If you’re planning to apply to college, submitting the perfect application and getting into your dream school can be a huge source of anxiety for many students. And according to Ed Boland, a former Yale University admissions officer and author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Battle for Room 314,” the admissions process isn’t always cut and dry. With so many applications and so few spots, trimming down the application pool can be challenging.
“Of the applications you review, probably 90% of the kids could come and thrive at that college,” he says. “It’s really hard to decide who’s going to be given the opportunity at a selective place because almost everyone has worked hard.”
But, of course, working hard isn’t the only thing that secures a spot in a selective school. Boland says that children of alumni, student athletes, and more affluent students often have the edge in the admissions process.
“I’ve been working in the college admissions business for the last 20-plus years, and one thing that I’ve learned is that the system isn’t fair and never will be fair,” he says.
But there are ways to stand out, and Boland shared his 5 tips for cracking the college admissions code.
TIP 1: Focus on your essay
Boland says the essay is the most important part of your college application.
“It’s where the student gets to shine, where you hear their voice most directly,” he says. “It’s a really excellent tool to see what students’ motivations are and what their personality is like.”
Boland says students should get creative, and shared one particular essay from a “serial farter” that stood out in his years of experience. “At first, I thought it was an outrageous essay,” he says. “But the more I read it, I realized it was actually a meditation on modern feminism and how no one would ever suspect her of being a serial farter. And at the end of it I just thought it was so original—it really gave her a leg up.”
Boland says to focus on being yourself, and your creativity and personality will shine through, regardless of the subject matter.
TIP 2: Don’t fake it in your interview
The interview is another opportunity to let your personality shine, Boland says.
“I think a lot of students come in expecting to show the college admissions officer the person they think the college wants to see instead of who they really are, and that’s a mistake,” Boland says. “What people are looking for in an interview is a sense of authenticity, is a sense of your personality.”
Boland’s advice? Be yourself!
“I tell kids: be yourself. Show your true colors. Tell what you’re passionate about and tell us what you’ll contribute to the school community,” he says.
TIP 3: Do it for yourself
Boland’s biggest pet peeve is hearing students say “I’m doing it for college.”
“It makes me sick. That’s not why students should be working hard. They should be doing it because they’re genuinely and authentically interested in it,” he says.
Boland says by focusing on what you want to be doing, you’ll be more passionate about your interests, which will come through in your application.
“Don’t take that Advanced Placement calculus course for your mother, for your teacher or for Princeton—do it for yourself,” he says. “You’ll shine instead of building credentials for a school.”
TIP 4: Find your hook
While you may have a particular school in mind, Boland says you should think about where you will stand out as an applicant.
“That’s going to give you a competitive advantage in certain situations, to find a school where you’re going to stand out because of your background or geography,” he says.
Anything that will set you apart in a pool of similarly qualified applicants will play to your advantage, Boland says.
“When you’re burning through hundreds of folders during the application season, it’s really refreshing to come across someone who is very much unusual for that pool.”
TIP 5: Apply, apply, apply!
Boland says students shouldn’t limit themselves when it comes to applying to colleges.
“Every student should have a series of schools that are reaches, safeties and in the middle,” he says. “I really encourage students to to shoot high because you never know; the process is quirky and why not try it.”
At the end of the day, Boland says it comes down to two things: “There’s no shortcuts, there’s no substitutes. Hard work and curiosity are two of the most compelling things that will make students stand out,” he says.