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Mosaics (Part One)

I’ve done a lot of admissions work in my life and still talk to a lot of students about how to stand out from the crowd.  My advice is quite simple.  

October 30, 2014

I’ve done a lot of admissions work in my life, including managing the admissions team for a top-tier business school, being on the admissions committee for one of the most selective schools on the planet, and overseeing admissions for less selective programs.  While I now run much larger operations, I’ve always kept my hand in admissions and still coach a lot of neighborhood kids and sons and daughters of friends on how to stand out from the crowd. I’ve also passed the secret on to my own children and they utilized this advice to gain admission to their top-choice school during the early decision round.

To put my advice in context, I have always looked at a student’s application as a mosaic – we cannot know what the image is until we see all of the tiles.  A high school or undergraduate GPA is one tile, but only one, and impossible to know what the picture looks like until we see more.  An undergraduate school (or high school) is another tile.  Course of study or classes taken is another.  Recommendations are another tile.  Test scores are yet another tile or two.  It’s the admissions essay that gives the student mosaic its color and context, organizing the tiles into a coherent image.  Students often stress about GPA and test scores and I tell them not to – they are in the past and only tell part of the story.  It’s the essay that tells the student’s unique story, putting other aspects in context and telling a more complete story.  

My advice to students is simple, but risky: Be yourself, let your true colors fly, and tell the story that only you can tell.  If students try to package themselves to be what they believe a school is looking for, they will sound like at least one thousand other applicants and there will be no reason for an admissions officer to pull them out of the pile for the ‘admit’ list. 

The truth is that the vast majority of application essays are dry, boring, implausible, stilted, over-engineered, or just plain forgettable.  Then there are the essays I’ll never forget – those that made me want to bet on that student even if her grades and test scores were below the threshold, those that made me feel that I had never had a bad day in my life by comparison, those that inspired me to change the way I thought about something, and even some that made me cry.  There were stories about failures that led to success, failures that remained failures, big wins, teamwork, individual contributions, lessons learned from letting others down – or being let down, being different, eccentric hobbies, and finding purpose and direction through unconventional experiences.  These essays often portrayed a student with self-awareness, resilience, quirkiness, determination, the ability to rally support, or grit.  These essays, and these students, truly stood out from the crowd – and most of them in a positive way. 

Don’t underestimate the risk in this strategy, though. If a student writes about his love of dogs and the reader of that essay has a morbid fear of dogs, it’s a risk. If a student writes about her political views and the reader has different views, it’s a risk. If a student writes about his love of trivia contests and the reader thinks this is a trivial pursuit, it’s a risk.

But not taking the risk of letting a student’s true colors show may be a bigger risk and condemn an applicant to the bottom of the waitlist or to the reject pile. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” 


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