It's a favorite, though intimidating, topic of conversation among high school seniors, juniors and anxious parents: How can kids get into the colleges they want to attend? And the discussion is even more heated among students hoping to be accepted by one of the nation's highly competitive premier institutions.

Should they focus on grades? Letters of recommendation? Extracurriculars? Should they put all their efforts into writing the perfect essay? What is the best strategy for catching the attention of the people who make admissions decisions at "World Class U"?

Guidelines are available from individual colleges and from the College Board, but admissions officers say there is no magic formula.

"Most people are looking for some beautifully crafted capsule definition of what it takes to get into a competitive college, and they think it's formulaic," said Dwight Miller, senior admissions officer for Harvard University.

But looking for such a formula, he says, is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Instead, Miller and other admissions officers maintain that the best approach for applicants, even at the nation's most acclaimed schools, might be even more daunting than focusing on grades and standardized tests: Simply be yourself. Although successful applicants usually have to meet certain academic standards, the best approach, they say, is to ensure that your personality and passion stand out among the test scores and the class rankings and to show the admissions personnel that you would be an asset to the campus community.

Applicants can make their cases through their extracurricular activities, volunteer work and interviews, as well as via the dreaded college essay.

[Students] don't have to have perfect records or take every AP class; we want students to present themselves on their applications as they are and show that they have enthusiasm for what they're doing.

Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What Admissions Officers Look For

"We look to see whether students are going to be positive [university] community members," said Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which ranked No. 1 in the 2011 "U.S. News & World Report" list of best engineering schools.

At MIT, students work in teams and help each other learn. "We want to make sure that the students that we're going to [accept] will thrive in that kind of environment," Schmill explained.

Successful applicants "don't have to be superhuman to get in," he added. "They don't have to have perfect records or take every AP class; we want students to present themselves on their applications as they are and show that they have enthusiasm for what they're doing."

Harvard, which tied for No. 1 on the "U.S. News & World Report" list of top national universities, also looks beyond pure grades and scores.

"Although we start with the academics," Miller said, "80 percent of the time the ultimate leverage that gets a kid admitted ... will fall into the nonacademic area."

He went on to clarify, "We look for sound human values. We're not really interested in the dull valedictorian with perfect grades and scores. Someone less than perfect but really interesting will get much more attention and be a more viable candidate than the person with perfect grades."

Miller described one such "interesting" applicant from a number of years ago, a student with ordinary credentials at a rural Southeastern high school, without the advantages many schools and wealthy parents can offer. In his essay, the boy wrote about the learning process of his mentally disabled little sister and how she dealt with life. Miller says the student's writing was sensitive, observant and insightful -- qualities that were supported by his teachers' recommendations.

"We just knew he would come here and be a terrific roommate and absorb what Harvard had to offer," Miller said. The applicant was offered admission, he accepted and did well.

Michele Larkrith, associate director, Office of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of California, Berkeley, says a student's resources are another consideration, and this was echoed by other admissions officers.

"We realize that there are disparities among high schools," Larkrith said. "We take a look at the student within the context of their own high school" to see if the student "has taken full advantage of what was offered. We don't compare a school wherein the students and parents have a lot of opportunities to one where they don't."

How Admissions Personnel Make Their Finds

All parts of the application process reveal "hints and clues" about a student's personality, says MIT's Schmill.

"We look at how students spend their time, what they do, activities they're part of. We look at things teachers and counselors are saying about them in recommendation letters."

Interviews with applicants, usually conducted by alumni volunteers for MIT, provide other information, as do the essays. Essays can tell admissions decision-makers something "deeper" about applicants than transcripts can reveal, Schmill said. "[Students] want to try to reveal something about themselves that's hard to get at in any other way."

Another way admissions personnel determine applicants' interests and enthusiasm is through their extracurricular activities and volunteer work. But a laundry list of activities isn't the way to go.

"Any college looks for depth of interest and passion and would rather see it in only a few things or one thing than everything from A to Z," said Harvard's Miller. "Resume building is sort of the kiss of death."

Though academics are paramount, "extracurriculars will distinguish a student from a very large pool of very strong students," said Larkrith at Cal-Berkeley, the top public university in the "U.S. News & World Report" list.

"It's not really the breadth of activities," she explained. "It's really more the depth of activities that we look for. We really want to see that students have focused in on one," becoming seriously involved and taking leadership positions.

Acing the Essay

"The essay helps us to derive a context for all the other data in the application," said Michele Larkrith, associate director of undergraduate admissions for the University of California, Berkeley. "It really provides us much more context with which we can determine what a particular achievement means for that particular student.

"What really affects me if I'm reading is if I can get a sense of the student's passion, whatever it is, coming through in the writing," he said.

Here are some other tips for doing your best on the essay:

Be careful to answer the specific questions asked, said Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which requires several shorter essays instead of one major piece. "Try to reveal something about yourself, something that doesn't come across from the transcript or list of activities."

Make sure to focus on yourself and don't be too general. Write about your desires and dreams "and how college will help you attain whatever it is that you want to attain in your life," Larkrith said.

For Dwight Miller, senior admissions officer at Harvard University, focusing too much on "acing" the essay is the wrong way to go. What the applicant should be after is "genuineness and substance," he said. "You're not trying to wrap a present or sell a product. Most of the time you can tell the kid who's been overly coached."

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