4 College Application Tips from a Former Admissions Director


As the parent of a high school student, the college admissions process can seem all-consuming. Between recommendations, deadlines, essays, and campus visits—there are quite a few to-do’s before your child receives that extra-large envelope in the mail with ‘Congratulations!’ stamped on the outside.

So while you navigate this process of getting into college alongside your daughter and attempt to offer sound advice, perhaps a bit of outside guidance from someone “in the know” would be helpful. Keith Bryner, Director of College Counseling at The Ellis School, and former Carnegie Mellon University and American University Assistant Director of Admission, shares his insider viewpoints on getting into college below.


The world of college admissions has become increasingly selective and increasingly obfuscated the years have rolled on. For many loving parents, they have watched their children do “all the right things:” get good grades, participate in varied activities, post high test scores, volunteer at the local animal shelter, etc. etc. However, as many now know, simply doing the right things isn’t enough to guarantee admission to those most esteemed institutions across the higher education landscape.

To be honest, there’s precious little that could be considered truly inside information when it comes to the college search and selection process. So here I humbly offer some tips that could possibly prove to be a boon to a college applicant.

1. Be and Present Your Authentic Self

There is nothing more important in life than accepting and embodying who you are while also desiring to grow. What really stands out in a college application is a student who is both authentic and aspirational. Embrace both your present and potential, and artfully articulate that for your benefit. Do not fake it until you make it; make it, then find colleges and universities that want and “fit your it.”

2. Remember Passion Requires Time

Finding and following passions doesn’t happen overnight. Despite the popular assumption that we should be born knowing exactly what we love, it’s much fairer to say that figuring that out is like going to the gym. It takes time, consistency, and practice, but pretty soon you’ll see the results. Give yourself the gift of time as soon as possible—schedule it, in fact—and the passions will come.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Nothing feels ickier in a college application than the realization that the writing you are reading is probably not the student’s own. And I’m not talking about true plagiarizing; instead, I mean the essay that has been written and rewritten and re-rewritten with the input of best friend, dad, college counselor, and psychic messages from the family pet. So use your own words. Write simply. Write as you speak. Embrace vernacular. Talk about the hard parts of life. The people reviewing your application are human too, and appreciate that sometimes, actual human beings apply to college.

4. Networking: Not Just For Adults

It can be hard for a young person to understand how or when to use their networks, but college application season is the time. Understand that networking is not about asking someone to do something for you, but entering into a relationship where, through mutual understanding and support, someone could do something for you. Be your own advocate in these tasks and remember to marshal your troops behind you. And then, remember to pay it forward in your own life.

Much of the groundwork that helps to establish a successful process is laid well before I ever begin working with parents and students, and much of my advice sounds more like folksy, homespun wisdom than some 10-step plan for guaranteeing admission to Stanford without breaking a sweat. And yet, both for purposes of college admissions and a successful life, I believe in the power of human connection and authentic expressions of self.

I believe that matching values to values and articulating those values clearly generally means more in college admission than perfect test scores. I believe that if you prioritize growth, self-satisfaction, and confidence over outcomes, you’ll be successful no matter where you attend college.


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