Selling yourself to a college is easy. You just have to convince the admissions committee that you're one in 2 million. That's roughly the number of applicants that four-year schools will be sifting through this year. So let go of the notion that the fat envelope would already be in the mail if you could just crack the admissions code. "It would be a lot easier if there was a magic formula," says David duKor-Jackson, associate dean of admissions at Bucknell University, "but there isn't." There's no magic essay topic, either. Says Annalee Nissenholtz, an independent college counselor in St. Louis: "If I hear about one more kid who's saving the poor ... ! The first kid or two who did it—they were really interesting, and then everyone heard that must be the trick. There really is no trick. It's digging deep and trying to figure out what makes you interesting."
That's good news. Instead of trying to decipher what they want, your task is to tell your story—to convey, in today's college app watchwords, a sense of your passion and commitment. Colleges are trying to understand something: "Who is this person, and why would we want him or her to join this community?" says Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. Use each part of the process to accentuate your positives and show how you will contribute to the greater good. "We no longer are just looking to pick up students," says Jed Liston, assistant vice president of enrollment services at the University of Montana-Missoula. "We're looking for citizens."
Making the grade. The first thing colleges look at is your high school transcript. "If you're not in the ballpark, extracurriculars aren't going to get you in," says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va.—"unless you've won the Nobel Prize or have your own sitcom." But beyond the A's, B's, and C's, admissions staffs like to see academic risk takers. "Students ask us, 'Is it better to get an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class?' " says Keith Gramling, director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola University New Orleans. "Well, it's better to get an A in an AP class. But we are looking for students who have challenged themselves."
Still, piling on classes to impress your dream college can backfire. "Oftentimes I find myself trying to talk students off the AP ledge," says Rick Bischoff, director of admissions at California Institute of Technology. "I see students who are doing all they can to keep up with the work and don't have time to keep up with the learning. We're not counting APs. Has this student taken a rigorous curriculum? Has it prepared them? ... It's that engagement that's central." Adds Stephen Farmer, associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: "What we want for students is the feeling that they're looking for the next great thing they need to know. We like to see a sense of joy and curiosity."
Express yourself. If the goal is helping colleges picture who you are, the essay, as one longtime admissions officer says, is "the peek through the curtain." Applicants often assume that the peek should reveal not a subtle landscape but a dramatic perspective. "Students feel, 'I need to find that exotic thing that sells,' " says Tony Cabasco, dean of admission and financial aid at Whitman College. In truth, he says, what you write about "doesn't have to be a week in Africa. It can be you were a clerk at Safeway for the summer and that changed the way you view race relations or the environment." Adds Ted O'Neill, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, "Turning points in their lives are kind of premature for kids of this age." Delahunty's idea of a "truly exceptional essay" at Kenyon: one in which "a student travels in a few swift paragraphs from one perspective to another and has seen the deeper meaning, learned the lesson, or found the humor."
"We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking," says O'Neill. This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks. Liston at Montana-Missoula recalls reading one student's answer to the question "What was the most significant invention of all time?" It was "a very elegant essay on the spork," he says. "You left saying, 'That was quirky, that was funny, but that was well thought out.' "