Her story is not unusual — stellar grades, challenging course load, strong SAT scores and recommendations, assortment of activities and community service — applied to a dozen highly-selective institutions (“reach schools”) and was rejected across the board. Adding insult to injury, Bella was also turned down by some of the “likely schools” to which she applied.
Was it a fluke? Unfortunately not. College admissions officers will tell you that gaining admission to highly-competitive schools takes more than having academic credentials that would place you in the top half of the freshman class. Intellectual curiosity, great grades and high scores are not enough. In fact, at the top schools, most academically-qualified applicants are rejected. There are simply not enough places in the entering class. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford MIT, Brown, Columbia admitted fewer than ten percent of all applicants.
So, who gets in to the most selective colleges and universities? For the most part, admitted students fall into one or more of these three categories: (1) students who can bring something “special” that the school desires; (2) those with exceptional promise; and (3) academically-qualified legacy applicants.
Most successful applicants are also perceived to have a strong interest and fit with the institution.
If you lack exceptional promise (perhaps you are not an Intel Scholar or the author of a best seller), your best strategy is usually to distinguish yourself in a manner that admissions officers may consider desirable.
Just how do you make yourself special? As a college consultant, I encourage students to focus on quality over quantity. We look for the opportunity to pursue (with gusto) one or two interesting projects, activities, and/or areas of research where the student can showcase some combination of leadership, character, determination, intellectual curiosity, talent, heartfelt interest, creativity, problem-solving and/or communication skills, maturity and ability. The “hook” should be genuine and be a good fit with the student’s interests and abilities. A hook can also be developed to either offset an area of perceived weakness or to create positive differentiation.
An example of a complementary strategy would be for a student interested in engineering to pursue a project that involves motivating people and/or writing.
Your special project or activity need not be expensive or require travel. In fact some of the best projects can be pursued in the local community or via the Internet.
As an example, one of my clients was dismayed by the lack of intercultural harmony at her public high school. She endeavored to improve the situation by bringing together students to share her love for gardening. She founded a community garden project and encouraged diverse participation. She described her experiences (positive and negative) in various college application essays and was thrilled to gain admission to a number of the most selective colleges and universities.
Often, it is not at all obvious what this sort of activity or “passion” should be. There is no right answer. Rather, it takes a combination of ardent thoughtfulness and a trusted sounding board to elicit ideas that are both exceptional and sincere.
In the instances where a student has come to me as a rising senior, the challenge has been to identify and integrate an activity that hopefully has already started. It is far better to plan for this as a sophomore or early junior year, when there is ample time to put a plan into action. This is not a guaranty of success, of course, but it could be the difference between being “Admitted”, or merely being “Impressive”.
Author: Lynn Radlauer Lubell is the Publisher of InLikeMe.com, and the Founder of Admission By Design, a College Consultancy, based in Boca Raton, Florida.