Admissions Officer Insight: The Top 3 Things in Your Application


Admissions Officer Corner is a series of posts written by college admissions officers at QuestBridge partner colleges

What are the top 3 things we look for in an application?

Scores and GPAs are numbers. They are tangible, graspable, and easy on the senses. You can hear them, make quick calculations, and project “what ifs” on them like your future depends on it. I understand those instincts. I was there once.

Fortunately, no number – and no sum of numbers – can represent who you are. We are extraordinary because we cannot be quantified. We are much more than any sum of a GPA and test scores. We embody experiences, struggles, triumphs, and follies that cannot be summarized by even the most graceful mathematical formula.

That, of course, doesn’t make things intuitive. I feel lucky to represent a college and a partnership with QuestBridge that value this complexity. We want to know you beyond the numbers. We want to know your experiences, struggles, triumphs, and follies. We want to see the whole you.

Consider, then, these three additional aspects I – and I think many other admissions counselors at other partner colleges – like to see in your application.

  1. We shall not cease from exploration

I like to see students who have taken advantage of the opportunities and resources available to them.

Explore. See the world around you. See your community, and act. Discover knitting, baking, or writing, or fencing. Be proud of working part-time or taking advanced placement courses or running for your school’s cross-country team. Follow your love for the sciences and ask your science teacher, counselor, uncle or friend’s parents about internships or shadowing experiences. Train harder this preseason so you can reach league championships in tennis this time. You may not have a treadmill, but that hill going home sure is steep.

If you are a senior, you may feel it’s too late. First, I would ask that you reconsider. Many offices ask for updates and new developments for good reason.

Second, I suspect you taking advantage of the opportunities and resources available to you just to impress us will fail to do just that. You will be a more inspired and more inspiring person should you embrace the world around you without pretense.

  1. And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started

I like to see students who understand the environment around them.

Maybe your neighborhood struggles economically, so you have done what you could by working at the corner store or volunteering on the weekends. Maybe your school dedicates a lot of time to athletics, so you have spent your time starting a book club instead. Maybe your family requires your help translating, so you learn a little bit more about your family history and what moves them.

The variations of experiences remain infinite. Different environments provide different opportunities. No two households, no two schools, and no two cities offer exactly the same set of experiences. Recognize this, and recognize your place – and power – in those environments.

Yes, explore the world around you. But also try to do so with your eyes and ears open and curious.

  1. And know the place for the first time.

The third aspect I ask you to consider is also the most difficult.

You have been a volunteer, a violinist, a volleyball player, or a vicar. You have medals and recognitions and funny jokes and tragic stories as evidence. You have explored the world and recognized your place in it.

Now try to tell me what it all means to you.

This is by far the most challenging task you have. In fact, it is so challenging that entire religions have been predicated on this journey of self-discovery (Buddhist “enlightenment” or “self-actualization” are examples). Even the founder of western philosophy, Socrates, is famous for saying, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” (Plato, Apology, 38a)

It demands time and introspection. It involves looking for meaning in those important things you do and believe in. It involves a lot of earnest thought to find the right words to convey those truths that hum in the deepest crevices of your heart. It is seldom quick, and rarely easy.

But honestly, this is the “you” I want to get to know. I want to know that you have been thoughtful. I want to know your actions have been purposeful. I want to know your journey thus far has meant something to you.

Let me leave you with the excerpt I have been referring to:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

(last stanza of Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot)

No matter how much exploring we do, no matter how much recognition we give to our position in the world, we will always return to the place where we started: the self. We see life through our unique lens and act through our unique forms. It may be worthwhile to learn more about, and cultivate, this singular spirit within us.

Of course, we all change over time. I don’t think any of us should expect to know the answers when we decide to look within ourselves. We each spend a lifetime trying to discover who we are. Many of us find answers after years of exploration, while some of us never find them and still lead happy lives. The search for meaning remains arduous.

All I ask is that you simply try.

— Yoon-Chan Kim, Assistant Director of Admissions, Oberlin College