4 Ways to Get Into Your Dream School: What Universities Want!

This post is about how your student can stand out as a top candidate to his or her college of choice.

Below are four case studies of individuals (who are all quite different) that will show you how colleges are looking for something that makes students unique.

Spoiler alert: relying on academics alone is a bad way to stand out as a top student.

Total Read Time: < 15 minutes

Red Text Read Time (your cheat sheet of advice): < 3 minutes

Meet Kyle, Blaque, Pat, and Judith. They represent organizations and universities such as Harvard, Rice University, London School of Economics, and The Gates Millennium Foundation. They are going to teach you how to get your student into the college of their dreams, but first a quick note about what colleges are looking for in students.

What Universities Want 

College admissions offices are a lot like professional sports teams picking players. Whether you have seen Brad Pitt (starring as Billy Bean) evaluating players in the movie Moneyball or your co-worker obsessing over his fantasy football team you know that drafting a player is, well… complicated and stressful!

The same truth holds true for colleges. Says David DuKor-Jackson, assistant Dean at Bucknell, “It would be a lot easier if there was a magic formula.” David is right; no ‘magic formula’ exists, but he and all other admissions offices do look for students that will provide unique value to the campus in the future.

Here are the 4 guiding principles colleges look at when evaluating a potential student for their university:

1. Academics / Test Scores

2. Career Exploration Action

3. Leadership Experience

4. Community Involvement

As you read about each of these rock stars below think about how YOUR student could best standout to his or her college of choice.

Harvard Law School — Enter Kyle

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Kyle is a graduate of Harvard Law School and currently serves as an associate at the Law Firm of Kirkland and Ellis LLP in Houston Texas. Prior to attending Harvard, Kyle worked for a U.S. Representative in Washington D.C. and in the finance department of Southwest Airlines.

What set you apart as a top candidate to Harvard?

I worked hard to communicate how I was going to add value in a creative way to Harvard. All students that apply for Harvard have high test scores and GPAs, so I viewed that piece of the application process as a minimum requirement to being considered. My hard work and dedication to grades and the LSAT in undergrad gave me the opportunity to apply for Harvard, but it did not set me apart to get into Harvard.

I have my pilot’s license, so for me in particular, I tried to highlight the time and dedication it took to become a pilot and how that translated into other aspects of my story. I framed my application essay as a flight with the focus on being a pilot in order to communicate my story in a creative way.

Through my application, I was able to highlight that experience was my best teacher. Top universities are not looking for students that just go to class and the library all the time, there needs to be more to a student’s experience.

What resources/tools did you take advantage of to get an edge?

1.) A Mentor

I had a mentor help me to navigate the different paths I could take after my undergraduate degree. I did not want to make a big investment into an opportunity after my undergraduate degree that would not align with my strengths/passion. During undergrad, I was not sure whether or not I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in business or law, and my mentor helped me think through the pros/cons of each path.

2.) Test Prep Program

For the LSAT in particular, I went through a program called TestMasters on campus. Test Masters is designed specifically for the LSAT, but there are many great test prep programs that provide structure around the test preparation process (SAT, ACT, etc).

3.) Research University Websites

Every University has a different culture and application process. I would research top law programs in the country to see which program fit me best. After narrowing down options, I was able to get a feel of what type of candidate that university was looking to bring to campus. Researching websites will also help you gauge what type of work you will need to put into the application (e.g. some applications require essays and others do not).

What did your daily/weekly routine look like as you were preparing for applying to colleges?

I created a structured routine that allowed me to stay disciplined for months of studying. Every morning I went to the library and sat at the same table at 7 am. I would study until my first class started. Creating this routine allowed me to eliminate distractions and get into a rhythm of studying that felt natural.

What was your biggest mistake/time waster?

This answer is for Type A students and parents like myself. Be cautious of potential burnout. The brain can only take so much when you are growing in knowledge on a daily basis.

I had my worst practice test score a week before the real LSAT because I was totally exhausted. I took four days off before the LSAT to refresh, and it was the best thing I could have done for my score at that stage in the process.

