What Stands Out to College Admissions Officers?
Updated: May 12
Before you officially hit submit on your college applications, it helps to have foresight and clarity around the range of factors admissions officers will weigh in their final decision-making process: from the specific extracurricular activities toward which students devote significant time and energy to the depth and originality of theirs chosen essay topic.
Let’s dig deeper into the spectrum of activities and topics that we know from experience will and will not make a memorable first impression on admissions teams who review hundreds upon hundreds of applications annually. It is imperative to actively differentiate yourself.
Read on to gain insight into two of the most critical elements of the application process and learn how you can navigate them to your advantage as you work to stand out from the applicant crowd.
Which Extracurricular Activities Fall Flat for Admissions Officers?
When it comes to extracurriculars, quality over quantity is essential. Admissions teams today are far more interested in a student’s intellectual vitality: the quality of possessing genuine curiosity, initiative, and a demonstrated hunger to learn and contribute outside the classroom.
As you consider how to highlight your intellectual vitality, know that there are certain things you should avoid. Here are Bentham’s top five tips for what not to do:
1. Avoid an emphasis on activities found at most high schools
In a hyper-crowded applicant field, focusing on generic activities—whether performing in your school’s marching band or orchestra, writing for the newspaper, or playing a team sport—is more likely to fall flat and be forgotten by your admissions reader.
If you choose to include one of these more ubiquitous activities, do so only if you have taken on a leadership role in the organization/team or have demonstrated exceptional talent at a national or global level that you plan to build upon at the college level.
2. Avoid half-baked involvement
Did you join your school’s debate club only to quit after one semester? It is best to leave off activities where your effort was lukewarm and short-lived. Admissions officers want more so to see consistent engagement and incremental growth, which shows a student’s dedication, work ethic, and commitment to long-term learning and personal growth.
Beyond simply joining an existing club, consider how you might expand it, take it in a new direction, or forego both and foster a new community that serves a different purpose.
3. Avoid listing every single club you have ever signed up for
Joining 15 organizations purely to list them on your college application is a tried-and-true way to lose an admissions officer’s attention—fast. Instead, prioritize a few meaningful activities over many shallow, barely involved activities.
Colleges seek students who want to go deeper, build skills, raise their voice, and grow their potential over time. Just because the Common Application lists multiple slots for extracurriculars does not mean it is necessary, expected, or beneficial to fill in each blank.
4. Avoid doing the bare minimum
Why limit yourself to contributing a single poem to your senior yearbook when you could start a quarterly poetry journal during the sophomore year? Why stop at earning straight A’s in Biology when you could seek out an independent research opportunity at a local university?
As college experts told U.S. News in a 2018 article, those students who:
Have an impressive personal project they are working on independently often impress colleges because their commitment to a successful solo endeavor conveys initiative, self-discipline, and originality
There are countless ways to get creative and go the extra mile with an activity you are already passionate about or a subject you are eager to explore. Taking that extra initiative will only strengthen your application’s overall angularity. And if you can tie that extracurricular into your intended college major, all the better.
5. Avoid overlooking the power of your lived experience
As the global pandemic continues, college admissions teams are acutely aware of the heightened strain and impact this crisis is having on college applicants and their families—above and beyond any preexisting challenges they faced.
As a fall 2020 U.S. News article notes,
“College admissions officers are also typically sensitive to the fact that some students don’t have time for extracurricular activities. Rather, they might need to take care of younger siblings after school or hold a job.”
If you are in any way limited in your capacity to take on additional extracurriculars, consider how your specific life experiences have shaped you and your future ambitions. Your authenticity and honesty can just as powerfully contribute to a lasting impression on whoever encounters you and your story.
What Essay Topics and Styles Don’t Make A Strong Impression?
Your college essay can illuminate aspects of your story, perspective, and personality that might not be found anywhere else in your application. Yet it is all too easy to fall into narrative clichés or tropes that will not impress college admissions officers as they sift through a massive pile of applications—especially if you rush the writing process.
The key is specificity and intentionality. Before you brainstorm topics and write your first of several drafts, here are Bentham’s golden rules for crafting a standout college essay:
1. Avoid topics that everyone has already talked about
If you draw on current events, it will inevitably be challenging to land on an original, captivating angle—particularly when hundreds of students are taking the same approach. For example, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic it is to be expected that dozens of other applicants will write about how the crisis has affected their lives.
As Ethan Sawyer, author of College Admission Essentials and College Essay Essentials, told U.S. News in 2020,
“It's immediately likely to blend in, and it becomes that much more difficult to stand out.”
Rather than using this precious real estate to focus on a global crisis that everyone is experiencing in distinct ways, Sawyer advises students to share any relevant context on how COVID has impacted you in the Common App’s additional information space.
2. Avoid a topic that’s too broad
As experts told U.S. News in 2017,
“College applicants sometimes have the mistaken belief that they need to fit their entire life story into their college essay.”
This is not The Great American Novel of You. It is far more compelling to home in on an experience that has shaped the way you see or move through the world. Do not be afraid to get specific; attention to detail works wonders.
Admissions officers appreciate a vivid anecdote to set the tone and grab their attention. Once you have them hooked, expand your lens to reflect on a single experience or moment that has meaningfully shaped you.
3. Avoid retreading the ground you have covered elsewhere
Consider how your essay fits into the larger story that your application tells about you as a prospective student. If you have already mentioned key elements of your academic and extracurricular interests in other areas of the application, consider what unexplored layers you can add to provide a fuller picture.
What will convey to the reader who you are, how your experiences have shaped you, and what contributions you will make to campus?
4. Avoid coming across as someone you are not
The essay is not the place to invent a compelling character, nor is it an opportunity to overemphasize an achievement. Instead, turn inward and consider how best to transmit a memorable snapshot of you: a young mind in formation.
Admissions teams recognize that you are still growing, changing, and figuring yourself out. Avoid striving for perfection in favor of authenticity.
How do you see your place in the world right now?
What have you learned?
What do you want to learn more about?
How can their college help you work toward your goals?
5. Avoid rushing the process
Admissions officers can tell when an applicant has pulled an all-nighter to finish their essay. Budget ample time to brainstorm, take breaks for your mental well-being, and draft a few versions, with the goal of refining and sharpening the narrative as you progress.
Seek the perspective of a college admissions consultant, older sibling, a trusted teacher, or mentor to offer candid feedback on your essay content, point out notable narrative holes, or raise questions to help you clarify meaning.
Of course, before you hit submit, carefully reread to catch any small errors you may have missed. Trust us: It will be worth the extra time and care.
Can Admissions Officers Tell If A Student Hired A Third Party To Write Their Essay?
Absolutely. With the help of new technologies and plagiarism detection software, it’s increasingly possible for admissions officers to easily and accurately distinguish between the student who put in the time and work on an essay versus the one who hired someone to do it for them.
One software, as NPR reported on in 2019, first inspects a document's metadata, like when it was created, by whom it was created, and how many times it was reopened and re-edited.” It also has the power to “evaluate the level of writing and its style,” through the use of “cutting-edge linguistic forensics.”
As tempting as it may be to hire a third party, nothing can take the place of sharing your distinct voice and experience in your essay. Beyond being ethically dubious, hiring a third-party essay writer could cost you your acceptance if you are caught. While it is always ok to seek help and support in the brainstorming and revision process, it is best to ensure that the final draft you submit is yours, and yours alone.
At Bentham, we strive to empower each student to realize their full potential amid a competitive, complex admissions process. We are committed to helping students avoid common missteps and pitfalls around extracurricular activities and supplemental essays. Ready to take the next step? Contact us for a free consultation.