One Student’s Opinion*
The idea of having to be number one in the class or even in the top ten may be important in terms of high school accolades, but it really is not that important to the universities. Statistics, even on the university websites, may suggest otherwise, but one needs to look between the numbers. Many high schools are small and may have only one person intelligent enough to apply to the best schools. So putting that piece of information behind you, it is important to figure what really is most important to the universities in terms of quantifiable statistics.
Number one by far is entrance exams — SATs and ACTs. There is merit to the argument that it often does not reflect true intelligence, especially with test prepping and time limits. Regardless, there is no other real standardizing tool that universities have to use. School grades matter and colleges want to see that you are getting As and Bs, but with so many schools and different ways to measure grades, schools have little trust in the validity of school grades aside from the schools that they have long standing relationships with.
That being said, the test scores are not overly important to universities because they know about the reasons stated above. What they want to see is that you are smart enough to handle the course load that university throws at you. If they see that in your scores, then you past the first step. Next, there are AP scores and SAT Subject Tests. If they know that you are smart from your SAT score, then they want to see how you utilized your intelligence with college level material. Success on these exams is a larger predictor of university success to them than just about anything else.
From there, they look at essays, recommendations and the interview. They want to know more about the applicant as a person. This is just about their only insight into the applicant’s character, and it is a vital part of the process. Finally they look at activities, awards, leadership and such. For the few great athletes or students with other tremendous accomplishments, this final step will trump other shortcomings; but by and large, this is the least important aspect of the process. It is still important to have both quantity and quality in these fields, but a little perspective into their probative never hurts.
Applicants often imagine that they need a checklist of sorts to fill out in order to sound good to the universities. I need: one sport, one leadership activity, a community service project, after school clubs and so on. Although this system has merit, is very practical and is often recommended, it lacks a differentiating concept. More than being well rounded, or great at a few things, what makes the difference is having a story.
The story does not need to be about tragedy or overcoming tremendous adversity. In fact, you probably have the makings of a great story without even realizing it. It can be a philosophy on how you view yourself and your life, it can be an interest that may or may not have developed into a passion. The truth of the matter is that even if you are less impressive than some of the other candidates in terms of any or all quantifiable categories, there is a human element to the process. The admissions committee wants people who they feel like they know; candidates that have provided insights into who they really are. This kind of openness and candor can go a long way to overcome other shortcomings.
Wrapping your interests and activities into an interwoven story about you is the best sort of college essay. Tons of people are on student council and varsity teams, but that doesn’t always translate into a story on paper about a candidate who is going to thrive and contribute in a university setting. A story is what sells, and you are selling yourself to the reader.
* Author was accepted by several “most selective” colleges and universities.