Five Tricks for Getting into College

Prepared by a former assistant director of admissions of Columbia University

1. The Essay

The essay is one the most crucial parts of the application. This is a chance for the admissions officer to get to know you and your unique qualities, quirks and quips. Let them get to know a different side of you that is not reflected in your transcript, resume or letter of recommendation. In other words, don’t recite your accomplishments! Instead, pick an event or experience that is important to you and changed you or helped you see the world in a different way. Even if the experience is about feeding orphans in a distant country, make sure you talk primarily about how the experience changed you, not how you made the world a better place. Be honest but be humble! Also, remember that admissions officers read thousands of essays a year. If you have a humorous side, feel free to let it show in your essay as well.

If you choose reflect on why you are a good fit for this university or college, make sure you talk about both the qualities you bring to the table, and what excites you specifically about the university. Try to find distinct examples of the fit between your interests and personality and the place to which you’re applying.

2. Thank you notes

After you visit the college or meet with a recruiter or admissions officer, send a personalized and handwritten thank you note. This sets you apart from the vast majority of people with whom they meet.

3. Find out “your” admissions officer

At almost all colleges and universities, each admissions officer is assigned an area or region. He or she is the one who is going to be the primary reader of your application and make the initial decision of whether you should be accepted. Usually the admissions office who visits your school or a college fair in your area is “your” admissions officer. Make sure to remember their name if you meet at a college fair or at your school. Try to get an interview with them and direct your questions and thank you notes to them specifically.

4. Take a Gap Year

Studies show that students who take a year off between high school and college to engage in a meaningful transitional work, volunteer or educational experience have higher GPAs, are more likely to finish college in four years, are less likely to drop out, and declare a major more quickly than their peers. College admissions staff recognize the importance of a gap year and may prioritize acceptance of these students. Harvard now recommends a gap year to all incoming students and Princeton University has their own gap year department. Read more about gap year experiences at