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Creating a Memorable College Application

My work with the Yale Admissions Team and as an Application Reader at the University of Washington taught me two big things: (1) The exact amount of coffee I could consume without sending my brain into hyperdrive, and (2) How students managed to create successful applications that I fondly remember to this day. As interesting as my coffee episodes may be, let’s focus on the latter takeaway for now: What have students done (knowingly or unknowingly) to make their college application memorable? And more importantly, how can you incorporate some of these ideas into your own applications? I’d like to offer a few pro tips:

Tip #1: Dig deep. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. You don’t need to feel compelled to share your deepest, darkest secrets, but simply skimming the surface is not going to help you differentiate yourself from the thousands of other applicants. For example: relocating to a new country may not be a unique experience in and of itself, but sharing your specific challenges and consequent learnings will be unique to you. THAT is what the Admissions Team wants to learn about. The more they ‘get’ you, the more they will advocate on your behalf.

Tip #2: Be descriptive in your writing. Draw the reader in. For example: did you simply ‘go for a walk’ in your neighborhood? Or did you feel the wind as it swept across your face? Heard the birds singing in the distance? Admired the multicolored leaves against the bright, blue sky? Ok, perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but you get the picture. Make the Admissions Officer see, hear, and feel what you were experiencing in your story. Let them walk the walk with you.

Tip #3: You can brag, but tread very carefully. After you say something amazing that you did or the impact you helped to create, immediately shift the focus to your team’s efforts. Share the credit with them. Tell the reader how proud you are of them. Use more “We’s” rather than “I’s”. Make the Reader want to be your teammate or roommate.

Tip #4: Don’t lose sight of the big picture. I’ve seen students write an incredible personal statement but the rest of their application (additional information section, activities list etc.) was lacking in thought, depth, and attention to detail. These sections are just as important as the essays. Don’t shrug them off.

Tip #5: Be human. Admission Officers are not expecting impeccable superheroes. It’s fine to share a weakness or scope for improvement – as long as you demonstrate the steps you are taking to evolve.

Tip #6: Use humor to lighten the mood – but only if you are genuinely funny in real life. Don’t force fit humor. Evoking a smile or a quick laugh from an Admissions Reader who is clocking long hours during application season, can be a huge win – if done tastefully.

Tip #7: Proofread at least 3 times. Good grammar doesn’t help you score points, but bad grammar or punctuation can definitely make the reader cringe. You want your (not “you’re”) application to be memorable – in a good way. (Side note: The number of times I saw this very same grammatical error in applications was concerning!)

Admission Officers have 6-8 minutes on average to read through your entire application including your biographical data, transcripts, personal statement, supplemental essays, Covid response, activity list, additional information section, and recommendation letters. On top of that, they have strict timelines to adhere to. Let’s make their (and our) time count. Let’s make our applications memorable: one cup of (well-moderated) coffee at a time!

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