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How a relationship with a janitor helped this teen get into the Ivy League

Baker Hall stands on the campus of Dartmouth College, the smallest school in the Ivy League, in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Cheryl Senter/Bloomberg | Getty Images
Baker Hall stands on the campus of Dartmouth College, the smallest school in the Ivy League, in Hanover, New Hampshire.

College decision season, in all its dark glory, is upon us.

The cutthroat college application process brings out the worst even as it's meant to celebrate the best. Students who've not yet celebrated their 18th birthdays create multipage CVs, altruistic volunteer efforts must be repackaged as resume line items and the staggering price-tag of an American college education creates a scramble for parents to send their kids to the schools where an expensive experience will produce the best return.

As an admissions director at Dartmouth College, Rebecca Sabky saw it all. In an opinion column published yesterday in The New York Times, Sabky writes that even the elite applicants she reviews — those who "climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies" — bleed together after a while.

But every so often, even someone who has reviewed 30,000 applications in her decade-and-a-half as an admissions counselor encounters something new. Something pleasantly surprising. This year, that came in the form of a letter of recommendation written by a high school custodian.

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Tom Pennington | Getty Images

Sabky, who once ran international admissions at the college and now works part-time, says that though admissions officers regularly read letters from "former presidents, celebrities, trustee relatives and Olympic athletes" most of those fail to express unique or memorable information about who the applicant truly is. But this straightforward letter painted a vivid picture of a student's character.

Sabky writes:

This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.

There is one trait, Sabky writes, that is as "irresistible" as it is difficult to discern from a college application: kindness.

In the deluge of information required of — and volunteered by — college applicants, it can be the tiniest details that make a student stand out.

"A sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to us than any boilerplate recommendation from a former president or famous golfer." -Rebecca Sabky, former admissions director, Dartmouth College

"Sometimes an inappropriate email address is more telling than a personal essay. The way a student acts toward his parents on a campus tour can mean as much as a standardized test score. And, as I learned from that custodian, a sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to us than any boilerplate recommendation from a former president or famous golfer."

The recipient of that custodian's ringing endorsement? The Dartmouth admissions committee voted to accept him, unanimously.

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