How to Get In

What admissions officers are looking for.

The academic transcript may be the most important piece of any college application, but admissions officers are seeking multidimensional applicants—young people who engage in their learning and the world beyond the classroom in meaningful ways. 

But what exactly does that mean? 

All too often, I’ve seen parents and students approach the process of building a resume from the wrong perspective. They seek to fill the pages with a smorgasbord of clubs, community service, sports, employment, summer programs, awards, and accolades. They possess the false belief that quantity will outshine quality. 

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The truth is, admissions officers want to construct a well-rounded class of undergraduates. That’s why doing a little bit of everything is only slightly more favorable to doing nothing. How can students who “have it all and do it all” be distinguished from a sea of applicants with near-identical credentials? And how can admissions officers understand an applicant if they can’t figure out who he or she truly is? 

Whenever I speak with families about the college prep process, I tell them an admissions officer is a person. People accept—and deny—other people. People want to understand other people. They want to understand their motivations and passions, hopes and dreams. 

That’s not to say that students should necessarily be specialists. But there are ways for them to embrace their passions in multifaceted and meaningful ways. Take the teenager who spends endless hours in a garage with friends, jamming out and writing music. To many parents, this seems like an activity unworthy of a college resume. Then again, forming a band shows initiative and passion, leadership and organization, and literary and musical talent. 

There are countless opportunities for students to express their passions in personal and meaningful ways. If they want to travel, there are abroad programs that educate and engage, as opposed to simply touring. 

Admissions officers know when students aren’t authentic, and they know when they’re fudging a resume to appear more accomplished. In turn, students don’t need to be maestros or all-stars or revolutionary thinkers to be attractive to even the country’s most elite institutions. And high school needn’t amount to an endless string of unfulfilling commitments. 

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When I’m helping students with their college essays, I ask them, “What do I need to know about you?” That is, after all, what admissions officers are wondering.

All students have a story. They simply need to embrace it.

Eric Karlan is a co-founder and co-director of Ivy Experience, a local test prep, essay consulting and academic tutoring company. Visit

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