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Harvard University

A Better Way to Stand out in College Admissions!

college admissions May 04, 2022

"To get into this university, we chose to detach ourselves from normal human experiences, neglecting our interests, hobbies, robust social lives – anything that couldn't appear on a college application or be touted in an interview. Almost everything in life was subordinate to whatever was necessary to get into college.

Our life’s mission has been to please those who can grant or withhold approval: parents, teachers, coaches, admissions offices and job interviewers. As a result, many of us don’t know what we believe or what matters to us."

— Feb 23rd, 2022 WSJ opinion piece by Julie Hartman, senior at Harvard

There is absolutely another way to approach college admissions! I was so disheartened when I read this piece in the Wall Street Journal. It highlights something I see in high school students every day - they sacrifice everything in an attempt to do it all.  Students take on every activity and seize every opportunity to add one more thing to their college application. In the process, they sacrifice sleep, mental health, meaningful relationships, and fun.

Let me explain why this is a bad way to approach college admissions, beyond even the personal sacrifice and unsustainability. Colleges want a diverse class of students NOT necessarily diverse students. So that means, the most effective approach is to determine what your niche is, dive deep into backing that up with meaningful activities, and then use the application to demonstrate exactly how you will fit into the incoming class.

When students take on every activity they possibly can to impress colleges, it confuses their message. What is this student all about? Also, keep in mind that the Common App (the platform you’ll most likely use to actually fill out your application), only provides space for 10 activities. Colleges are going to be focusing on the top ones and skimming over activities 8, 9, 10. Which means that they are giving even less time to extra activities you tried to squeeze into your application by submitting a resume or shoving into the additional information section.

There is a different way to approach college admissions (and life)! Being intentional and focused in your activities can help bring meaning and joy back into your life. AND it can give you the kind of application that will be attractive to schools like Harvard and many others. This means quality over quantity when it comes to activities. Make the admissions officers say “Wow!” when they read activity #1, 2, and 3. Don’t make them attempt to give meaning to 15 different, disjointed activities.

So how do you approach admissions (and life!) with focus and intentionality? I break this into two stages: discovery and demonstration.

  • Discover - Clearly you can’t show colleges what matters most to you if you don’t know the answer yourself. Be intentional about trying new things to see what brings you joy. If you are already a junior or even a senior, it’s not too late. Ask yourself, what are you involved in that really sparks your interest. What common threads connect what you are already doing? What makes you lose all sense of time? What causes do you care deeply about? 
  • Demonstration - Once you know what drives you, now you need to demonstrate it. Can you start a club or organization? Can you do research? Can you create an independent project? It’s ok to start small and grow the activities over time. 


Keep in mind that a college acceptance is just one step in a very long journey in your life. Ask yourself (or your child), can you keep up this pace forever? If you don’t find meaning beyond the next acceptance letter or job offer, will you be able to motivate yourself long term? When you find your why, your drive will take you far beyond your expectations. You will feel rejuvenated, not drained by your efforts. 

Want to chat about how I can specifically help your child? 

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