The acceptance rates at “elite” universities such as Harvard and Stanford (4.6% and 4.3% respectively) mean that even extremely qualified, academically badass students who are also the captain of their [insert sports/music/debate team here], volunteer 700 hours per week, and have 10 fives on AP tests don’t get in.
So, what do you have to do in order to have at least a fighting chance?
The bad news is that you have to start way earlier than senior or even junior year. The good news is that you may have already been doing the types of activities and/or have the key traits of top-tier candidates without even knowing it.
Of course, a sky-high GPA and test scores, as well as a challenging high school course load, are important.
But honestly, those factors are what I call the “check, check” traits. You just HAVE to have those in order to have a chance, but numbers alone are not going to get you in, since pretty much all serious applicants to top-tier schools have those. The differentiating traits among these candidates are more intangible than numbers.
The best (and most fun) example I can think of is Will Smith’s character (Edwards) in the original Men In Black movie. As an NYPD detective, Edwards is recruited by one of the current agents of the Men In Black agency because of his ability, skillset, and (probably) personality.
The testing process reminds me of the highly selective college admissions process and what traits successful applicants have (take a few minutes to watch!):
From simply asking why they’re there (as well as his response to the answer given by another applicant), which shows intellectual curiosity and the courage to challenge the status quo; to dragging the table across the room, which shows problem solving ability, creativity, confidence, and adaptability; to the “you wanna get down on this?” statement, which shows a willingness to collaborate, even with people who are “rivals,” to shooting “Tiffany” rather than the other targets, which shows high-level critical thinking, the soon-to-be Agent J shows why he’s the best choice.
These are pretty much the exact personal attributes that all colleges, especially highly selective colleges, look for in applicants. And students who exhibit these qualities often have already participated in extracurriculars throughout their lives
and in high school, and most likely excelled in those activities or at least kept doing them due to a sincere passion or a desire to make an impact. So, it’s the person behind the resume, rather than the paper itself, that will distinguish candidates.
So how do you let colleges know you can be Agent J when they don’t get to see you chase down aliens disguised as humans in New York City?
It’s not necessarily going to be the activities sections, which don’t give you enough writing space to truly showcase how dedicated you were to an activity or how you excelled either in performance or in those intangible qualities already mentioned.
Plus, anyone can make a task sound impressive: in college I sold football programs in the stands at home football games to earn extra money. On my resume, I “marketed informational booklets while learning valuable business skills, including interacting with customers, evaluating target markets, and fulfilling quotas.”
That leaves essays, letters of recommendation, and possibly interviews.
Essay readers can be admissions committees members, faculty, and/or current students at the college (the latter get paid to do so) to help admissions officers sort the thousands of applications into manageable piles. I’m not going to address the exact specifics of how to write your best possible essays (that will be another blog), but I can tell you that the best essays I’ve read are often “think pieces” or very personal stories. They usually also have at least a few points in the essay where I’ve either chuckled and/or related to the essay writer.
Letters of recommendation are pretty much the only thing you can’t completely control, which is one of the reasons most selective college admissions committees rely on them heavily. Yes, you can foster strong relationships with your teachers, coaches, mentors, and bosses and go above and beyond in the classroom and your activities, but you still can’t control what someone writes about you (nor get outside help like you can with academic tutoring, test preparation, and essay editing). On the bright side, letters of recommendation are also the best way for someone else to vouch that you truly exhibit the qualities represented in the rest of your application.
As for interviews, very few schools do them, and they are definitely not the most important part of your application. I will also write a separate blog post with more details about interviewing. Summary: it would be unusual if a “bad” interview caused you to be rejected, but a really, really good interview could help you gain acceptance if the admissions committee were on the fence about offering you an acceptance.
I’m going to end with some reassurance: getting accepted into a highly selective college feels amazing, but it’s not what will define you as a person or determine the overall success of your college experience.
And lastly, here’s a secret: most applicants who get into top-tier colleges didn’t develop these key intangible traits merely for the end result of an acceptance. Instead, they strove for these traits for their own edification and happiness. Hopefully, if you trust the process, good things will come.