You’ve spent your summers taking SAT prep courses, you’ve aced your AP classes, and you’re a star hitter on your baseball team. On paper, you’re the perfect candidate—but there’s still a good chance that you won’t have your pick of the Ivy Leagues.
Though the admissions officers may not tell you about it, a lot more goes into the admissions decision than evaluating your grades, SAT scores, and extracurriculars. In fact, there’s a lot that you can’t do anything to control. Here are some of the secrets of the admissions office that colleges don’t want you to know—and what you can do to work around them.
Whether or not you’re accepted depends on the admissions officer’s mood.
Sure, some sub-par applicants will be rejected on the basis of their application, and some of the best students will be accepted with no questions asked—but if you’re somewhere on the border, your likelihood of being accepted may well come down to the admission officer’s mood. “If the [Pittsburgh] Steelers lost a game and I read your file the next morning, chances were you weren’t getting in,” one admissions officer told The Daily Beast. “Where I could have been nice, I just didn’t go out of my way — I was a lot less charitable.”
What you can do: Absolutely nothing. When a school has many top applicants to choose from, it often comes down to chance—so if you don’t make the cut for your first choice school, try not to get too depressed about it. It’s nothing personal.
It’s partly a popularity contest.
Yes, you need to be a great student, and it helps to have some involvement in extracurricular activities—but beyond that, you can set yourself apart if you seem like someone the admissions officers would like to hang out with. “If you come off as just another Asian math genius with no personality, then it’s going to be tough for you,” said another admissions officer. “An admissions officer is not going to push very hard for you.”
What you can do: If you have the opportunity, do an in-person interview with an admissions officer, and let your guard down a bit so he gets a sense of who you really are. Instead of just reciting your stats, have a real conversation with your interviewer. He’ll remember speaking with you when he goes over your file, and his impression could mean the difference between a yes and a waiting list. If an in-person interview isn’t possible, then your essay is more important than ever—write about something unique and meaningful that will show that you’re more than just a test score.
You’re at a disadvantage if you’re white and wealthy.
If you’re not a minority and you’ve gone to expensive prep schools your whole life, you’ve had every advantage in the education system. That’s great for you, but chances are, most colleges won’t be too impressed. You’re no different from most of the other candidates that top schools see. Schools strive for diversity, so they’re more likely to choose a candidate who is the first person to attend college in his family or an applicant who recently moved from Ghana over a student from suburban New York City who comes from a well-off family.
What you can do: You can’t change your background, but you can differentiate yourself in other ways, such as by showing a deep involvement in community service, and spending a summer volunteering abroad. You can also come across as more attractive to colleges where there aren’t as many people like you—for example, if you live in California, consider applying to East Coast liberal arts colleges like Middlebury, which make a concentrated effort to diversify the student body by drawing from the entire nation.
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