• Dr. Thom

What Does it Really Mean to Stand Out in Your Application?


After working two decades in selective admissions, I find that the hardest experience to explain and impart to clients is what it is like to read hundreds of applications, day after day. The average file reading load for a first-year admissions officer at a highly selective university will often well exceed a thousand applications, and it is difficult to convey the psychological weight brought on by piles of files that size (though the admissions officers at the University of Delaware tried in fantastic tongue and cheek fashion).


While I genuinely enjoyed the singular task of getting to know a student through the application process, taken as a collective, it was exhausting, tedious, and if I’m totally honest, very boring. Unfortunately, most applications are woefully uninspiring, with a ton of similarity. I am not in any way trying to generate an ounce of sympathy here for the admissions officer, but rather, I would invite you to earnestly put yourself in that mindset as you think of your own application. What would make your application stand out and really connect, given the pile of files into which your application will sit?


So why is file reading boring? I’ll get to that.


First, I need to tell you about a reading season once experienced by a good friend of mine who has worked at a Catholic university in Wisconsin. It’s always a challenge for admissions offices to come up with imaginative supplemental essays that will present applicants with an opportunity to share the breadth of their perspectives. My friend shared the experience of adding one question to their application that seemed like a winner:


“If you were taking a cross-country road trip and could be accompanied by only two people (dead or alive), who would you pick?


Now, who would you think the two most mentioned figures from history would applicants pick? Keep in mind that this school is a Catholic university.


Right. Jesus and the Pope.


I can only imagine my friend pulling another file from the deck, holding it to his forehead like Carnac the Magnificent with a hermetically sealed envelope, and saying to himself, “Let me guess: Jesus and the Pope.”


That’s because applicants are in a constant search for the “right” answer, trying desperately to say the “phrase that pays.” College students are supposed to think a certain way, right? The ideal candidate must be academically rigorous, intellectually curious, and with just the right amount of extracurricular balance. It’s like how you might describe a nice ‘08 Malbec.


This, in combination with the collective of internet voices and endless array of books that instruct you to stand out in your college essay by being funny, wacky, shocking, or use some other non-conventional writing device. This advice places form and writing technique center stage, leading most to languish in “trying too hard.”


So what does standing out look like, given all of this? It’s two things:

  1. Authenticity

  2. Emotion

Being authentic in your application means that you are unapologetic about what makes you . . . you. It is a cyclical process of embracing that we are not fixed entities, but rather works in progress, identifying openly how we want to grow while also loving the imperfections we inevitably find along the way. As we have explained in another post, combining an authentically grounded point of view with genuine emotion, meaning that it represents a human emotion (joy, sadness, anticipation, anger) is how you can connect with the person reading your application.


Trust me, the individual reading your application is looking to understand you as a person. The more human you are, the more you stand out because everyone else is looking for some magic formula.


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