The #1 piece of advice I have for students applying to college is…

Discover what makes you unique and interesting. When you are interviewing for your school the person/school interviewing you should be intrigued by you as an individual. You should be the type of person that the interviewee wants to spend more time with outside of the interview because of your unique story and perspective on the way you view the world.

Rice University— Enter Blaque

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Blaque Robinson is a Junior at Rice University and currently serves as the President of Generation College. Blaque’s resume also includes being a research assistant for the Medical Center of Wisconsin Cancer Center and a Campus Ambassador for the Student Success Agency.

What set you apart as a top candidate?

I believe what set me apart as a top candidate to Rice was my involvement in various activities. As a high school student, and even starting in middle school, I was very committed to my community. As a result, I volunteered at middle schools as a class assistant and at daycares during my summers. In addition, during the summer of my junior year I was able to obtain an internship with ManPower Group working on the executive floor in the Human Resources Department. Finally, I was very involved in my church and participated in the dance team, sang on the choir, and tutored various children in the church community.

What resources/tools did you take advantage of to get an edge?

1. PSAT Prep Course that was offered by my school

2. ACT and SAT Prep books from the library

3. Taking as many AP classes as possible

4. Developing great relationships with teachers both from whom I had classes with and those with whom I did not

5. I was an attentive student in English class and took out the time to practice writing and work to improve my writing skills, which allowed me to write great college essays.

6. Working with fellow students in classes to compile study guides and to try as much as possible to study in groups (after I had spent time learning the material myself of course)

What did your daily/weekly routine look like when applying for Rice?

I applied to college through a program called QuestBridge. From the start of school until the day I turned in my QuestBridge application I was in my college guidance officers office twice a week reviewing essays and talking about different college options.

I tackled one essay about every two weeks allowing my college guidance officer, my mother, and my English teacher to read, proofread, and edit my personal statements.

In addition to applying to college, I was also applying for various scholarships. I kept a running list of them on a Google Doc for easy access and compiled a list of essay questions and used modified versions of Questbridge essays to help me answer their specific questions.

So as far as a day to day routine, I didn’t really have that much of a plan. I scheduled regular meeting with my college guidance officer and during my free periods at school I would focus on my essays and compiling scholarships lists so that I could focus on homework when I was at home.

What was your biggest mistake/time waster?

When researching colleges, I took a large stack of outdated books from the college guidance office that listed school rating and opinions from students. The books were too old and outdated to get to know the fabric of the campus from those books.

The #1 piece of advice I have for students applying to college is…

My one piece of advice is for high school students is to get involved with something you love now and stick with it through high school. You will learn so much and grow so much, and that is one thing that colleges look for in admissions. In addition to this, it is important to try new things to demonstrate that you are open to new experiences.

London School of Economics— Enter Pat

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Pat Girasole is graduate of the London School of Economics and currently serves as a management consultant for Sendero Managment Consulting. Prior to joining the London School of Economics, Pat worked with the George W Bush Institute and the US Embassy Rome.

What set you apart as a top candidate?

Honestly, initially I didn’t think I could get into the London School of Economics (LSE). The confidence boost I needed came from a friend, who had a very similar resume to me (grades, extracurricular) and was attending the school the year before me.

I stood a chance due to my excellent undergraduate grades, study abroad experience in Tuscany, and an internship at the US Embassy in Rome after graduation. With these experiences, I decided to bolster my case before applying and accepted an internship with the George W. Bush Institute and Presidential Center. The key is to assess realistically what you currently have, and set a manageable goal to enhance your chances.

What resources/tools did you take advantage of to get an edge?

I needed some help on my personal statement, so I utilized resources from The University of Oklahoma (my undergraduate college). I worked with the Dean of the Honors College to review my draft and to write me a letter of recommendation. I also did the same with my favorite professor (whom I was a research assistant for).

The lesson here is that developing strong relationships with academic staff while at university (or high school) can pay off down the line. I was a year out of school and was still able to secure the support of two very influential members of staff.

