How I Read a College Application, Exactly


How I Read a College Application, Exactly

I loved reading college applications at Dartmouth! Each one was like a riddle where I would try to fit the pieces of information together and form a complete image of an applicant in my mind. Every hopeful student wonders what happens to their college application behind the closed doors of admissions offices. Which applications rise to the top in a virtual stack of thousands?

The applications I rated most highly were the ones that told compelling and memorable stories. Every single part of the college application can be part of this story, if you do it right. There are some optional subsections, but I advise you to supply all of the possible information. The fuller each page, the more I felt that an applicant was actually engaged in the process. Each “Undecided” felt like a wasted opportunity to me, where the applicant had a chance to share a glimpse of their interests and decided not to. I’m going to reflect on each part of the Common Application to illustrate what I mean.

Profile and Family:

The profile and family sections are certainly straightforward, but there is room even here to help Admissions Officers get to know you. “Preferred name (nickname)” is a place to start. If your name is Narcissus but everyone calls you Nardi, I want to know that! (Obviously if you are named Elizabeth or Robert and you shun the dozens of diminutive forms, that’s fine too.)

Share as much as you feel comfortable when it comes to demographics and financial need. Every bit of information adds to the story of who you are.


There is a subsection under education that always particularly interested me: “Colleges and Universities.” The majority of applicants have a blank page here, but if college courses were noted, I was riveted. I put a lot of stock in noting the subjects studied outside of traditional high school classes. Did you take all of the science courses at your high school, but wanted to do more at your local community college? Were you always interested in learning Hindi, but it wasn't offered at your high school so you looked into other options? To me, this showed curiosity and persistence. The coursework and GPA sections are obviously important, and I always looked for academic choices and emphasis that built a narrative of particular interests. If you talk about how much you love English literature in your personal statement, I liked seeing this shine through coursework choices.

The Common App honors section rarely resonated strongly with me. With few exceptions, it is difficult to determine the relative importance of school and local awards. At some schools, for instance, National Honor Society is highly competitive and reflects impressive achievement. At other schools, half of the senior class has been admitted to NHS and it’s essentially meaningless. So, try to make a strong impact with your 100-character honors titles! Make admissions officers care about this mini-list.

The future plans section is a perfect example of a place to take a stand! I wanted to know about applicants’ plans. I was aware that plans might change— most are likely to change. I still wanted to know— at that moment in time— what are the plans? "Undecided" made me feel as though an applicant lacked passion, drive, or focus.


I read applications for an Ivy League school where testing was required, so I preferred when students self-reported as much information as possible. I was impressed when high test scores took only one sitting, and underwhelmed (regardless of the score) if the test was taken more than 3 times. Study hard, and take the test when you are ready to perform your best. Word to the wise: you do not need to submit both SAT and ACT scores. I was always perplexed when students sent stellar SAT sittings, but a weak ACT performance, or vice versa.


My favorite section to read! If done properly, the Common App activities list was like a layered essay with 10 chapters, each one bringing me closer to understanding my protagonist. I loved seeing themes emerge, suspicions confirmed. The kid who took a freshman literature course at the community college also started a high school book club? I loved stuff like that. The biggest mistake a student can make here is treating the activities list as merely a form they need to fill out. Every part of this section has power, from your 150-character description, to the order of your activities, and how you categorize each activity. Carefully strategize the activities list to show your passions, initiative, and impact.


This is the section that everyone thinks starts the narrative of the college application. But by the time I reached this point of the Common App, I was ready for the story’s climax, whatever that might be. I appreciated it when the personal statement confirmed my suspicions about a student’s character or passions. I enjoyed surprises when the personal statement showed a new and unexpected part of the story. I loved when the writing was strong enough to make me laugh or cry or care. The greatest sin to me here was to be boring or disingenuous. I’d take a grammatical error over a pretentious essay any day. Although most of all, I hated pretentious grammatical errors. The worst examples of this were subject pronouns used when object pronouns were called for: “The teacher gave the award to Nikki and I—” No! No, she didn’t. This doesn’t sound fancy, it sounds incorrect!


So as my grammar tantrum may indicate, Admissions Officers are only human. We have our biases and peeves and preferences. We get training to be more aware of these factors and to mitigate them while we evaluate college applications, but they exist. While I read college applications, I did my best to be fair and respectful of applicants who pushed my buttons, even though some seemed to be doing it deliberately. I read each college application with as much interest and care as possible. I still remember some of my favorite applicants out of the virtual piles of thousands. They’re like favorite book characters that you can’t help but wonder what happened to them…

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