The Big Mistake You’re Making With Your College Applications

When I applied to colleges last fall, I thought that with my many accolades and achievements, colleges would be practically recruiting me. You might have a similar mindset: Oh, I’ve done a, b, and c, placed 1st in x, y, and z, and participated in activity 1, 2, and 3. You might be thinking that colleges would definitely want someone like you, who has done so much during their high school career, right?

Nope. False. Nada.

The biggest problem with this mindset is that it assumes your accomplishments will stand for themselves and provide the credibility you need to get accepted to the universities you want. I gave the colleges my resume with all of the things I did. I described those things in my essays. I tried to make myself sound as impressive as possible by sharing all of the various things that I did in high school. It’s as if I flung myself at the colleges’ doorsteps and expected them to take me in. This could not have been more wrong, and leads us to The Big Mistake:

The Big Mistake

You assume your academic performance, superb personality, research, jobs, leadership positions, personal integrity, hobbies, and/or honors and awards from extracurriculars are impressive enough to provide you the credibility to get into most, if not all, of the universities you’re applying to.

What it means

The applicant with the most impressive resume is not the most desirable to universities.

Fixing the Big Mistake

How can we remedy our applications? It’s not enough to present a list of prestigious places you’ve studied or worked at — it’s about demonstrating that you made the most of a given situation, and can differentiate yourself from any other student who has worked/studied in that position.

Recognize that you are not unique. What you’ve accomplished in high school is not unique, and for highly competitive universities there are at least 100 other applicants with the same achievements that you have. Instead of focusing on what you’ve done, focus on how you’ve done it, or the hard work you had to do to have the opportunity to do it. The ways that you made the most of the situations given to you are more important than the situations themselves.

With regards to <insert job, award, or accolade here>, assume that there are hundreds others with the same achievement. Ask yourself: What makes your experience while doing this different than anyone else’s experience while doing the same thing? How did you differentiate yourself from the others?

The reason my applications resulted in more denials than acceptances is because I did not specify why I was unique. I believed that my accolades by themselves were unique enough to provide me credibility, when in fact I needed to explain the specific experiences I had or actions that I took earning those accolades in order to set myself apart.


One of the easiest ways to set yourself apart is by providing numbers, or quantifying.

Quantifying your influence

I could say “Improved early-stage detection of pancreatic cancer,” but when I add “by increasing the relative number of Stage I diagnoses by 26%,” you have a quantitative understanding of what I brought to that project and why my work is different than someone else’s. In this case, the quantification is of my own impact.

Quantifying your achievement

I could say “Awarded the rank of ‘Finalist’,” but that’s a fairly arbitrary ranking. When I add “top 1% of 671 teams,” you have a quantitative understanding of the effort or talent, and the exact number of other teams that I performed better than or am different from. In this case, the quantification is comparing myself to others.


Another way to set yourself apart is through a more personal or emotional route, or qualification. These methods are more suitable for college essays, which often request you to describe yourself personally in an effort to get to know you. The caveat with qualitative methods is they’re not as unique as quantitative methods — that is, others could have the same thoughts and emotions regarding an experience, so be sure to balance qualification with quantification.

Qualifying your character

Rather than attempt to quantify your humor, compassion, or other characteristics, provide examples, qualitative or quantitative, that demonstrate the trait. For example, I could say “I am caring and want everyone to have the opportunity to learn computer science.” To illustrate this, I might mention that “I spent 5 hours a week developing curriculum for and teaching beginners in computer science.” Note that I quantify a primarily qualitative activity to give credence to my description.

Qualifying your growth

I could say “Worked at Techstars,” but millions of other kids also held jobs while in high school. When I add “I feel more comfortable working with diverse teams, environments, and tech stacks because of the rapid, projects-based nature of working at Techstars,” I create a personal reflection of my growth because of my experience.

Qualifying your motivation

In contrast to growth, which is the personal result of an experience, motivation is the reason you wanted to have the experience in the first place. Your motivation might not be personal growth. For example, I could say “Worked at a finance firm,” but adding “to better understand the US stock market so that I can interpret the economy and profit from it” provides an insight into why you choose to do what you do.

In general, qualification will be less powerful than quantification. Powerful qualification is more a result of strong creative writing or compelling emotions, which are lessons beyond the scope of this post.

You are amazing (and unique!)

If these points seem daunting, don’t fret! I know that everyone reading this has done amazing things, things they’re passionate about, and things they want to share with college admissions. By transitioning your attitude from “colleges want to admit people who have done amazing things” to “colleges want to admit people who’ve identified what makes their experiences unique”, your college applications will become more personal, more relatable, and set you apart from the rest of the crowd of talented students.

I wish you the best of luck (because let’s be honest — there’s always some luck involved in college admissions) with your applications and encourage you to share with me any comments or results of reading this post!

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