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What Admission Decisions Are Really Like

|  “Get inside the mind of an admissions officer. Understand how admission decisions are being made. It will change the way you present yourself in your application.”

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an admissions officer? To be in that room where admission decisions are made… out of 40,000 applicants, how do they pear those numbers down to 2,000 accepted students? 

Understanding that process can be critically valuable in helping you decide how to present yourself in your application so that it is memorable– in a way that helps you to stand out.


  • The “inside the room” experience where admission decisions are made
  • The secret to standing out & getting accepted to your college
  • Why straight A’s will not help you stand out today
  • What admissions officers are really looking for when making a decision
  • How the Ivy League Challenge can help you get admitted into your dream university

     And so much more.


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Too many people are overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated about college admissions prep. I created this podcast to help you build a standout college profile and boost your confidence. Enjoy!

– Steve Gardner, Founder

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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a college admissions officer? To be inside that room where these decisions are made? Out of 40,000 applicants, how do we pare that down to 2000 accepted students? I think that it would be valuable for you to understand what that process is like, because understanding that process really puts you in a position to write your application in a way that you stand out. And if you are never able to attend the Ivy League Challenge, I thought I should record this podcast so that you can have this basic understanding. And if, for whatever reason, you're not able to attend the Ivy League Challenge, I want you to be empowered at least to understand what it's like to get inside the mind of an admissions officer and get inside the room, so to speak, when those decisions are being made.

Once you understand this, it should change the way that you write about your activities and the way that you organize your application. So if you will imagine with me a room just filled with papers. There are multiple small desks or small tables and groups of two to four people sitting around these tables.

The people sitting around the tables are mostly younger in their twenty s and thirty s. As you look around, there's a big conference table as well. There are a lot of empty coffee mugs and half empty coffee mugs.

There's some pizza or sandwiches. And when final decisions are made, everyone sits around the big conference table. There are several people, and maybe the Dean of Admissions is at one end.

And as you look at the people sitting around the table, look at them, they look exhausted. These are people trying to push themselves to focus a bit longer. They're using coffee to help them get there.

Now, like we just said, most of these admissions officers are in their twenty s or early thirty s, and each one is generally responsible for a specific geographic location. They become an expert in that location. That way they become familiar with your high school.

And during the time when these decisions are being made, especially during peak time, these people are tired and stressed. And so your representative for your region, let's say, is named Sam. And when your application comes to the front, sam stands up and has just a few sentences to explain in front of this group of people why you should be admitted.

You must make it easy for Sam. Your school profile, your grades, other statistics will probably be projected onto a screen where everyone can easily see. And then Sam needs to explain who you are.

Make this easy for her by telling her your personal theme. You do the legwork, you do the thinking work so that it's easy for her to repeat. Your theme is where your personality? What makes you special, what makes you you intersects with your mission.

So imagine a Venn diagram that overlaps. One is your personality, the other is your mission. And right in that intersection, you need to create and label your theme.

The secret of admissions is that it is not the best candidate who gets in. Instead, it is the most memorable candidate who gets in. Think about it when around the United States and even around the world, grades are moving closer and closer to straight A's.

It used to be really spectacular to be the one person out of 1500 in your high school that got straight A's. You were the valedictorian, and that was unusual. Today there are schools with over 100 valedictorians, all with straight A's.

It used to be really unusual to get a perfect score on the Sat or act. Today it's not that unusual. Every year, the top schools in the United States get more applications from people with straight A's and perfect test scores than they have spots available.

And so at the top universities, most of these applicants are turned down. Only a few are able to get in. So just think for a second.

Is it really realistic to think that the best candidate is the one that's being admitted? How on earth are the admissions officers going to know that one candidate is better than another? Now knowing that the collective goal of all of these admissions officers is to somehow put together a mixture of people a fruit salad, if you will a mixture of people with varying talents and varying personalities and varying personal values so that they can support each other and become a community a living, breathing community where the whole is greater than the parts. Knowing that this is the objective, it is really, really important that you make it clear what kind of person you are. So if we're going with this fruit salad representation, what kind of fruit are you if you are not clear about who you are, about your personality and your values and what makes you you and your mission, the impact that you make in your community and the things that you do that are outstanding? If you're not clear about your personal theme, that Venn diagram, the intersection of yourself and your mission, then it makes it very difficult for the admissions officers to figure out where you fit in the class.

That's why in the Ivy League Challenge, we take time to do the exercises and help you identify your values and develop your mission. We teach you how to involve two to three teachers in this process so that they are invested in those values and help you develop your values, your theme. Over time, if you simply trust the process, your teachers will also be able to give you the most memorable letters possible.

And that is really important because we want your theme to resonate throughout the application. The you that we are presenting to the college application committee needs to be consistent. So your letters of recommendation should reinforce your theme, your personal theme.

Your letter of recommendation from your college counselor should reinforce your theme. Your activities should then reinforce your theme. So think about that for a second.

When you submit your application, what most students do is they just dump all of their activities and let it go. They move on. But you will not do that.

You will filter all of your activities through the story of your personal theme. Your impact project is the proof that you don't just talk a good game. Your values are real and are important to you. 

And this is one of the reasons why, even if you're really late to the game, you're discovering the Ivy League Challenge just weeks or months before you submit your application. Identifying the keywords that frame the story of your theme makes you memorable. And being memorable is more important than being amazing.

Now, for some of you, this might be sad. You might be thinking that no matter what, you want to be admitted to one and only one university. You have your dream university set in your mind.

And you know what? That university, by the time they get your application, if they are putting together a fruit salad, they might already have your fruit, and they might not be interested even though you're outstanding. So I think it's really important that you understand this about college admissions. You understand that they are looking to put together a class.

Make sure that your personal theme stands out. It is memorable and it is clear. Make it very, very easy for Sam, who represents you and for the rest of the group to understand what you bring to the table.

And on the flip side, take heart. If you're not admitted to your dream university, that doesn't mean that you weren't outstanding or that you weren't qualified. You might have even been more qualified.

But by the time your application came through, the admissions committee was already exhausted and they had already felt good about other students in that role that you would potentially play. And so don't feel bad. Not being admitted to one particular university doesn't mean anything about how valuable you would be as a contributor to that campus.

Oftentimes those circumstances are simply outside of your control and not worth you worrying too much about. Instead, worry about being the best you that you can be. Worry about being as clear as possible about your theme.

Your theme is your personal values and your personality, what makes you you combined with your mission, how you're making your impact, and how you're bringing your values to life and making your community a better place because of those values. And this is such great news, because by focusing on you and being as clear as possible about who you are and what you represent, you make yourself more memorable and you make yourself more likely to be admitted to your dream university. Or a university that turns out to be even better.