If you’re a college-bound high-school student, you’ve probably spent at least some time wondering what exactly it is that goes down behind the closed doors of your top-choice school’s admissions office. How will they react to my application? Will they be impressed by all the AP courses I’ve taken? Do they fully comprehend how cool all my extracurricular achievements are? Thus, we were delighted to get the opportunity recently to sit down with a former admissions officer (and alum) from the top-ranked University of Chicago. During our hour-long conversation with J (as we’ll refer to him for the sake of his privacy), we were able to cover a large amount of material, much of which served to emphasize three key points:
THE DIFFICULTY OF GETTING IN
One point about which J was completely unambiguous was the fact that, especially today, gaining admission to a highly-selective school is tough. The typical admissions officer is swamped with competitive candidates, all of whom succeed in making a convincing case for their own academic competence and ability to contribute to a school-wide community. This level of competitiveness then forces admissions officers to approach their assigned stacks of applications with a particularly discerning eye. Upon opening your application, officers will be looking primarily for reasons to disqualify you, by any means possible. And more specifically, they will likely be attempting to do so by looking at you in comparison with your peers (classmates from your high-school who have sent in applications as well). This is particularly important to keep in mind when selecting your course load, for example: if the admissions officer sees that your course load is lighter than that of your fellow classmates, that’s going to be a red flag, and ultimately a hindrance to your gaining admission.
J also noted that, in making their decisions (and particularly when comparing several students from the same school), admissions officers are often reliant upon the letters of recommendation that are written by your teachers and school counselor. While almost all of these letters will indicate some level of support on the part of the counselor, this support will at times be labeled “enthusiastic,” and at other times will be more tepid. J assured us that admissions officers take notice of even these subtle distinctions, and that they are factored in as potential reasons to disqualify a candidate. With this in mind, it becomes crucial for you as a high-school student to ensure that you are cultivating as close and as amicable a relationship with your teachers and school counselor as you possibly can. It becomes incumbent upon you to make sure your counselor understands what makes you tick, and how much you genuinely care about your activities and classes.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OVERALL NARRATIVE
Another insight that J shared with us during our conversation was the importance that admissions officers ascribe to a student’s overall narrative when making their admissions determinations, rather than considering discrete factors from the application in isolation. Much of this insight framed “narrative” as a means that admissions officers use in attempting to understand what a student is really going to be like once they arrive on campus. Admissions officers are seeking students who not only look good on paper, but who upon arrival will make legitimate and considerable contributions to the school community. As such, when reading applications, they are likely to feel more convinced by (and thus more drawn to) the student who has demonstrated one or two cohesive ongoing passions, which are echoed across various sections of his or her application, rather than the student whose extracurricular accomplishments are numerous and impressive but unrelated to one another. As far as school-wide contributions are concerned, they see the former student as the safer bet, insofar as the latter seems less certain to carry any of his or her various passions forward into college.
As such, it’s beneficial for high-school students to put some thought into ensuring that their passions and interests are reflected throughout their applications, and that what they do outside of the classroom can conceivably be seen as related to what they’re doing inside. J also emphasized the use of the application essay as a means of connecting these various dots. For example, if you are a student who in the earlier years of high-school was committing a lot of time to ballet, but then abandoned that hobby your junior year in lieu of something completely separate (e.g. chemistry), J said that he would be highly interested to read an essay in which you explain or portray the process through which you made this extracurricular leap – what did the shift represent to you? What connections do you perceive between the two activities? Thus, it’s not necessary that your application be completely uniform across time, but you boost your chances of making an impression if by some means you can paint a cohesive picture of your overall trajectory, or a narrative arc. That, J said, is something that would allow you to stand out to the admissions committee.
THE VALUE OF DEMONSTRATED INTEREST
Another differentiating factor that J suggested to us was the idea of going out of your way to demonstrate interest in a school, or to build connections with its admission officers. As college counselors, we have long been aware of the fact that some schools invest significant amounts of effort into tracking the level of interest being demonstrated by their various applicants – they might track whether you like the school’s page on social media, or whether you’re opening their promotional emails. What was surprising to us was J’s suggestion that even when a school is not tracking this kind of data, the act of proactively trying to get to know its admissions officers can still be a boost, in his opinion, to one’s application chances. The University of Chicago, in particular, is not one that tracks much of its applicants’ online interactions, and yet J was explicit in telling us that in spite of this fact, he was likely to look at an application more favorably if he had met the student during a college talk or fair. The reason for this is that it helps admissions officers to see the student that exists beyond the application. He said that although officers initially approach applications with the mentality of wanting to disqualify a student, J said that in the end they eventually will have to justify their decisions to their colleagues across the admissions team, at which point they have to transition from a mode of disqualification into one of advocacy – this is the point at which, he said, it can become favorable to have met the student, and gotten to know the person behind the application.
When trying to forge this type of relationship or impression, J said that it is important to do so tastefully and with genuineness. With this in mind, he encouraged students to reach out to their local admissions officer (the officer in charge of the region in which your high school is located) expressing the extent of your interest, and potentially some targeted questions (college counselors can help you with this form of communication, to ensure that you’re making the best possible impression). If you are forwarded on to someone else, make sure to engage just as sincerely with that forwardee – he or she will likely relate back to the original admissions officer if you are able to make a good impression on them. J said that doing this can be beneficial both before and after submitting your application.
These are three of the main insights that we were able to garner from our hour-long discussion. One point that certainly shone throughout much of the conversation related to the importance of authenticity. J said that admissions officers are good at spotting inauthenticity or forced sentiments, making it highly important for students to focus on just being the best version of themselves. As such, when forging relationships with your school counselor, or figuring out how to craft a “narrative” for your application, or especially when reaching out to admissions officers to express interest, make sure to be presenting yourself as genuinely as possible. Keeping authenticity in mind will help you not only make a good impression but will help ensure that you end up at a school that fits your goals and interests.