going to drop out, and that you’re going to make good use of your degree, they’re going to want to bring you in.

The first part is mostly a function of your grades and test scores. If your stats look good, it’s a fair bet that you’ll finish your degree. If you’re worried about how your stats look, use the essay to explain that you faced some hardship, or convey an anecdote about how hard you worked on a project (be specific – explain what you were trying to do, what made it hard, how you eventually made it work, and how it felt to complete it).

The second one is where the essay really comes in. Unless you just wrote your essay about a hardship or hard work, then you want to write either about your love of a given subject, or about your dreams for the future and how you plan to achieve them using your degree in a given subject.

If you really enjoy history, write an essay about what makes history so interesting to you, and explain your favorite obscure story about your favorite historical event. As an example: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is almost glossed over in most textbooks as an event that directly led to the first world war, but the actual story of Young Bosnia’s attempts to kill him, and Gavrilo Princip’s eventual success, is one of the most interesting things about the war. You only have about two pages, so you’d have to very carefully summarize, but there’s not much better way to explain how a subject like history gets more interesting the deeper you dig into it. —mathwin

Important Tips and Pointers

I read and evaluated applications for the University of Chicago and now, for the last ~6 years, have helped ~300 students apply to college as an admissions consultant, using the insight I gained within a top-5 admissions office.

  • I see so many students leave off extracurricular activities because they worry they’re not prestigious enough. They leave off hobbies as they didn’t realize the 10 hours a week they spent on independent art projects could count as an extracurricular. They don’t mention their family obligations, such as having to take care of their 4 younger siblings for many hours each day as their single mom works two jobs. For more insight on what might count on your college app, see my post here.
  • They underestimate hours spent on an extracurricular activity. While it is obviously bad to lie/exaggerate your hours, it’s not good to underestimate them, either! Last year I worked with an Olympic athlete on her applications. In looking at her original list of extracurricular activities, she had included 15 hours/week as an estimate for her commitment to her sport. I was surprised to hear how low of a time commitment that was, and she remarked “Oh, well, my mom and I have to travel, like, 4 hours roundtrip every day just to get to practice.” 4 HOURS EACH DAY!? Add that significant travel time to your activities list, girl! If you, too, have an activity that requires travel time, you can include that time in your estimated hours/week time commitment on your applications. Check out my guide to the activities list for more tips like this.
  • They get generic letters of recommendation, or they pick a teacher that doesn’t add a lot of value to their application. Most top universities want two letters of recommendation from teachers: one from a STEM teacher and one from humanities. Ideally, these teachers are from a student’s junior year or had the student for multiple classes/years at school. Further, many teachers use a template to write their letters of recommendation so most letters of rec are very generic. They include stuff like “she was a good class contributor” or “he will excel in college” without any concrete details as to why—as most teachers are not paid to write letters of rec, must write a lot of them, and take shortcuts to churn out letters in time for the deadline. To get good letters of recommendation, it is key that your teacher personalizes the letter. Ideally, they’ll also compare you to your peers. For example, “He is the single most driven student I have met in my 10 year career, and he is absolutely determined to accomplish his dreams of XYZ” or “She is the brightest math student I teach across all my 7 classes this year,” etc. How to get those sort of letters of rec? Send them a letter with detailed examples and anecdotes from your time in class! You can download my guide to getting good letters of rec for more tips.
  • Their essays are generic, too, because they fail to include how they think, feel, or view the world differently as a result of their experiences. I cannot tell you how many students’ essays I’ve read that talk about football or piano or their research position and just gives an A to Z guide of their participation in the activity. Do you know how many other students have done the same activities? These essays all blend together and tell us little about YOU other than what we could have already gleaned from your activities list. One of my favorite essays from recent years started as just an essay about the student’s participation in orchestra. After a lot of 1-on-1 brainstorming and revisions, the student wrote an excellent essay starting with really cool imagery about the origami artwork hanging from her bedroom ceiling before transitioning into her hobbies. She wrote something like, “Just as distinctly different are the [origami shape 1] and [origami shape 2] hanging above my head are my passions for [activity 1] and [music]—but they both hang in my heart.” It was more well-written than that, but I’m pulling from the dregs of my memory. The essay turned out awesome, was super reflective of how the student thought, felt, or viewed the world differently as a result of her experiences and interests, and she’s currently at an Ivy League university—in part because she wrote an essay at the Ivy League level.
  • Many universities (UChicago, Penn, Michigan, Columbia, Brown, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, etc.) ask “Why our college?” or a combo between “Why our college?” and “Why your major?” BE SPECIFIC. I cannot tell you how many essays I read for UChicago that were like “When I visited your campus, it felt magical. I was surrounded by students who were so driven yet friendly. As I explored your biology major, I found great classes like organic chemistry and intro to biology, and I just knew that such a prestigious university would prepare me for medical school.” BLAH BLAH BLAH—all this could apply to any school! Be extremely, extremely specific. Research the school extensively. Find classes that the university offers that you haven’t seen at any other school (o-chem doesn’t cut it). Mention the curriculum (Core at UChicago or Columbia, Open Curriculum at Brown, for example), and don’t just say you like it—really dig into WHY that curriculum exists from a fundamental educational level and what sort of catalyst it will be for your own thinking. Search the school’s online newspaper for some cool programs that other prospective students might not know about, talk to current students/alumni (if possible) and incorporate things that you learned. Ask them what underlying qualities the student body possesses (for UChicago, it’s a thirst for knowledge, and at Georgetown, it might be some Jesuit value), and evidence your possession of those very same characteristics in your essay. Mention specific professors under whom you wish to study/research, and connect their classes/research back to your own intellectual interests. Better yet, email the professor, have an awesome conversation with them, and incorporate some element of that conversation in your essay. Don’t think professors will give you the time of day? This strategy has worked for my 1-on-1 students at Stanford, UChicago, Yale, Princeton, Penn, and many more schools. You can download my guide to emailing professors here. Bottom line: If the essay can be copied and pasted to fit any other university, be more specific.

If you have any questions, I’m all ears. And if you’re applying to college or graduate school and want to work with me 1-on-1, check out my website at or engage with me on r/ApplyingToCollege. —novembrr


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