Former Stanford admissions officer: 'Well-rounded is not enough'—here's how to really stand out

Cyclists traverse the main quad on Stanford University's campus in Stanford, California.
Beck Diefenbach | Reuters

This year's high school seniors have spent a significant portion of their high school careers learning during a pandemic. 

During this time, students were forced to take classes online, some schools chose not to assign letter grades, extracurricular activities were curtailed and many colleges elected standardized test-optional admissions policies

All of these changes mean that the class of 2022 will need to rethink traditional college admissions advice.

CNBC Make It spoke with Alix Coupet, a former admissions officer at colleges such as Stanford University and the University of Chicago, and a current lead counselor at college counseling firm Empowerly to talk about what students should do to stand out. 

Personal essays are more important than ever

Over the past year, a vast number of colleges have stopped requiring students to submit standardized test scores such as the SAT or ACT. Many schools, including the University of California system (the largest public university system in the country), have stopped accepting standardized test scores at all, becoming fully test-blind.

Coupet says that this has increased the importance of a student's personal essay. 

"Even prior to the pandemic, schools have been moving in the direction of becoming a lot more test-optional and more open-minded with what you represent as a test score. For instance, folks will look a little bit heavier at AP exams," he says, noting that the changes have also created an opportunity "for students who might be able to demonstrate an acumen in writing."

Now, he says applicants are spending additional time crafting personal essays that help them stand out. His first piece of advice is to start writing early so that students can spend ample time writing, and re-writing, their essays.  

"The quantity of essay edits has increased," he says. "Because admissions officers are going through [essays] with a fine-tooth comb." 

Get weird and nerdy

When deciding what to write, Coupet says students should "lean into your weirdness." 

"We were all adolescents at one point and there's an emphasis on being 'normal' but I'm liking the way that students more frequently now are willing to be weird and willing to be themselves a lot more. Colleges are definitely looking for that," he says. "Admissions counselors are human and if 100 kids say the same thing we can get a little tired of mundane stories. And so we are looking for stories that are going to be distinctive."

He says students should avoid writing essays that could be written by someone else. 

"Don't write about how you want to go to business school," he says. "Be granular. Like, it's not enough to like history. What in history do you like? Do you have a specific era? How nerdy can you get?"

The point, he says, is to "zag where everyone else is zigging."

"Well rounded is not enough"

And while strong grades and good letters of recommendation are "the starting line" for many of the admissions processes at the most selective schools in the country, Coupet explains that it is often more beneficial to be an "angular" student, rather than being simply well-rounded. 

"Being well-rounded is not enough. And often, students who are a little bit more well-lopsided, or angular, fare better in the admissions process," he says. 

Coupet stresses that students should answer the question "How are you different from the rest of these applications?" with their essay. 

"Certain students have performed extracurricular activities at a state or national level and receive some recognition. Sometimes a student has built such great relationships with teachers that teachers will say, 'This the best kid I've ever had in my 27-year teaching career,'" he says. "Those are great ways to stand out that have stood the test of time." 

Admissions is still not equitable

And though the Varsity Blues Scandal and the pandemic have drawn attention to the inequities of the college admissions process, Coupet says improvements are still needed. 

"I'd be kidding myself if I said the system was equitable," he says. "It's not."

Coupet says colleges should use information from the Common Application's "school profile" section to learn more about students and the kind of difficulties their communities might face in order to better understand students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

"The admissions process is going to reflect some of the same unfairness that is in all processes in this country," he says. "But I do think that there are certain ways folks can be more equitable. Like reading and spending time with a student's high school profile, understanding a student's context, understanding the histories of how we've treated certain students in the past."

He continues, "Those types of movements are happening — maybe a little bit slower than I would like to see — but they're happening." 

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