5 Unusual College Applications and Why They Didn’t (or Did) Work
March 11, 2021
Have you been thinking about submitting an atypical college application? Learn from a veteran admissions dean how going above and beyond can sometimes backfire.
Having served as an admissions dean at a selective university for nearly 30 years, it should come as no surprise that I have seen some pretty unorthodox approaches to the application process.
“Unorthodox" is one of those words that has a little more specificity than “interesting" or “unusual" to describe outliers — people or things that don’t fit into a traditional category. As you might imagine, some of the students who have taken risks on their college applications have ended up getting good news. Others have left people in the admission office scratching our heads and saying, “What was she thinking?"
Here are a few examples that might either inspire you or dissuade you from submitting an atypical application.
# The Excessive Recommendee
I am not sure what the overall record is for the greatest number of recommendations submitted on behalf of one student, but 36 is the most that I have read. Really.
These recommendations came from teachers, coaches, heads of community service program, leaders of summer enrichment programs, and more, and many dated back to the student’s freshman year of high school. Virtually every one of the recommendations said the same thing: the student is a good hard worker, a nice person, and would do well in college. Most of them were short and contained a few supportive abstractions, but very little useful detail or insights about the student that would help in making a decision.
Why It Didn’t Work
This level of overkill demonstrates a lack of judgment on the part of the student. Recommendations help when they are detailed, focused, and address specifics about an applicant’s background. It’s not the number of recommendations that matters, but the quality of a few well-chosen letters. It’s also worth noting that giving admission officers a huge amount of extra work in order to evaluate an application is not a wise move.
Most selective colleges and universities now use the Common Application. This permits a student to submit a very limited number of recommendations (usually three at most). Exceeding this number, especially with recommendations that do not add specific detail or unique information, indicates that a student may not be willing or able to follow directions. This may hurt her chances of being admitted.
# The Oversharer
Another example that falls in the “too much" category has to do with supplemental materials that are not required. In one particular case, a student sent in every certificate, every report card, every commendation, and every standardized test score starting in kindergarten. All these materials added up to over 100 pages, and what’s more is that they were concerned almost exclusively with the student’s accomplishments from age 5 to 12, a time that is not particularly predictive of success in college.
Why It Didn’t Work
I would like to think the student was doing this with a bit of irony, but the hard truth is that she was not admitted. The student contacted me and asked why all the supplementary materials did not stand out compared to other applicants. The problem with her application was that while it highlighted her earlier successes, it did not address the less-than-great grades that appeared on her high school transcript.
Much of the supplemental material that students send in to colleges (photos, term papers, certificates) do not get even get a cursory look from the admission office. By using the Common App and communicating requirements on their own websites, schools try to make it as clear as possible what they wish to evaluate. Materials that come in beyond these guidelines often end up occupying space in a storage closet. Since applications these days are almost entirely electronic, there simply isn’t any convenient way to integrate some of these supplementary documents into a submission. As in the case above, failure to follow a school’s suggestions or requirements draws attention to the student’s noncompliance, and usually not in a good way.
# The Angry Follow-Upper
My last example of what not to do during the application process concerns writing in after being wait-listed. A school almost always writes to students on the waitlist asking whether they wish to remain in consideration for a spot in the incoming class.
Most who decide to stay on write back, often including updated academic information or a statement explaining that the school is their first choice and they will attend if admitted. This kind of letter is helpful. But there have been a few that have taken a different approach by articulating their dissatisfaction with being wait-listed, one that I don’t think has ever turned out well.
Why It Didn’t Work
Some students write to the schools and say either directly or indirectly that the institution has made a huge mistake in not admitting them. In other words, the tone the student uses in her response is that such that she comes across as entitled and indignant. She feels that she deserved a spot and that the school was in error in not admitting her immediately.
I am aware of how disappointing it can be to be denied admission to a school, but telling admissions officers that they did not do their job well — of selecting the right students — is not the best way to convince these people to change their decision. A student who comes across as arrogant or angry does not convey traits that a school values (to say the least).
Chiding the school for making a mistake will not help — neither will writing things like, “I know of a student with lower SAT scores from my school who got in," and, of course, the same goes for GPA or ACT scores, too. It should go without saying, but letters and emails like these should be avoided.
