04/08/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Don't Count on a 'Hook' to Get You Into College

As the number of students applying to college continues to grow, there's also an increase in the number of students who hope a special talent or life's story will give them that extra plus needed to get noticed -- and admitted -- by the college of their choice. Sometimes known as a "hook," students and parents are convinced they'll be a sure admit to any school if the student can play the oboe, apply as a female engineering major, or come from a small town in South Dakota.

After this year's very unusual round of college applications, it's fair to ask -- do these hooks really work? As is the case with just about any college admissions question, the answer is, it depends. Juniors should keep these ideas in mind as they consider their chances of gaining admission with a special quality:

It should be a long-standing interest. You can't hope to get into Dream School U next year by taking up the bagpipes today. Colleges aren't fond of juniors who decide to "boost" their extracurricular record by joining nine clubs in the spring; the same is true with special talents. An interest you started as a child might (that's might) be a plus if you take it up again, but most colleges are looking for a long-term demonstrated interest -- and that can't start this week.

You may need to be good at it. A unique hobby or background may be enough to have your file read closely, but colleges might value your hook only if you show real talent. That's why it would be a mistake to tell a college you studied kung fu for seven years if you last practiced it in sixth grade. That, plus it would be misleading.

It has to be of interest to the college. You may be one of the best defensive backs in the country, but if one of your top colleges doesn't have a team, your skills may not matter as much there. Colleges will certainly consider the discipline and commitment you demonstrated in making the most of your talents, but unless they have at least a club team, they are likely to be more interested in how you applied those same qualities in the classroom.

The timing may be bad. A college counselor offered a great example of the limits of a specific talent. "We love hockey," he said, "so if you're a hockey goalie, and we're going to graduate three hockey goalies this year, your chances of admission to our college just went up. On the other hand, if you're a hockey goalie, and we just admitted three hockey goalies last year, your chances of admission just went down." Since you can't always time a college's need, it's important not to rely too much on your talent.

Your interest should be genuine. A male student applies to a university's nursing, program, but it's clear he's only using that unusual interest to gain admission and later transfer to the school's competitive studio art program. How does the college know? All of his electives are in Studio Art, not science. Colleges have a way of knowing these things anyway, but most of the time, they don't have to go far to find the truth.

Colleges care deeply about the interests students pursue outside the classroom, since they teach lessons about life and self in ways classroom experiences can't. These interests can make for a richer college, so they can make for a richer application; but if this year's admissions decisions have taught us anything, nothing is a sure bet.