Interview: Tips on How to Stand Out from the Applicant Crowd from a Crimson Strategist

03/03/20215 minute read
Interview: Tips on How to Stand Out from the Applicant Crowd from a Crimson Strategist

When it comes time to start building your university application, the most important question is: How do I set myself apart? When you’re competing for admission against tens of thousands of other students, how do you ensure your application gets you accepted?

For many students beginning their college admissions journey, acceptance rates at top universities can be intimidating. Knowing you’re up against 40,000 other students for one of 2,000 open spots can be demoralizing — and understandably so! Even with perfect grades and test scores, you’ll have to submit an application that truly shines in order to make admissions officers take a second look.

Especially as we approach another application cycle with very few colleges requiring standardized test scores, the need for immaculate essays, extracurriculars and interviews becomes even more important for students hoping to stand out. But how?

In a recent episode from the College Chats series on the Top of the Class podcast, Crimson Strategist and Harvard graduate Gabe Gladstein shares how students can build college applications that demonstrate their talents, passions and personality throughout.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Gabe and podcast co-host, Alex Cork. Some quotes are edited for clarity. Click the following links to download the full episode or stream it on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.


What kind of qualities do you think top universities are looking for in applicants?


One of the things we're seeing more in the expectations of admissions officers at places like Harvard, Yale and Stanford is flexibility. I think some kids could interpret flexibility as being well-rounded — like ‘I need to have a lot of different activities or represent a lot of different skill sets.’ But it's not as simple as that.

I think what [admissions officers] want to see is deep intellectual engagement, and intellectual engagement is, in a way, a form of creative engagement. So it's investing time and energy into learning about one or maybe a couple things, but then it's developing your own takes on those things. It's developing your own insights and perspectives [and] seeking out experiences in those subjects or relating to those subjects or skill sets.

I think the days of, ‘Oh, I started an app, and therefore Harvard's gonna let me in’ — those days are actually waning, in my view. So many kids now have tried to do that, and pursued that path. It's like anything, right? There are cycles and things that are exciting when they're new. And then too many people do them, and they're no longer new, they're no longer the exciting thing. And this year, we've seen some amazing applicants come through Crimson who basically saw that or understood that trend, anticipated it, and adjusted.


What do you think about the academically brilliant students? Obviously, the SATs and subject tests have taken a significant backward step over the last year or so during COVID. Is there still a place for a student who just puts their nose in the books? Not to the extent where they have basically no extracurriculars, but where the primary card that they're going to play in the admissions process is academics. Is that still a card that students could potentially play? Or is that now no longer enough?


It's not enough. But to be clear, I don't think that academics alone have been enough for a good little while. Even when I was applying to college, it wasn't enough to just be the best academically or in terms of your grades — you needed more than that.

It's interesting with the Subject Tests, I'm glad you brought that up; because historically, things like the Subject Tests are low hanging fruit — they’re very easy opportunities to show that you have some academic skill in a certain area. Those being taken away, I think, is not necessarily a bad thing because in the end, I think what colleges really want to see is deeper engagement. Just taking the biology subject test to prove that you did well in your biology class is not that interesting, right? It doesn't really tell them that much about you.

But let’s say you volunteer at your local marine biology Conservation Center over the summer and meet a scientist there, who you then work with during the next school year, and you end up assisting some of their research. And that introduces you to somebody who ends up being a mentor and writes a letter of recommendation for you saying, ‘This person is brilliant.’ Those are the sorts of things that colleges are interested in. And what that really requires — it's not some kind of like, innate academic brilliance — that's less important than just sheer initiative and spunk. That's what they want to see.

I want to be clear: you don't have to start a charity or do some incredible community service project or be a genius artist. You don’t have to be a genius at all, really; all you need to do is pursue something with depth — that's really what they're looking for is the development of a deep interest.

And this is a huge part of Crimson’s non-application year curriculum. This is how we work with students and provide strategy for them during the three years before they apply to college. It's thinking about, ‘Okay, how do we help each and every one of our students?’ It doesn't matter if they're aiming for Harvard, or they're aiming for a much lower-rank school — we want every one of our students to develop a deep interest. A deep interest turns into something that you can talk about in every part of your application. So you build that knowledge, and then you’ve got to do something with that knowledge.

Gabe is just one of many admissions experts on Crimson’s global team, who have helped scores of students gain admission to their dream universities. Curious how you can build a stand-out college application with the support of experienced strategists like Gabe? To learn more about how Crimson can help set you on the path to success, click the link below to schedule a free one hour consultation with an Academic Advisor.