US College Admissions

Six Easy Pieces

This is part of a blog series by Nicholas Henderson on the Do’s, Don’ts, and Dangers of the US college application process.

When it comes to applying to American universities, it is tempting to think that each college will consider the nuances, special circumstances, and unique complexity of each applicant’s character, history, and potential. They will see the real you. They will understand your specific strengths. They will generously understand your limitations.

This is false.

In reality, the application process is highly proscriptive, in which certain kinds of information are valued far more than others. The result is that each college will only get to know certain aspects of each applicant – aspects which reflect the institutional priorities of American colleges. It’s an imperfect system with many holes and pitfalls. But the upside is that knowing which information is important – and knowing how, where, and when to emphasize this information – will leave you a greater chance to communicate your individual message, meaning, and motivation. It’s a game, and like any game, you can win or you can lose: it all depends on knowing how to play by the rules.

What follows are the Six Easy Pieces of any US college application. This is all the data each college receives about any applicant, so take heed: your very future depends on it.

1.     School Grades. These are by far the most important metric for colleges, which will look for the rigor and relevance of your courses, as well as your informal rank (the first pool of candidates you’ll be compared against are other people from your school). The simple fact is that no amount of profile-building and ACT scores will offset poor grades. So study hard.

2.     Test Scores. It’s a sad truth that American colleges care about test scores. A lot. A few years ago, tier-one private colleges Emory and Claremont McKenna got in trouble for falsifying their student scores (pretending they were higher than they actually were); to this day, incoming student ACT/SAT score remain one of the biggest components of the all-important college rankings.

3.     Letters of Recommendation. You have the option to submit two academic LORs, one counselor/principal LOR, and up to two external LORs for each college. These are a great chance to showcase your strengths and explain your weaknesses, while corroborating the other aspects of your profile to create a unified and coherent whole.

4.     Activities List. On the Common Application portal, you’ll have the chance to submit short descriptions of ten activities, and it is important you have ten things to write about. This is meant to give the colleges a picture of what you’ve been doing outside the classroom since grade 9 (the way your school grades/LORs give colleges a picture of what you’ve been doing inside the classroom since grade 9). You’ll be asked to rank your activities in term of numbers of years committed, number of weeks per year involved, and number of hours per week engaged.

5.     Common Application Essay. This is the fun part of the application. The Common Application essay (650 words) is a chance to showcase your quirks and questions, your habits and hobbies, and your outlook and opinions. Most Indian students make two common mistakes: they brag too much (save that for the LORs!) or they stay too strictly biographical (save that for the Activities List!). Great Common Application Essays are risky, bold, provocative, and memorable. Above all, they are personal, and they are real.

6.     Supplemental Essays. This is the challenging part of the application. Almost every college will ask you to write a few additional pieces, which invariably will require you to discuss “why do you want to come to this college?” and “why do you want to study your subject?” Being able to answer these by pointing to selected extracurricular and academic activities from your profile – in conjunction with sophisticated and specific discussion of intended college major – is the key to a compelling, coherent, and creative supplemental essay.


Contact us here for more info about Essai's college counseling services.

How to act on the Activities List


In the Activities List section of the Common Application, we are told: “Reporting activities can help a college better understand your life outside of the classroom. Your activities may include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits. Do you have any activities that you wish to report?”

The answer is yes: you wish to report all your activities.

The Activities List is one of the most important components of a US college application. Firstly, it gives colleges an idea of an applicant’s interests and achievements; secondly, it communicates an applicant’s more subtle – but important – skills like time management, multi-taking, and work ethic.

There is space for ten activities on the Activity List, which apply to any and all pursuits you have taken part in between Grades 9 and 12. School clubs? Music? Volunteering? Internships? Language-learning? All good. On the Activities List, itself, you’ll have the option to rank your activities and to list the number of years pursued, number of weeks per year practiced, and number of hours per week engaged. Always be as accurate as you can with these time-estimates, and don’t feel intimidated just because you haven’t been able to devote as much time to your less important activities: it is often these small peripheral engagements that result in the most interesting supplemental essays.

There is a common misconception that a ‘good’ activity will involve something high-level or prestigious. In fact, a ‘good’ activity is simply something an applicant has engaged in meaningfully over the course of years. An extended engagement such as this will, of course, result in increased opportunities to participate, which may lead to more selective experiences (such as a committed musician being invited to join a jazz band or a chess player gradually working her way through the ranks to compete at the State Championships), but these end-products are the result of continued extra-curricular engagement, not the goal.

A warning about the “shotgun approach”: more activities does not necessarily lead to a better or more compelling profile. There is very little value in engaging in extracurricular pursuits just to fill the Activities List; in truth, colleges are very good at seeing through this well-meaning deception. It’s important to follow a simple rule of thumb: never try to impress colleges. Don’t do things that ‘sound good’. Pursue your goals and hobbies with all your passion and resources, and you will ‘sound good’ – whether your passion is research, music, sports, or tiddlywinks.


Contact us here for more info about Essai's college counseling services.