Admission decisions by highly selective schools are not based on simplistic formulas. Selective schools pride themselves on making holistic determinations. And there is more to consider than just a GPA or an SAT score. Many schools have institutional priorities that shape admissions decisions: An athletic recruit or a student from alumni parents, for example, may well get in before a student who has no pre-existing relationship with the school. Complaining about this in hopes of getting a school to change its decision is self-defeating.
If some students have hurt their chances for admission by doing too much, some have helped them by doing something special and memorable. There are many examples of unique accomplishments, activities, and experiences that have helped students gain admission — some are noteworthy on their own, and some are simply described in a particularly compelling way on an application.
A few applicants are memorable for obvious reasons: the body surfing champion of North America, for example, or the student who negotiated for her parents’ lives when they were kidnapped.
Other applicants have written moving and effective personal statements about overcoming some kind of disadvantage or difficulty — poverty, racism, homophobia — and these kids often get a boost in order to diversify the class, but also because these applicants demonstrate grit.
The majority of students who apply to highly selective schools, however, have had relatively stable lives and have attended good schools. These students stand out not so much for what they have overcome but for their achievements, character, and future promise.
Instead of trying to do what no one else has ever done, the outliers who should serve as examples for others are the ones who do great things to improve people’s day-to-day lives.
One student interested in teaching submitted a recommendation from a local elementary school principal who wrote about how the applicant had volunteered to tutor and mentor students over a four-year period. The student followed these kids from kindergarten through third grade. The recommendation was exceptional because this one student helped change the lives of these students who came from very low-income backgrounds.
Why It Worked
In short, the principal’s words helped the student to stand out, but the applicant herself also submitted something extra. I know that above I said this does not often work, but in this case it did.
She included short statements from each student she helped through the years. These kids thanked the applicant for all she had done to teach, guide, and inspire them. The letters were real, and they showed how the student’s writing improved. In one relatively simple gesture, smaller certainly than submitting 100 pages of supplementary materials, this applicant demonstrated her passion for teaching and for helping others. She was able to effectively speak through the voices of the student she helped over several years. In dedicating hundreds of hours to these children, she did far more to change the world than someone who went on a weeklong service trip, and this was evident in her application.
The student also included some photos of the students as they grew from year to year and even testimonials from the parents of the students. Some think that students only do volunteer work in order to look good on an application, but this student clearly had a lot of joy in her heart when she helped these children.
# The Editor
One student sent me a package. Normally these packages contain an assortment of documents, certificates, and other artifacts I mentioned above. This student, however, sent along five issues of the school’s literary magazine. Together, these covered a period of two and a half years. She included a cover letter that outlined the creative work she submitted and published each year — excellent work, too — and explained how she had moved from a contributing role to become the editor-in-chief.
This applicant had, at some point during her involvement with the journal, reached out to the larger school community to obtain funding. This led to a metamorphosis for her publication. It had gone — in a span shorter than three years — from a fairly standard secondary school magazine to one that looked as good (or better) than many professional or academic literary journals.
Why It Worked
In sending along this relatively small set of supplementary materials, this student showed my colleagues and me that she would contribute not just wonderful words to our campus community. She demonstrated that she would bring along with her editing talents, ability to network, and knack for building a community. This is yet another example of a student showing us in a concrete way her long-term commitment to a project. Applications like this tend to stand out from the crowd.
Success in a relatively small pursuit over a long period of time can help students stand out. I used the word “outlier" earlier not by accident. Author Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book of that title how those hoping to be great at something are outliers in part because they put in the hours necessary to be really successful. A lot of students think that they have to be great at a sport or some other high-profile activity. But an outlier can be someone helping others, or doing something simple but effective over the long term.
Those who try to join the “right" activities in hopes that they can help their applications are missing the point. Any activity can be great, and any student can be an outlier. Bringing passion to something and demonstrating both ability and long-term commitment can help predict whether a student will continue to develop similar skills. At the very least it can tell admissions officers whether that student will continue to commit time and effort to whatever they choose to study or participate in.
Throughout this article, I have deliberately avoided trying to impress readers with jaw-dropping accomplishments, as these are simply impossible for some. Being 7 feet 4 inches tall, for instance, can go a long way toward making someone a basketball star. Taking advantage of a physical trait you’re born with is one thing, but there are so many other ways — most of which happen on a small scale — to make yourself stand out among other applicants. I want to tell students that they can be outliers by looking into themselves and finding something they love to do and doing it to the best of their abilities.
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