College admissions is as competitive as ever, and standing out in a crowd of qualified applicants gets harder and harder. Former admissions officers Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey show applicants how to use every single part of the college application to go from LMO—“Like Many Others”—to Admit.
If you’re like many American families, you’re probably dreading the college application process. And no wonder. All around you, you’ve seen great kids with stellar credentials get denied by top schools and you wonder what on earth they could have done wrong. You conclude that getting into a top college must require making a seven-figure donation, schmoozing the right VIPs, or turning into a Tiger Mom.
Calm down and take a deep breath. Despite what appearances may lead you to believe, getting into a competitive college is not about pull, and it’s certainly not about lack of qualifications. Those great kids who weren’t accepted are qualified and do have the credentials. So what goes wrong in the application process for so many?
“Where many great applicants go wrong is with the application itself,” says Alison Cooper Chisolm, coauthor with Anna Ivey of How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, August 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1184144-0-8, $16.95, www.AnnaIvey.com). “Read as a whole, the application file has to make that ‘great kid’ stand out from all the other great kids in the applicant pool. Actually, admissions officers have shorthand to describe applicants with the right credentials who don’t submit standout applications. They’re called LMOs, short for ‘like many others.’”
“The key thing for families to realize is that great credentials get you only halfway to Admit,” adds Ivey. “The second half of your job as an applicant is showcasing your credentials and telling your story throughout the entire application. Every single part of the application matters, even ones that seem basic or look trivial. There are no ‘throw-away’ lines or sections, and each one is an opportunity that you can’t afford to squander.”
The authors, both former admissions officers, speak from experience. Having been able to admit only 10 out of every 100 quality applicants, they know how students can best leverage their credentials to stand out from their peers, and they share their insider’s perspective in How to Prepare a Standout College Application. This practical and authoritative guide is updated for the latest version of the Common Application (which applicants will begin using this fall), and includes information on every aspect of the college application.
“Families are desperate for this advice,” says Chisolm. “With more than half-a-million kids who want to get into a top college every year, the application process is brutally competitive.” In fact, Harvard made national headlines last year after receiving 35,000 applications—but even the non-Harvards are now intensely competitive. “The top U.S. colleges could fill their classes just with valedictorians many times over, and they’re scouting for talent around the world,” says Ivey.
That being the case, it’s not at all surprising that The Princeton Review’s 2013 College Hopes and Worries Survey revealed that 70 percent of students (and 67 percent of parents!) gauged their stress levels about the college application process as “very high/high.”
“Even many well-educated and well-connected parents are bewildered by the process and find themselves on the edge of panic as they worry about their children’s futures,” comments Ivey. “And as that stress grows apace with the competitiveness of getting in, college admissions is widely experienced as something to be survived.”
If you feel like you’re barely hanging on in the midst of college-application-hoopla (or even if you think you have everything under control), read on for six tactics that Chisolm and Ivey say will make your application unlike many others:
Cut the fat. If you have a lot of academic honors, list only the most significant ones. Go for quality, not quantity, when filling out your application. Mixing all of your accomplishments up regardless of importance will dilute the impact of the most prestigious ones. If you bury the fact that you’re an Intel Scholar (an honor bestowed on about 40 high school students per year in the entire United States) in a list with 15 other honors, like that high honor roll award given every semester to almost 100 people at your school, you’re not showcasing your most important honor effectively.
“The same is true for activities,” adds Chisolm. “No admissions officer is going to care that you go to Zumba class every Saturday morning. Cut the fat so that you can draw attention to the muscle, like the fact that you’re an avid fiddler and frequently participate in bluegrass jam sessions.”
Think broadly about your activities. In the world of college admissions, activities reach beyond school-related clubs, team sports, and paid employment, so think broadly about your activities. You’ll be missing an important part of your story, for example, if you decide not to list all the time you spend caring for your ailing grandmother, or the many afternoons you spent trying to write the perfect sonnet.
“What you choose to list here says a lot about who you are and what matters to you,” Ivey explains. “Don’t let the grid format mislead you about what belongs there. Admissions officers really do want to get a complete picture of who you are, what interests you, and how you spend your time.”
