“What are you looking for in an applicant?”

Emily "Pete" Petersell

Now that fall is here, high school seniors are working on their college applications in earnest. And I am starting to hear this question a lot: “What are you looking for in an applicant?”

This is probably the most common question I get from prospective students and their families. It’s also one of the hardest questions to answer because truthfully, there is no one formula or recipe for a successful application to Olin.

I think what students wish I would say is, “If you put X, Y, and Z in your application, you will get the admission result you want.”

But I can’t say that, because selective college admission isn’t like baking.

This summer, I started watching The Great British Baking Show on Netflix. (If you like baked goods and/or British accents, I highly recommend this program.) In each episode, the contestants are asked to complete three baking challenges: the “signature challenge,” the “technical challenge” and the “showstopper challenge.”

The second task, the “technical challenge”, is one in which all of the bakers are asked to follow the same recipe and bake the exact same thing as the other contestants. Their resulting bakes are then compared, tasted, and ranked by the judges, from best to worst.

When the challenge is introduced, the judges tell the audience at home (but not the contestants) “what they are looking for” in this specific baked good—and they show the audience an example of what the item is supposed to look like, and talk about how it should taste. They usually also tell the audience at home what the “tricks” are for this particular bake—that is, what types of inputs and actions on the part of the baker will give them the perfect cherry cake.

However, this is where the challenge gets tricky: the difficulty of the technical challenge is that the recipe provided to the contestants usually consists of vague instructions—things like “prepare the cherries”. The contestants must then rely on their own technical knowledge and baking experience to fill in the gaps in the recipe. They must decide for themselves if they think “preparing the cherries” means cutting them into smaller pieces, coating them in flour, cooking them on the stovetop, or something else entirely. At the end of the day, whoever is closest to doing everything right (whether by knowledge or guesswork), wins the technical challenge.

When students and families ask me what we are looking for in an Olin applicant, I frequently get the impression that they think I am like a judge during the technical challenge, because sometimes the things I say we are looking for can sound like a vague recipe for success. Instead of “prepare the cherries” I say things like “we look for students who have taken a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum in high school” or “we are looking for creative risk-takers”. Students often look at me as if they think I am withholding critical details—as if I am purposely not telling them the right way to prepare the cherries for a cherry cake.

But here’s the thing—the admission process is NOT like the technical challenge. There is no correct recipe, there are no right answers, and there is no information I am withholding about what you need to do, because the process of applying to Olin is much more like the “signature challenge.”

During the signature challenge on the Great British Baking Show, the contestants are given a task like “bake two dozen biscuits”, but each contestant gets to decide what kind of biscuits they want to make, and how they will make them. They are allowed to bring their own recipes, ingredients, and cookware from home. They are even allowed to practice their bakes at home during the week prior to the challenge!

Usually, contestants play to their strengths in the signature challenge; they bake things that are familiar to them, things they have baked before with family and friends, and things that they genuinely enjoy making and eating. The end result is that each baker’s batch of biscuits reflects something about who they are and also shows off the very best of their baking abilities. The signature challenge is the contestants’ opportunity to present themselves in the best possible light.

And here’s the best part of the signature challenge—the bakes are not ranked, so there is no “first place” and “last place.” It is not possible for the judges to directly compare bakes that are so different. But it is possible for the judges to decide that many of the bakes are good for different reasons. The judges may be impressed by the cheesy flavor of one biscuit, but the crunchy texture of another.

When applying to Olin (or any selective college), you should think of your application like it’s your signature bake. The application should be a genuine reflection of who you are, where you come from, and what you enjoy. It should present all of your best qualities and accomplishments in the best possible light. You should feel free to take ample time preparing your application so that by the time you submit it, it is something you feel proud to present. And maybe it will resonate with some colleges and not others, and that is OK. There are no secret tips or tricks I can give you, because your application is your signature piece!

And we can’t wait to eat, I mean, read it!

Cherry Cake

FYI, this is what Mary Berry's Cherry Cake is "supposed to" look like, from a technical standpoint. Photo courtesy of the BBC. 

Posted in: Pete, All Admission Staff Blogs