That Special Applicant

Recently I reviewed an application essay with an ambitious senior who had written about a water project in Africa that had produced a safe source of clean water for a rural village. I had written in the margin that he must have gotten gratification by improving the lives of those in the village, and possibly that’s worth mentioning in the essay. 

He responded that that’s not what the admissions readers want to read.  They’d rather know about the science of the distillation process and the logistics of delivering the water. The cleverness embodied in the process to him far outstripped the purpose and results of his labor. His clever problem solving was what the admissions reader, in his mind, wanted to see. 

He obviously has no idea what the admissions reader wants to see. Nor do I, nor does, in all likelihood, the admissions reader. Just look at the Common Application main essay prompts. The first allows the applicant to write about a background, identity, or interest ‘so meaningful’ that your application would be incomplete without it. That’s just about anything. 

And if that isn’t open enough then #7 asks you to share any topic of your choice.  Those are questions arrived at by a combined membership of over 700 colleges and universities.   

We know from looking at certain applications that some colleges look for avid readers. The Columbia application, for example, has three questions about books and periodicals an applicant has read over the last year. Additionally, Columbia is one of the remaining few colleges with a solid core with required texts for class discussion. Carnegie Mellon also asks about books read for pleasure. 

If you turn to the Harvard Admissions site it tells ‘What We’re Looking For’ ( ‘Growth and Potential,’ ‘How have you used your time?’; ‘Interests and Activities,’ ‘Character and Personality,’ ‘How open are you to new ideas and people?’; and, ‘Will you benefit from the Harvard experience?’

Helen Vendler is an 84-year-old English professor at Harvard who still is teaching a set of classes, has office hours on Tuesdays 1-2pm and was a former member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions. This committee, by the way, sets admissions policies and reviews ‘representative’ applications, as well as particularly strong applications (showing exceptional scholarship or creativity).  

Professor Vendler wrote, Valuing the Creative and Reflective ( This essay opines that some of the more creative applicants are not necessarily the highest achievers across the standard metrics of GPA and test scores. Rather, ‘they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning.’ 

She further explains that Harvard seeks to prepare great composers, philosophers and writers because they have produced ‘a level of art above the transient.’ Certainly such Harvard graduates as T. S. Eliot, Emerson, Thoreau, Henry Adams and William James fit that description with distinction. Yet, finding such talent among the tens of thousands of applications is not a simple matter. Sometimes the clues are in recommendations or through prizes gained in exhibits or in just honest assertions.  

MIT, while certainly not opposed to considering the poet, also has a list of qualities it finds attractive in candidates. Many of these are found on its website ( It’s searching for candidates who do want to change the world, in at least a small way. As with many schools with a strong engineering component, MIT seeks collaborative, cooperative students willing to take risks and create. 

Yet, emphatically, MIT notes that there are no ‘perfect matches’. It wants a set of students who are ready to climb the metaphoric mountain of challenges as: “a richly varied team of capable people who will support, surprise and inspire each other”.

The admissions department has no idea what it will be offered, but it knows what it wants once it sees it. Be an original, be creative, and be yourself. You never know where you’ll land, but at least your journey will be interesting.