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When you are writing and submitting your college applications, it can feel like you are just throwing essays out into the Great Beyond, hoping and praying that the college of your dreams will see how amazing you are and accept you. With all of the pressure and stress, it can be easy to forget that real human beings are going to review your application.

You have just a few essays and forms to fill out to convince them that they should want you at their college. It might feel impossible to fully represent yourself in such a brief space, especially when admissions officers may only look at your application for 15 minutes. You’ll need to be selective about what you say to sell yourself.  

Under FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), “parents or eligible students have the right to inspect and review the student’s education records maintained by the school.”  Basically, what this means is that after you enroll in a college, you can review your application and see what comments admissions officers left.  After I reviewed the comments on my application this fall and discussed with friends who did the same, we were able to develop a better understanding of what Stanford admissions officers seem to be looking for. 

Though different colleges are seeking different things, here are a few key concepts that can help your application stand out.


When you get a college acceptance letter, it means that the college wants the incredible person they read about in your application to come to their school. That certainly doesn’t mean that you should just write what you think they are looking for, though. College admissions officers do not want to read thousands of applications that all say the same, disingenuous thing.

Instead of writing what you think they want to hear, present yourself authentically. You want to show that you are interesting and unique with passions and talents that drive you. Especially in your main Common App essay, you need to present who you really are, whether that means writing about a transformative hardship, a central activity or belief, or even just a trivial moment (I’ve read impressive essays on things like shopping at Costco or walking a dog).  

This may sound cliché, but just be yourself. If a school doesn’t accept you, it probably wasn’t the right fit anyways.

Leadership with Initiative

The word “leadership” gets thrown around a lot. Every college seems to want the best leaders on their sports teams, in their clubs, and around their campus. But what does that actually mean? Should you try to attain leadership positions in eight different clubs with fancy-sounding names?

Though having a few fancy-sounding leadership positions (i.e., Student Council Financial Chair, National Honor Society Secretary, Executive Coordinator of Curling Club, etc.) might look quite nice on your Common App, admissions officers care more about what you did in these roles.  In National Honor Society, did you initiate a new service project to tutor underprivileged children, or were you just showing up to meetings? Admissions officers can tell if you are actually passionate about your leadership roles or if you are just “padding” your application. 

Also, leadership does not only mean official titles of school-sponsored clubs and sports. You can also demonstrate leadership through taking initiative in smaller things to benefit others.  For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, you could help your older neighbors set up Zoom or get them groceries, or you could recruit your friends and family to make face masks to donate. Admissions officers want to see that you are actively stepping up to help, encourage, and motivate the other people around you.

Voice and Personality

College admissions officers read application after application for days on end. Your application might not stand out if you don’t present yourself well. This may seem intimidating or daunting, but incorporating your voice into your essays can help them jump out. Here are a few tips:

  • Stay (relatively) formal: using your voice does not mean you should be using “like” every other word, nor does it mean you should use lots of slang or any profanities. You still want to sound like a smart and accomplished young adult.
  • Show your personality: if you are a very funny person, feel free to include some humorous lines or phrases. If you are not a funny person, don’t try to force it.
  • Add specific and unique details: sometimes incorporating your voice can be as simple as writing in a few snippets of description or dialogue to better convey your situation, background, or ideas.

If a friend was reading your essays, would she know that they were written by you? When you are looking over what you’ve written, does it sound like your voice? By incorporating your voice into your application essays, admissions officers will be more likely to remember you and fight for you to be accepted.

What You Can Contribute

Many universities have published their 50 percentile test scores and other admissions data that can give a sense of whether you are academically strong enough to get in. However, admissions officers also care about what you can contribute to their school. Athletic skills, unique talents, leadership experiences, and ability to rise above adversity can all influence their decisions. By portraying yourself as a strong student academically and a very talented fill-in-the-blank, you will demonstrate what you can contribute to the university beyond the classroom. If you stand out as the football player who volunteers with underprivileged kids, the math genius who is also an award-winning artist, or the coding kid who 3D-prints ventilators, you are showing that you are not only good enough to get in, but that the university needs you and your abilities/talents for the next four years. 

Admissions officers want interesting, talented students who will utilize their school’s resources and do incredible things. The college application process can seem intimidating, but you have already put in the work, so let your applications portray your true, amazing self!