Are admissions teams as cynical as some people make them out to be?

I’ve seen people talk about how universities view students as untrustworthy when it comes to the intentions behind our achievements.

(Just an example):

“I’m a senior, and I love drawing. I started several months ago, but I’m already good. I’m thinking of adding an art portfolio to my resume. Will colleges like this?”

“No.” “They’ll think you just did it for an EC.” “It will make your application look padded.”

I feel like this is just a meme, but just in case, does it have any merit?

Applicants (and their parents) need to eliminate the words “impressive,” “like,” “best,” or similar words from their vocabulary until after decisions are made. It is the rare application/course schedule/EC that will “impress” admissions. Perhaps the AO that read Malala’s application was “impressed” by her ECs, but she set the bar high. Students should do things that are right for them.

For the specific example, art portfolios are generally of the quality that one would submit to an art school. It is unlikely that the student that started drawing a few months ago is at that level. They can certainly list as an EC. They can write an essay about it if it works into the prompt. But a portfolio? Probably not.

There is an adage - the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.


I don’t think “I started something a few months ago and I’m really good” at anything requires one to be an AO to question what “good” means.

Yes, an application that simply says “I’m really good at X” with no supporting evidence will be looked at skeptically. Because others with the same statement will likely have examples, courses, awards, etc.

You can certainly say “I’m very passionate about X” and indicate the time invested. There’s no requirement to be super great at something to be very interested in it. AOs want to know what makes you tick - what interests you, where your passion lies, etc. These activities may result in tangible recognition, but it’s certainly not required.


I don’t think they are cynical- but after three or five or 15 years reading applications, they know a thing or two. There are a few fields where a young person can indeed be self-taught and achieve something significant in a few months, but most human endeavors require time, sweat, effort, a lot of failing, before getting anywhere.

A musical prodigy? That’s a kid who at age 12 has the technique of a 30 year old. But that kid likely started at age 3, has practiced hours per day, to become a “prodigy”. Kid didn’t just fall out of bed and decide to take up the cello and before you know it was playing at Carnegie Hall.

Not cynical- they just know a thing or two.


I think “worldly” is a better adjective than “cynical.”

I would also argue that students sometimes try to present themselves as different than they are, not always to their advantage.

Mary is an oboeist and a true prodigy. At 12 she “has the technique of a 30 year old”. She has a pile of awards at the local and state level and maybe a national one.

Sue is an oboeist and good at it, but not great. She loves it and plays it at every opportunity - her school’s orchestra, its concert band, its marching band (ever march with an oboe? It’s real doggone hard), its pep band (even though nobody can hear her) and at various external events. She knows she won’t ever become a professional, but she wants a college where she can play while she majors in something other than music.

I would hold that Sue does not do herself any favors by presenting herself as Mary-lite. There’s a lot of positive in her story, and she should let it shine through.


I am not sure cynical or not matters. Some might be, but I think most have to be optimistic to keep doing the job. Those I know are genuinely committed to their work and passionate about finding students who will thrive at their college.

They just have a minimal amount of time to review your application in a holistic manner. If they take the time to click on an optional portfolio and it is not tied into your application in a meaningful way or it seems like it is not genuine they will most likely just move on to another application. Not cynical, just annoyed maybe.

If you have a story to tell with your art you just started and there is a reason why you want to be at that school to continue developing that interest then create that connection for them in your application.

I’m not an admissions officer but pretty cynical and find fault with this statement. After a few months you have a crush on drawing you don’t really love it and it’s not clear that drawing loves you back. You think it does but after a few months it might not be so obvious to others as it is to you. An art portfolio would be an unhelpful addition to an application in this instance.

The big problem AOs have is I’ve overheard several juniors talking among themselves about what clubs they can join to get leadership positions for colleges apps vs clubs they can join because they love the club.

Ditto for other ECs.

I don’t read college apps - just offer advice to high schoolers (and sometimes write LORs), but I completely understand why they could take a cynical view of something started late, then pumped up in an app.

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The problem is students conflate leadership with titles; AOs don’t make that mistake.

And don’t get me started on YouTube channels, founding non-profits, “research,” etc

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For me, it is the Co-Founder and President title that gets my suspicion up


I’ve always thought it was more important to show impact on an organization than simply leadership positions. So tell about how you set up sustainable and repeatable fund-raising events, or increased club membership, or somehow improved a group with or without the title. My oldest DD grew the mock trial team from 10-12 to over forty through a number of gambits including hitting up the theater kids to be witnesses. It kind of opened up an avenue to them where before they thought it was only for poindexter academics. Show how you effected change.