Higher learning can be a lofty ambition. For the class of 2020, Harvard received 39,041 applications for admission. They accepted just 2106. In 2016, Cornell admitted 14 percent of prospective students. Even the comparatively welcoming University of Virginia greeted only 28.8 percent of applicants.

Vetting these thousands of hopefuls are college admissions officers, typically alumni of the school who review applications for the best, brightest, and most valued would-be graduates. To learn more about the process, mental_floss spoke with several former admissions officers on what happens when your condensed life story hits their desk.

1. IT CAN MATTER WHO YOUR PARENTS ARE—BUT NOT FOR THE REASONS YOU THINK.

While it certainly can’t hurt to have parents donating enough money for a new building on campus, it’s far more likely your mom and dad will impact your application in a different way. “Context is everything,” says Stephen Friedfeld, a former admissions officer for Cornell and co-founder of AcceptU, an admissions counseling service. “If a student is coming from a background where their father is a lawyer and their mother is a doctor, the expectations are going to be higher regarding grades and extracurricular activity. Conversely, if a student came from a family without a higher level of education, I revised those expectations.”

2. YOUR HIGH SCHOOL MATTERS, TOO.

Officers will always have a profile of your high school, whether it’s part of your application or as an electronic resource. “If someone is coming from a very challenging high school, there’s some forgiveness for slightly lower grades or class standing,” Friedfeld says. But if a school has a relatively low percentage of students that go on to four-year colleges, you’ll have to work harder to impress. “There’s a concern if we admit a student like that, he or she won’t fare well because they’ve been under-prepped.”

3. DON’T SUBMIT A PHONE BOOK.

Rachel Toor worked in college admissions at Duke before writing a book, Admissions Confidential. (Toor's next book, on writing essays, is due from the University of Chicago Press in fall 2017.) “Two letters of endorsement are enough,” she says, “unless a third can really shed new light on the student.” The record at Duke was 32 letters, though Toor once heard Georgetown had an application with 70. “We used to joke that the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.”

Joie Jager-Hyman, a consultant at CollegePrep360, has heard the same line. “It means that weaker applicants often send more supplementary materials to compensate for their lack of credentials. So a lean file with excellent versions of all the required material is best.”

4. YOUR HEALTH CONDITION MAY NOT MAKE FOR THE BEST ESSAY.

As most any college application advisor will tell you, the essay is your chance to personalize your file, turning it from a sterile collection of grade point averages to something with a beating heart. While most any topic will work in the right hands, dwelling on your chronic medical conditions may not be best, Friedfeld says. “I understand it affects them meaningfully, but it might be better to choose something other than an ailment to make the essay more positive.”

Other less-than-optimal clotheslines: poetry, or how you cope with privilege. “I’d rather read about a student learning French cooking at home than learning French because their family vacationed in Europe,” Friedfeld says.

5. THEY NEED TO FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU.

“I tell kids that their job is to make the [officer] fall in love with you,” Toor says. “I’ve written many notes to students asking them to meet me as soon as they get to campus.” Friedfeld says universities are essentially looking for community residents with a four-year lease. “As an admissions officer, you’re picking people to enroll in your community, your space, for the next four years. They’re going to choose who they like and who they want to get to know.” At AcceptU, Friedfeld hands out sample essays, then asks students their thoughts. “They’ll say they liked the writing. It’s not about that. It’s about whether you liked who wrote it.”

6. THEY DON’T MIND GETTING SOME ART.

A portfolio of photography, illustrations, or musical recordings isn’t a bad idea even if you’re looking at a non-art major. “I think it’s great to submit that stuff,” Friedfeld says. “At Cornell, we’d send music to the recording department and they’d rank it from one to four.” (Admissions officers might have tin ears.) While a negative rating won’t hurt, a positive rating could be the small boost that makes a difference. “You’re showing a passion for a hobby.”

7. REIN IN THOSE EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES.

Captain of nine different squads? Different sport every year? While you may think you’re showing diversity, you may actually be convincing the admissions office you can’t sit still. “To put down ‘volleyball in grade nine’ is not really enhancing your application,” Friedfeld says.  “It’s just pointing out you didn’t stick with it.” Instead, opt for four to seven extracurricular activities and commit to them. Even starting a blog is worthwhile. “Founding a club or starting a program in your community shows initiative. Teaching yourself to play guitar is viable, and it’s something people don’t think about.”

8. APPLYING EARLY CAN BOOST YOUR CHANCES.

Submitting applications to colleges in late fall has its advantages. “Applying ‘early decision’ is undoubtedly a boost at almost any college,” Jager-Hyman says. “Several years ago, Harvard researchers did a study that found that applying 'early decision' gives students the statistical equivalent of 100 extra SAT points after controlling for factors like legacy status or being a recruited athlete.” But, she cautions, selective colleges will still turn you away if you’re not a fit: It’s best to keep your targeted schools reasonable.  

9. DON’T BE RUDE TO YOUR GUIDANCE COUNSELOR OR TEACHER.

They can have a pretty big say in what happens after graduation, particularly when it comes to recommendation letters. “People write stronger and better letters for students they like,” Friedfeld says. “And a guidance counselor may not like a family that’s rude or pestering. It may not be a negative letter, but it will be modest.” An exasperated teacher may write that a student will “come into his own.” That’s code, he says, for someone immature.  

10. THERE WILL BE ARGUMENTS OVER YOU.

Admissions officers typically need to make a case for borderline applicants at faculty meetings. This is a good thing, since having a passionate advocate means your application stood out—but it also means not everyone is going to agree. “80 percent of students who apply could do the work if they were admitted,” Toor says. “We all have our personal predilections. I like angst-ridden poets with green hair who like to go riding, while a colleague might like eagle scouts. You make an argument for the kid you like the most.”

11. DON’T HAVE A GOOFY EMAIL ADDRESS.

Doing everything right on your application can be undermined with a return email address of beerpong59@aol.com. “Maybe if a student is phenomenal, but if it’s on the cusp, it can break an application,” Friedfeld says. “You never know who’s reading an application. It could be a 23-year-old liberal or a 65-year-old conservative.” And if your Facebook or Twitter profile consists of you passed out in bars, consider closing or locking the accounts. “Officers look at social media to help figure a student out. Deleting it or locking it is the way to go.”

12. BRIBES WON’T HELP. NOT EVEN TWINKIES.

Toor recalls reviewing applications that came with some not-quite-subtle attempts at currying favor. “I was invited to a cattle ranch in Argentina once,” she says. Another time, she asked a student during an in-person interview to reveal something interesting. He said his nickname was “Twinkie.” A week later, Toor got a box of Twinkies in the mail. “People do whatever they think is going to help them.”

All images courtesy of iStock.