“SR 2xsci 10, 11. JHCTY online MV Calc 12 fits w/Hutch internship. Supp: Hutch MD a rare gem.”
This is the language of admissions officers. It’s often said, rightly so, that admissions officers blaze through your application at breakneck pace—your personal statement in a minute or two, your activities in seconds, and scores barely a glance. But that’s not to say that they’re careless or sloppy. Admissions officers are trained to pick out the details in an application that make the difference, and they highlight those in notes to come back to when presenting an application to the full committee for a vote. I got a chance to see what the admissions officers who read my Yale application said about it, and through analyzing their notes there are a few fascinating lessons we can learn about how to approach application writing.
First, just to translate the above code, “JHCTY online MV Calc 12” refers to the multivariable calculus class I took from the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in my senior year. It “fits” with my Hutch internship because I took it to free up my day to go to lab. In my “supp” or supplemental recommendation, they noted that the recommender called me a “rare gem.” What about “SR 2xsci 10, 11”? While the 2xsci 10, 11 probably indicates that I took two science classes my sophomore and junior years, I’m still unsure what SR means. Every admissions office has its own abbreviations and terminology, which makes decoding rather difficult.
Even without a full understanding of everything the admissions officers wrote, a few details pop out when I looked at their notes. I had two readers. The first wrote about 150 words of dense comments in the above jargon and the second only maybe 70, much more colloquially. For top tier applications, you only get a second reader if the first says yes or maybe. Yale accepts around 6 percent of applicants per year. I would guess that only ~10 percent of applications get to a second reader. So yes, your application really does need to stand out to even be considered.
Of the 150 words in the first reader’s notes, about 15 are devoted to my background—my dad got a BA from Harvard and both of my parents have PhDs, so they know I come from a privileged educational background. There’s no way to hide this from admissions officers, so accept that if your parents have high-paying careers or advanced degrees that the admissions officers will expect more from you.
Each of my essays got around eight words. “E1 (my personal statement) oozes passion for sci… E2 (one of my Yale supplements) as taekwondo instructor uses less punitive to motivating studs (students) and making fun.” While it feels like these are simplistic reductions of the hours I poured into these essays, the admissions officers glean a lot more than they write. At the end of this section discussing my essays, the first reader wrote, “Ess (Essays) show curiosity, sensitivity on div (diverse) interests, pursuits.” This means my essays worked. My primary goal was to present myself as a genuinely curious and passionate learner in science and in my life, and it seems this got through. Without many weeks spent on structuring, writing, and editing these essays, these messages probably wouldn’t have convinced the readers.
They analyzed the supplements alongside the personal statement, but they also had specific terminology for specific supplements. For the Why Yale essay, for example, they wrote "YY (Why Yale) specific." Other colleges I got into like Stanford and Brown look for other things in their supplements. Stanford in particular is known to look for "intellectual vitality," and Brown I would argue has a particular focus on creativity and an interdisciplinary mindset.
Letters of Recommendation
Nearly 110 words are devoted to discussing my letters of recommendation—two teachers, one counselor, and one supplemental. These are often said to be fairly unimportant parts of the application because everyone gets decent recs—bad ones or exceptionally good ones are very rare. However, these make up a huge chunk of the text of your application. I’ve already discussed how to approach getting great letters of recommendation here, but in summary it’s not much effort and it’s undoubtedly worth it. LORs can make an application if they’re exceptional.
The first reader summarized at the end “BL recs (refers to Teacher and Counselor recs) and PQs (personal qualities) notably stronger than others fr (from) compet high HS. Rare 7 lvl Hutch mentor rec adds more buzz.” It’s clear that, at least for me, recs played a large part in how this reader compared me to the others.
The second reader only quickly noted that I might have gotten my internship from a connection my mother had (correctly) and then analyzed that my application stood out because of my internship letter of recommendation. He ends “Lukas’ presentation in the CA is v (very) straightforward and genuine… I like this young man… Has my vote in cmte. See XR (supplemental recommendation) to get there.”
If you haven’t noticed yet, 0 words in the admissions officers’ notes were dedicated to my activities. I’d spent countless hours starting Model UN events, competing in science olympiad, in school leadership, playing trumpet, teaching martial arts, and more, but none of this had even a note. A friend of mine made a similar point about his admissions file—activities were not mentioned once, apart from a score out of nine. I received a six.
So what can we learn about applications from this? I would argue a few things:
As mentioned, put in the time to get great LORs. Schools look specifically for terms like “the best ever” or “one of the best ever” (abbreviated “OBE” at Yale), “the best this year,” etc… Aim for teachers who will use phrases like this to describe you or your work.
Although your essays shouldn’t simply list your activities, it’s worth mentioning your most impressive ones or elaborating on them in an essay. If you don’t, it’s hard to imagine the reader will even remember them by the end.
Focus on showing personality and likability. A lot of the process comes down to whether the reader likes you. If you’re smart enough, admissions officers should see this in your scores and grades, even though these are intensely flawed measures.
At H&C Education Consulting, our advisors include students accepted to top tier schools and Ivy League Admission Officers who will help you through writing your application and make sure you communicate the right messages for the best chance at getting into your top choice schools. Sign up for a free consultation here!