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Applying to High-Value Colleges? Look for Ways to Stand Out

Allow me to begin with a metaphor. There are many who think the game of football is simple. Each team tries to prevent the other from gaining access to its territory. In reality, there are hundreds, or thousands of details that contribute to a team’s success. Similarly, there are many who believe that applying to college is simply a matter of submitting applications. The reality is that hundreds of decisions made between 9th grade and 12th grade will contribute to a student’s success in applying to top colleges. Furthermore, admission factors at these top colleges are evolving. What was true 10 years ago, or even five years ago, may not be true today. For example, the legacy advantage has all but disappeared. One’s ethnicity matters today but might not matter tomorrow. Even the importance of where you live keeps changing.

What about activities? Research projects have become all too common on college applications, so many colleges now value outcomes over experience. In other words, they want to see a published paper, a presentation, or even a poster. Are internships as valuable as they once were? Well, yes and no. It depends on certain factors. And that same frustrating conclusion is true of all activities. You really can’t look at any one activity and say this is good for your college application. You must look at your activities holistically. How does the sum of your activities contribute to your college admission profile?

These days, you have to be smart and strategic to get into top colleges. Everything about your admission candidacy must make sense. First, you must be able to check the boxes for GPA, academic rigor, recommendations, and test scores (if submitting). If these are all excellent, then your application will find its way to the “Maybe Pile.” Then, your application will have to exhibit some special qualities for it to advance to the “Admit Pile.” Ask yourself, what will your application say about you as it is being read by the admission committee? Being smart helps, but it won’t get you in by itself. Being a person of high character and integrity helps. Having a special talent helps. Being of a particular ethnicity or geography helps. Being a first-generation college student helps. Even being a Pell Grant recipient, a Questbridge candidate, or an ROTC candidate helps. However, many of these things you cannot control. Among the things you can control are academic honors and awards, extracurricular honors and awards, meaningful activities, and meaningful community service.

Furthermore, your essays must make sense in the context of your application. This not only applies to the common application essay but to all the college supplements as well. Of course, there are highly significant strategies for writing college essays. There are also strategies for interviews, college visits, and demonstrated interest. As I indicated earlier, you could say that applying to college is as simple as submitting applications. But as with all things, the details matter. Don’t try to oversimplify the process and don’t make the mistake of taking applications for granted. There are times in life when you need an expert. Applying to top colleges is one of those times.