The move to a new calendar year also means moving on to another class in the college counseling program. Seniors have submitted their applications and now play the hard game of waiting to hear back while colleges go into hiding, reading the thousands of applications they have to review. Back at the high school, it means that we are starting to work with our juniors and talk more specifically about the college process. Our sophomores and freshmen are already thinking about this summer and next year, and what their choices will mean for their future college applications. This translates to a long line of students outside of my door and an inbox full of emails, all asking questions about what to do and how to create a strong application.

  • “Will this internship look better than doing this community service?”
  • “Is Cool Summer Program better than Ultra Summer Program?”
  • “If I take this summer school class at Red Brick University, will it help me get into Red Brick University later?”
  • “What is Red Brick University looking for in an applicant?”
  • “My great-uncle went to Red Brick University. Does that make me a legacy?”
  • “Should I take this AP class or this honors class?”

These examples may be a little extreme, but they are not too far off from the questions that families have. I don’t blame them. Trying to understand college admission is difficult. At times it can feel like it is cloaked in mystery and shrouded in secrets. There’s a reason for that – mainly because it changes quickly. Institutional priorities shift each and every year based on strategic enrollment goals. And beyond those goals, you have to remember that there are real people reading those college applications and they have their own experiences, biases, and ways that they may connect with an applicant. One reader may have a soft spot for students who have taken the most challenging curriculum out there, while another reader may have more appreciation for students who take on part-time jobs. As the proverb goes, “There is no accounting for taste.” This isn’t meant to discourage you; in fact, quite the opposite. It gives you the freedom to be yourself in this process.

Think of it this way: Imagine you suddenly have hundreds of people all vying for your attention. They seem like good people. They’ve worked hard, they’re dressed up, and they have gifts for you. How do you choose which people will get your attention? It kind of feels like trying to find Waldo in a sea of look-a-likes. What to do?

The simple answer is: be authentic, be sincere, and be yourself.

When I worked in college admission, it was the applicants who were comfortable being themselves who seemed to connect the most with the admissions representatives. I would happily read about the champion yo-yo student or the kid who made hundreds of backpacks with school supplies for kids in their neighborhood. These things were unique and interesting, and stood out among a crowd of students all trying to outdo one another in the same activities.

It’s difficult because, in many cases, students have a lot of similar interests. Kids who want to be doctors are often interested in doing research, spending time in the science lab, and participating in robotics. The performing arts student is going to spend their time putting on productions, going to plays, and finding other creative outlets. You’ll find the athlete out there perfecting their sport, any chance they get.

My advice is to play the game your own way. Who says you have to compete in the exact same way as everyone else? Take a dive into the data from colleges about outcomes. You’ll see some interesting trends that show that success, however you define it, is not only handed out at the most selective colleges and universities. Look for opportunities and colleges that share the same values that you do. Are you interested in a global perspective? Find a school that emphasizes studying abroad. Do you value undergraduate research? There are lots of schools that have practicums or internships built into the curriculum. Are there social movements that define who you are? There are schools out there that embrace those causes too. Study after study has shown that students who are happy at their schools do better academically, socially, and in their careers.

Going back to the questions I am often posed about “which is better?” … the answer is whichever you find the most value in is going to be the better one. You can find opportunities in anything; it is up to you to take advantage of them. If you are doing a summer program, take the time to get to know people with different backgrounds and perspectives. If you are traveling, try to take in the local culture as much as possible. If you are doing research, really try to understand the bigger picture of what you are trying to accomplish. If you are working at a job, take the time to develop self-motivation and time management.

The really short answer here is that there is no “best way.” And there is no list of activities and accomplishments that will guarantee a specific outcome. I know it can be frustrating. So go ahead – be a rebel and determine what is actually best for you, because this is your experience


After eight years working in college admission for two colleges in Southern California, Justin Voss moved to the other side and joined Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim, California  as a college counselor. During that time he has helped thousands of students navigate the college admissions process. Justin is currently completing a doctorate degree at Creighton University in Interdisciplinary Leadership. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking, playing music, and spending time with his family.

Question College Counselors Are Getting A Lot These Days: “But Which Is Better?’”