Distinguishing Excellences, Hooks, and Wow Factors in College Admissions

Standing out in a manner that is highly impressive and well-perceived can help move your college application into the admitted pile. Doing something really unique, inspiring, or notable can lead to an admissions boost.

At Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and other super-selective schools, the majority of admitted students seem to have some sort of “wow factor” in addition to substantial academic achievements.

“Hooks” could include a top olympiad award in math or science or at the International Science and Engineering Fair; state, national, or international level athletic and musical achievements; prizewinning artistic, musical or filmmaking talent; impactful leadership demonstrated in extracurricular activities or community service; or fluency in multiple languages.

In addition to rating students on academics and other credentials, Harvard looks for ‘Distinguishing Excellences,’ which could include “unusual intelligence” or creative ability.

Distinguishing excellence, or DE, represents a significant achievement in a particular field. It could be in an academic area such as science, writing, or mathematics, athletic pursuits, an extracurricular activity such as debate, music, writing, or journalism, or exemplary leadership or contributions demonstrated through scouting or community service. Being president of the school debate team, or editor of the newspaper or yearbook can be an essential component of a DE. Frequently a DE includes measurable success beyond the high school level.

Admissions officers read applicant files with an eye toward what makes the applicant interesting, compelling, and unique, how the student might contribute on campus. DE can help answer these questions.

Student leaders can distinguish themselves by demonstrating their capacity to motivate, organize, and manage peers and community members in various endeavors. This may include two or three significant leadership roles, some of which have positively impacted the community.

Performers, dancers, writers, and artists can excel in their chosen area and gain recognition through competitive auditions, public shows, competitions, and media recognition.

Advocates and activists take the initiative to help and empower others to lead healthy and productive lives through meaningful volunteer service, government, or NGO work with a focus on goals greater than themselves.

There are a wide variety of paths to distinguishing excellence. Familiar to them all, passion is the driving force as students follow their hearts to pursue opportunities that resonate with them.