Niceness is rarely mentioned when people talk about college admission. And it’s probably not going to be a factor at huge public universities that make decisions strictly based on a high school transcript and standardized test scores. But it does come into play when humans are involved in admission decisions. While you might want to believe that these decisions are objective and based on the merit of each application, it is a subjective process. This is especially true at selective colleges that use a holistic approach in evaluating applications. Once you have met the admissions criteria, what will distinguish you from the thousands of other students with strong grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?
Here’s an example of how you don’t want to distinguish yourself. One admissions officer told me that when he was interviewing a student in a coffee shop, the next student arrived early for his interview and interrupted the admissions officer several times to let him know that he was waiting. The admissions officer thought this student was rude, which is not the impression you want to make. If the student had been a very strong candidate, perhaps this would not have impacted his admission prospects, but he was already a borderline admit, and this lack of courtesy did not inspire the admissions officer to want to advocate for him.
As they spend hours perfecting their college applications, most students think the goal is to impress admissions officers. But do you like people who try to impress you with their accomplishments? Most of us don’t. In fact, we tend to prefer people who show a little humility. We also respond to people who seem to have something in common with us and who find a way to relate to us. So rather than trying to impress admissions officers, students should be trying to connect with them. The real goal in college applications is to create a genuine bond with the person who is evaluating your application. As one admissions officer put it, when he reads an application, he asks himself if he would want to eat pizza at midnight in a dorm with that student.
Some students have a knack for creating relationships. One student met an admissions officer during a campus visit and kept in touch via email. When she learned that the admissions officer would be coming to her city for the first time, she sent her some restaurant recommendations. It’s a small gesture that is about making that human connection. Offering to take her to dinner at one of those restaurants would have been inappropriate and manipulative, but thinking about someone coming to a new city for the first time and offering a suggestion was just nice.
Part of the college application process is determining whether a student will fit into a campus community, and qualities like kindness and consideration for others are valued. Admissions officers are thinking about how you will interact with roommates, professors and staff. If a college is known for having a close, caring community, why would they want to admit a student who could disrupt that community?
It’s not just admissions officers who are influenced by how a student behaves. Counselors and teachers are more likely to write a strong recommendation letter for students they see as good people, not just smart students. It makes sense. Do you want to go out of your way to help someone who has been unkind or disrespectful? Younger high school students should be aware that the relationships they are creating now will impact the kind of support they receive when it’s time to apply to college.
This goes for parents too. Stories about unpleasant parents circulate through admissions offices and that does not help your child’s application. Admissions officers may be reluctant to admit a student whose difficult parent will be making life miserable for their colleagues at the college for the next four years.
During the college application process, showing common (or what is now uncommon) courtesy in all contact with the staff at a college will help set students apart. It’s not about manipulating people to get what you want, or it shouldn’t be. I think you’ll also find you feel better about yourself when you treat people with genuine kindness and respect, and the world will feel like a better place.
The ability to get along with people is important, and not just in college applications. Being able to collaborate on projects is important in classes and also in the workplace. Cultivating qualities like kindness and consideration for others will help you create satisfying relationships in all areas of life.