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Another article from our amazing college admissions mentor, Rosanna Kataja


This post is going to be extremely honest because I want to give value to you. I believe these four things that I’m about to share with you are really at the core of what makes or breaks your college application. 

Already fixing these makes you so much closer to being one of the 5% of students Harvard admits rather than the 95% they reject. And out of the 95%, a lot of people have at least one of the following. 

Are you guilty of any of these mistakes?


Whenever I see a question like this, I just want to scream: IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE SCORES! 

As an international student, I understand the worry really well. In almost anywhere except for the US, your grades matter A LOT. Where I’m from, it’s actually all that matters. You don’t write essays, send your resume, get recommendation letters, anything. Just send your grades and hope for the best. 

That’s quite harsh. 

That’s why I am overall a fan of holistic admissions in the US. Of course, it has downsides. One of them is that no GPA or SAT score can guarantee your college spot. Or no one aspect, really. 

Your son can have a 1600 SAT and a 4.0 GPA, but still not get in. Maybe he has no personality, no extracurriculars, no leadership experience, no teachers who like him, and no friends. In that scenario, I could almost guarantee that the chance of acceptance into top schools is extremely slim even with valedictorian grades. 

The same thinking applies in university. A fellow Harvard student, John Fish, has made a good YouTube video about it: “Why My 4.0 at Harvard Was a Failure.” If you spend all your time studying to maintain your grades, you miss out on so many other great things. Achieving good grades make look your life look amazing on paper, but can leave you uninspired and exhausted. That’s not how your life should be. 

However, I see so many people still fall into the trap. Your time and energy should be focused more on meaningful extracurriculars, cultivating relationships, and exploring your passions, not on studying for hours and hours each day to improve your already pretty good SAT score. 

As Mark Twain said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” Don’t spend all of your time chasing top grades, because it won’t serve your college application or education in the long run.

Study and explore things that matter to you. That is one of the most important pieces of advice that got me into Harvard with a 1320 SAT score and 3.7 GPA. I didn’t lose sleep about my “subpar” math grades or SAT scores because there were more important things that I wanted to spend my time on, such as history and literature. 


Okay, so now you decided you have to do more than study in your room alone 24/7. Time for the mistake you might be making. 

Have you signed up for extracurriculars you couldn’t give a damn about, but you think it looks good on the college application?

Red flag!

Science Olympiad, Debate, and Athletics might be the most common extracurriculars students choose to boost their resume.

Don’t get me wrong, if you like those things, go for it!

But if you don’t, that’s okay too, and you are at no disadvantage. 

Do you like pottery, dance, or bird spotting perhaps? If yes, that’s awesome, go for it! If you have an unusual interest that’s not offered at your school, you can start a club and teach others your cool skill.

It’s much harder to make yourself stand out in the college application if you don’t have anything that makes you… well, stand out. 

However, there’s a fine line between genuinely standing out and being a try-hard. Out of the 40,000 applicants Harvard got last year, I bet there were a lot of people who have won prizes at Science Fairs, been on their high school’s debate team, or played an instrument really well. 

I have met a lot of classmates like that (and that’s awesome!)

However, also a lot of students who have done those same extracurriculars got rejected. Why?

The admission officers have seen thousands of applications, so they can sense when someone is doing an activity because they love it, vs. when someone is doing it because they feel like they have to. 

My main extracurriculars were disability inclusive theater program and competitive Irish dancing. 

I didn’t choose those things because I thought they’d make me stand out in the application, but because I really enjoyed doing them. They fit my personality, so it was also much easier to make my application cohesive. 

The key takeaway is this: Just live your life the way that suits you. Pursue your interests without fear of judgment. If they help you get into your dream college, that’s a nice bonus. Don’t build your life based on your hope to get into a specific school.


Circling back to the first point for a moment. Sites like Quora are full of questions about what SAT scores or GPA are needed for School X or School Y. My extracurriculars look this and this, can I get in? 

That tunnel vision drives me crazy!

Applying to top schools, application essays are extremely important. In my opinion, if one thing only can make or break your college application, it’s the essay. 

Even if you’re a member of Mensa, a valedictorian, have been to the moon, or met the President twice, having a well-written essay is the key. 

It’s an art form, in a way. And to be taken extremely seriously. 

Most often when you try to find tips on how to write a good college application essay, there’s a list of essay topics that should be avoided. However, I have a different perspective. A generic topic written well can get you in, and a super cool topic written badly can get you rejected.

If you are not a good or creative writer, you need to start early. And really invest energy in the essay. 

In my other post, I mentioned a book that helped me tons to understand what a good essay should look like. Before you even start writing, you should study some of the successful essays to understand what you should aim at. 

For overall advice, the essay needs to be so unique so that your classmate could never write it herself and claim it’s hers. It needs to be so personal that you could never outsource it. 

I have mentored a lot of high school students applying to Harvard, and guess what was the best sign the essay is good? The mentee started crying while reading it out loud. Not out of agony, but because the essay hits them. 

The key to a good essay is emotion. If you can convey that emotion to the reader, your essay has real potential to be a chef’s kiss


This one might be one of the most unexpected mistakes you can learn about. 

I couldn’t be more proud to tell you that in general, my parents know almost nothing about what I do at university, and for a long time, they didn’t even really know I was applying to Harvard. 

That might be from another extreme, but at least I definitely did not have the problem of too much parent involvement. 

I’ve seen a lot of people in my school whose parents are very involved and know everything about their child’s school life. Don’t get me wrong, your parents should care. You’re their loved child after all. But at this point in your life, you need to be able to make your own decisions and have freedom. And it’s going to be so much better for you for multiple reasons.

First of all, I have seen students who are miserable because they are trying to please their parents too much. They hate what they study, but hey, at least mom will be happy. What kind of future are those people going to have? Your mom shouldn’t be proud of your burnout. 

Second, the experienced admission officers can often sense when the application isn’t entirely written by the student. They can read between the lines when the student has been pushed too hard in a direction he or she might not truly care for. 

What to do about this?

It would be very low-quality advice from me to just tell you to talk to your parents about the problem and everything is going to be okay. It’s often much harder than that, especially if you have been living like that for most of your life. Family dynamics are tricky.

You may come from a culture where parents have more power and are to be more respected. I’m in no place to tell your family how to live, but I am saying you should think about things. 

If you are a parent reading this, I don’t want to blame you. Even overprotective parents have the child’s best intentions at heart and want to help them succeed and be happy. However,  at high school age and beyond, though, your child has to be able to start exploring their interests, make their own mistakes, and start building a life that suits them. 

However, college students are becoming an adults and need to take responsibility for their own life. It is hard but necessary. 

If you let someone else influence your college application too much, it can end up a disaster. You may end up majoring in something you don’t like that much, or worst case scenario, attend a school you don’t feel like you belong to. It’s going to be much harder to stay motivated and your time at college will just be less fun. 

If you find yourself guilty of any of the mistakes above, don’t worry. They are very common, but now if you can fix them, you will be one step ahead.


Article originally posted here.


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