What grabs the attention of a college admission officer when they read through the pile of applications? What is it in an application that stands out from the rest? Especially if it’s an application for the most competitive colleges in the US, the difference is critical.
I had the opportunity to learn more about the admission process at competitive colleges from a former college admission officer, Alix. Alix has worked in the admission office at UChicago, Stanford, Saint Mary’s College of California, and Pomona College. Over his 10+ years of experience he has helped students get accepted to Ivies, UCs, and most top 40 colleges. He discussed what the most competitive colleges look for in an applicant and what to look for in a college. He also discussed how the pandemic has affected college admissions.
Tell me a little about yourself. What experience do you have in college admissions?
I was born in Chicago. Folks can have their subjective opinions, but objectively, Chicago is the greatest city in the world. College and admission has kind of been my life. For my own education, I feel lucky to have been a Posse Scholar at Pomona College and to have attended graduate school at Harvard University. Since then, I’ve worked for four different admission offices: University of Chicago, Stanford, Saint Mary’s College of California, and Pomona College. I’ve interviewed applicants and read a few thousand highly selective applications.
Is there anything distinctive about admission at UChicago and Stanford when it comes to undergraduate admissions? What does a college admission officer look for in applicants?
I think both are looking for the best of the best, obviously, but I think the flavor of what those two in particular are looking for is different. But I just regurgitated your question. I’d say they’re pretty transparent about it; the entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual vitality characteristics at Stanford tend to do well in their admission process; at UChicago, the nerds fare well, the folks who have particular and distinctive types of advancing human knowledge, which is literally in their motto. I’ve found that students who just love learning for the sake of learning fare well at both. Students motivated sincerely by knowing more for the sake of both knowing and helping others are going to shine in the application processes.
What is one (or more) common mistakes made in applications? Is there anything you see done repeatedly that you wish applicants wouldn’t do?
Stop doing all the things. Pick one thing, or two if you’re the unsettled type. Do just that and do it all the time. Do it all the time, so teachers, counselors, and your community notice it. Write about that thing. I’ve found it helps to be “that student who does that one thing” over the student who is “well-rounded.” Focus your energy; millions of applicants are well-rounded, but few are honed and distinctive. The other thing I’d mention is that weirdness is greatly underrated. From an admission perspective, it always helps to look at what all the other kids are doing and then don’t do that. Do you. The rarer that looks like is, the better.
You’ve sat on both ends of the drawing board of college admissions. With your experience and hindsight, what advice would you give to your high school self applying to college? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I really feel like I lucked out in the process and attended my dream school, but I’d still tell younger Al to forgo the professionalism and writing to what I think a college would want to hear and to just try to make more fun out of the process. Applying to college is stressful, but the stress can be minimized a bit, I think, by living in the “fun” of it, if that can be said. There is just enough fun for the process to be sustainable and it only happens once, so might as well enjoy it!
What is one (or more) piece(s) of advice you would give to seniors who are applying?
Write every single day starting as early as possible. That’s going to help you get to your “thing,” if you haven’t already found it. As daunting as the process may seem, colleges, there being over 4,000 of them in the country, have more in common with each other than not. There is going to be a happy home for everyone and you can find challenges, growth, and personal and professional success at thousands of places. You’re going to land on your feet at a place you love. Start early and challenge yourself early; write every single day.
The word “college fit” gets thrown around quite a bit in college admission. How is institutional fit viewed by the colleges you have worked for?
I think all schools, especially more selective ones, are paying plenty of attention to how students might fit with their school. At the highest level, most of these schools could fill a class many times over with students who have perfect GPAs and test scores, and each year they never do. Stanford, for example, does actually take the entrepreneurial spirit seriously. From teacher letters, to supplemental essays, to extracurriculars, there are endless places in the application for colleges to determine how well you might align with how they view themselves. All of them are used. I advise students to, after doing their research on how a college might represent itself, use every part of the application to speak to the one or two ways in which you might fit.
On the flip side, what should applicants consider when it comes to college choice? How should they determine whether a college “fits”?
With so many universities out there, colleges have done plenty of the same kinds of work to discern themselves from each other as their applicants do. That part starts with research and, when available, visiting campus. All that said, I do think too much emphasis is placed on fit. Be it quirky, nerdy, preppy, active, you can find “your” people at any school if you put yourself out there.
How do you think the pandemic has affected admissions? What do you think students should be aware of braving this new world of a pandemic?
The landscape of regional education seems to be the most impacted. Folks who might have studied at a regional liberal arts college or local state school see generally different acceptance rates, and I think those colleges see very different yield rates. Highly selective admission is still highly selective admission. More applicants each year, lower admission rates and slightly increasing yield rates at that level for the schools. The most selective applicants are getting more selective, and top 25-30 schools are all denying and deferring some students with perfect GPAs and SAT scores.
Looking for more tips, and advice from a counselor or college admission officer like Alix? Be sure to book a free consult with one of our team members. We’re here to discuss how we can set you up with a counselor as soon as possible. The sooner you start working towards your dreams, the farther you will go.