Decode your essay questions. Colleges are getting more and more creative with their essay questions (“What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” “What does #YOLO mean to you?”). If you feel slightly panicked as you stare at your computer screen and wonder if you’re about to type a response to a trick question, you’re not alone. But no matter how strange they may seem, Chisolm says that all college essay questions are ultimately getting at the same thing: They’re asking about you.
“Even if they don’t ask directly, these questions want to learn how you think and look at the world, and they want you to convey those things in your own voice,” she shares. “Hint: Your voice is not your parents’ voice, your teachers’ voice, or your friends’ voice. You can make any college essay question serve as a window into your mind, because you’ll be writing about a subject you know really well: you! As you write, be honest, and be careful not to let your efforts to be clever or witty hijack your true thoughts and feelings.”
Nail the “Why College X” questions. Many applications ask you explicitly why you want to attend their college. These are by far the most painful answers for admissions officers to read. Why? Because applicants find so many ways to mess up their answers. If you can’t answer accurately and in detail why you want to attend a particular school, you might want to rethink applying to it.
“Believe it or not, some applicants include the wrong school name through copy-and-pasting errors, or they give an answer that’s so generic that they could be (and probably are) using it for all their schools,” Chisolm comments. “This particular type of question is a huge opportunity to distinguish yourself, and one that many applicants fail to take advantage of. Remember, admissions officers want to admit students who are excited about their school’s medieval studies program, for example, or who are ready to join its ecomarathon team.”
Vet every piece of information you list (and some you don’t). Something as basic as your email address doesn’t matter one way or the other, right? Wrong. Think about what impression you’re making if one of the first things an admissions officer learns about you is that you’re AbercrombieBabe23.
“First impressions count, and in the case of your application, that includes your contact information,” Ivey asserts. “Nothing you list on your application is too trivial to overlook. Also be mindful of nicknames, and even what kind of impression your social media profiles might make on a casual observer. You might not put your Instagram handle on your application, true—but that doesn’t mean that admissions officers won’t find it.”
Don’t waste the Additional Information section. Are you frustrated because you feel that the demographic boxes you’re asked to check on applications—say, about your race or family composition—don’t quite fit your life? Or maybe you want to say more about a particular academic honor that isn’t self-explanatory, but wonder how you can do so with very limited space.
“The Additional Information section is the perfect chance to provide these optional explanations,” says Chisolm. “Many applicants skip this section because they’re not explicitly instructed or required to put anything there, but it really is a great opportunity to convey important information that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else. Use it!”
“As record numbers of students apply to colleges across the country, there is an obvious and deep hunger for guidance through the process,” concludes Chisolm. “The good news is, by taking time to learn about what college admissions officers want before filling out applications, you can maximize your chances of acceptance while minimizing anxiety and family stress,” says Chisolm.
“You can’t make the college admissions process less competitive, but you can compete smarter and better,” adds Ivey.
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About the Authors:
Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey are the coauthors of How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit. They work together at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ivey College Consulting, an admissions coaching firm that helps applicants around the world get into top U.S. colleges.
Their blog can be read at www.AnnaIvey.com. They can be followed on Facebook at /IveyCollege and on Twitter at @IveyCollege.
Alison Cooper Chisolm draws on her admissions experience at three of the nation’s most selective universities: Southern Methodist University, the University of Chicago, and (most recently) Dartmouth College. She knows what makes a student go from “LMO” to “Admit,” because she has read their files, interviewed them, and made admissions decisions on their applications. She has seen and evaluated every kind of applicant from home schooler to international student to top-of-the-class prep schooler. Alison received her undergraduate degree at Yale and her law degree at the University of Virginia.
Anna Ivey is a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, where she made final admissions decisions on thousands of applicants. Inspired to help applicants navigate the admissions process more effectively, she founded Ivey Consulting and assembled a first-rate team of experts to coach college, law school, and business school applicants one-on-one. She has been featured as an admissions and career expert in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Smart Money, CNN, and Fox News. Anna received her undergraduate degree from Columbia and her law degree from the University of Chicago. This is her second admissions book.
About the Book:
How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, August 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1184144-0-8, $16.95, www.AnnaIvey.com) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling (877) 762-2974. For more information, please visit the publisher’s book page.