What did your daily/weekly routine look like when applying for the LSE?

First was broad research — what did I want to study? Once I settled on international economics, I began to think critically through:

  • Which schools had strong programs?
  • Which cities were hubs of international thought leadership?
  • Which cities offered career prospects after graduation?

Finally, where did I want to live — both during school and potentially after? Then it was researching the requirements, the application process, then spending my days fixing up my resume and writing those personal statements. Personal statements took the most time, because it is critical that these are individual and personalized for each and every school you’re applying to — NOT one generic statement!

What was your biggest mistake/time waster?

Focusing on getting into schools, I didn’t really care about. I was so concerned with having a backup and that sense of security that I spent way too much time on those applications. Looking back, I would have given LSE the full-court press and made sure that I had a flawless application there since it was my first choice.

The #1 piece of advice I have for students applying to college is..

Make it personal! Show that school that they are the one for you. Give 100% of your attention to that one school. One important note — make sure you can get into the school you desire to attend. If you don’t meet the minimum requirements, then I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend putting all your eggs in that basket.

However, if you do, then give it your all and leave nothing on the table. Then at the very least, you can feel confident that you did everything in your power to achieve your goal. That said, there’s nothing worse than sending the same generic application to 10 schools – you may not get into any of them.

Tailor each and every one per school. Sometimes this is as little as changing one paragraph per personal statement. Have an outline, and then plug that personal story about that school in there. But if you care about one particular school, SHOW it in your work! Passion and enthusiasm are powerful stuff in this whole selection process!

Community Involvement— Judith


Judith Munoz is a Senior at the University of Texas and currently serves as the campus leader for Student Success Agency on her campus. She received a full-ride scholarship as a Bill Gates Millenium Scholar and became president of the organization at her campus as a Junior.

What set you apart as a top candidate?

Being involved in my community helped me stand out as a top candidate to the University of Texas. I did over 100 hours of community service every year while in high school and was able to show that I cared about the people and the community around me.

I also got involved in a lot of different clubs and organization in high school. I would research different ways to get involved and join if it was something that interested me.

What resources/tools did you take advantage of to get an edge?

I utilized the teachers at my high school and my resume (to keep looking back at when writing essay/recommendation letters). I would ask my teachers to look over my essays for grammatical errors, write letters of recommendation, and prepare for the SAT/ACT.

I did not have the luxury of purchasing any tests prep programs. If I could go back in time, I would have bought a practice test book at Half Price Books just to get a feel for the types of questions to expect on the test.

What was your biggest mistake/time waster?

I wish I would have found my major in high school. It is very important to choose the right major for yourself. Everyone says that you have plenty of time to declare a major, but starting to research and think about it as soon as possible is very important. It can be as easy as looking at your dream campus’ website to see the various degree plans that they have to offer. Some schools have open houses, and those are great opportunities to talk to students who are in the programs now. In general, just keep your mind open to any opportunities schools have to offer.

In addition, I wish I would have started looking at scholarship and admissions essays early on in high school. Even simply reading the prompts and looking at deadlines gives you a leg up for your senior year when it matters. If you would like to be proactive, you can talk to your older peers that are going through the process right now. You can see what they are doing and how they are doing it. Through this process, you can learn of scholarship and opportunities available to you. Maybe your school has a fee waiver you didn’t know about. It’s never too early to start the college admissions process.

The #1 piece of advice I have for students applying to college is…

Do not try to be someone you are not when communicating your story. If the only activity you were involved in high school was the automotive club then talk about that and be proud of that story! Being able to tell your personal story and why you are who you are is powerful to college admissions offices.


Over 2.5 million students apply for college every year. A lot of students seem to be the jack of all trades, but it is rare to find a student that is truly unique. Says Steven Roy Goodman, co-author of College Admissions Together: It Take a Family, “It’s important to be well lopsided rather than well-rounded. That enables you to focus what you are good at.”

What is your student’s personal story? Be proud of that, and show it off to potential colleges!!

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