Ah, the admissions officer, that mysterious person tucked away behind stacks of applications holding the key to your future. Wouldn’t you like to get inside that person’s head? Well, you can–not by submitting an application you think an admissions officer wants to see, and not by telepathically influencing this person’s decision, but by putting together an academic application portfolio that showcases your unique self as an engaged and interesting individual.

According to Daily Beast Education reporter Kathleen Kingsbury, many “admissions officers talk about walking away from reading their application and feeling as though they know them as a person.” To impress your very important admissions officer, you need to present yourself as someone your reader would like to get to know. Although admissions officers are certainly overworked during the application season, they are nonetheless eager to create a vibrant incoming class. If your admissions application inspires this person with its strategic combination of solid grades and standardized test scores, serious interest in and curiosity about your chosen course of study, a singular set of extracurricular and leadership accomplishments, active civic participation, and–this is very important–a stellar application essay that makes your reader feel connected to you, then your admissions candidacy just might make it to a coffee break conversation and then into the Yes! pile.

Who is the ideal college, grad school, or fellowship candidate? No one, and potentially everyone. This is why it is so important to resist anticipating what an admissions officer wants. Don’t please this person; excite him or her! Don’t fit into a model; break the mold.

Gone are the days when good grades, standardized test scores, and volunteering at a hospital do the trick to get you in. This means that it is important to think of your application as a package, profile, or portfolio–and not merely as a collection of stuff with an essay added to it. Each component of your admissions application must combine with all of the others to form a cohesive whole representing a well-rounded and “real” person. I often compare the admissions portfolio to a gemstone: in order for the whole gem to shine brilliantly, the individual parts, like a gemstone facet, must contribute its singular spark.

How does your application achieve gem status? As Kingsbury states, most important is “to be yourself in the application process. Trying to be something that you’re not is one thing that actually turns a lot of admissions officers off.” Know who you are, select the most distinctive “facets” of you, own your experiences and accomplishments, insert your personality into your application essay writing voice, and your admissions application will come alive. There is no formula for this. The key, rather, is to exercise skills in strategy and creativity. This is why admissions success is not a science but an art.