Is the System Actually Rigged? Or Did You Not Bother to Look Up the Rules?

I spent New Year’s Eve with family. My aunt, having spent Christmas with her snobby friend’s family, mentioned that her friend’s son was waitlisted for the medical school of his choice. I asked if they had hired an admissions consultant. She said, “of course”. And I said, “well, they should know how to get him off the waitlist.”

[That was a bit snarky of me, but I have very little patience and tolerance for snobs who can’t figure out how to get their kid into medical school. Since I’m not really that mean, I ended up writing out my advice on a piece of paper and told my aunt to take a picture and text it to them.]

With 8 years of higher education under my belt, and some experience evaluating scholarship applications, I’ve learned a thing or two about the admissions game. Each time I learned something (sometimes a few years too late), I felt a sting, knowing my life could have been a lot easier had I known a certain bit of information.

One of the most painful things for me growing up was not knowing what I didn’t know, and seeing other kids move through school more smoothly because they knew something I didn’t. I never thought of it as being unfair; it stung because I realized I didn’t understand how things worked. It was a reminder of my naivety. What I did find stifling was that many of the (very well-educated) adults around me didn’t seem to know the rules either, and just said “work hard”, “work harder”, “copy what [top student in my class] is doing”, etc. As a young person, I made it my responsibility to figure out how things actually work (including reaching out to adults who seemed to belong to different circles than my parents and their peers), because what the adults around me were telling me didn’t make sense. As an adult, one of my missions in life is to share what I can to help other clueless, but determined, young people.

So, here is my most basic college/grad school admissions advice:

*For applicants who belong to an underrepresented minority group or grew up poor, I have even more advice for you*

1) Resume and Personal Statement.

At the undergraduate level, the top universities have many times more smart applicants than they can accept. After transcripts and exam scores are considered, the admissions staff is looking for signs of emotional and intellectual maturity. This is inferred by how a student spends their time and how the student talks about their life and goals in their personal statement. There is no one right way to demonstrate this, but an applicant must make it easy for the (likely overworked and underpaid) evaluators to come to the conclusion that the applicant is independent and mature (and likely to be successful). Personally, I think it’s a lot to ask of a 17-year old, but when we’re talking about schools trying to figure out which high school seniors are in the top 0.01% that year, this factor is what makes certain 17 year olds pop. [This is also why I think many high school graduates would benefit from a gap year. A year in age can mean a big leap in maturity.]

At the professional school level, the schools are looking for what the applicant can do for them. The applicant needs the degree (if we’re talking about law or medicine) and the school, motivated by self-preservation, needs successful and active alumni, for fundraising and networking. After all, a school’s reputation largely rests on the success of its alumni and professional success can be easier when you have a strong alumni network to lean on. So, it would be wise to somehow convey that the applicant would not only be successful due to their particular character traits + skills + demonstrated effort, but also to demonstrate previous experience actively giving back to the student body and alumni network. There are many ways to arrange the facts of one’s life to tell one’s story. Unless the applicant is extremely selfish, antisocial, and lives under a rock, the applicant should have something that can show their past contributions, and how they can contribute more in the future.

2) Letters and Phone Calls of Recommendation (for undergrad, graduate, and professional school).

In business and life, a personal introduction from a trusted person is always more valuable than a cold call. Why would it be any different when applying to a school?

The problem is that the vast majority of applicants don’t know how to ask for a recommendation. I didn’t know how to do this the first two times I had to ask for recommendations--I finally figured it out my third time around. Let me save you some time and energy.

Here is my rough outline for how to ask for a recommendation:

Ideal people for recommendations: major donors, professors with connections, anyone reputable with high social or organizational standing with connections, who have the ability to speak about either your character, skill, or talent. [Think hard about who you know and who they know—they might be willing to vouch for you and able to get someone higher up to make the call. You have to tell them who you want to target. You have to ask for help. And you have to make it easy for every person in the chain.]

Write each of these individuals a different formal letter (send by email) based on the same format.

  1. Re-introduce yourself in a way that jogs their memory AND brings up good feelings about you in that person

  2. Tell them you’re applying for school, the program you’re applying to, and why that particular school and program. This is where you also explain what is special about you and makes that school a good fit.

  3. Explain why you’re asking this person for their recommendation (Dr. Obvious: don’t tell them what they can do for you, but what you see in them that makes them uniquely qualified to give a recommendation on your behalf)

  4. Tell them what you want them to write in their letter or say over the phone. This should be different for each recommendation, and should be something they can honestly say based on their experience with you. When all of your recommendations are read together, the admissions committee should have a full picture of the version of you that you want them to see.

The people you are writing to want to help you, but they are busy with lives of their own (and possibly receive dozens of requests for help). The point of putting in all this effort is to make it ridiculously easy for this person to write a letter or pick up the phone for you. They shouldn’t have to think at all. Remember that.

(Sadly, even after I give people detailed instructions, they often don’t put enough effort into personalizing the instructions, so they end up with mediocre or poor results, which is why I’m only providing a rough outline. If you want great results, it will take about 10 hours of thinking, writing, and revising the first time, but the next time you have to do it, it will be much easier. FYI: an excellent resume takes about 20 hours to write and edit.)

Good luck to everyone. And if you don’t get into the schools you want and are devastated, remember that you’ve probably got blinders on and are not seeing all the possibilities. Working on expanding your possibilities will have a much greater positive impact on your life than getting into the “right” school.


If you are a parent reading this, and you are worried about your child’s college admissions outcome, recognize that you might be living from anxiety rather than love and compassion, and see if any of the following resources appeal to you:

NLP Marin workshops and courses

Private change work with Michelle Masters

Moving through Life with Compassion rather than Fear with Oana Marcu (contact her for private sessions)