Well-rounded. That is often the word that comes to mind when applicants think of how to present themselves to a college. Get good grades, do some volunteer work, join a few clubs, participate in a sport, and do everything you can to make sure you have all of the characteristics that a college could possibly want in an applicant. This is the traditional view of what an applicant should do in preparation for applying for university, and aside from being completely false, I believe it wastes students’ time and sets them up for failure later on in life.In this blog post, I’ll be discussing what the most elite universities truly look for in an applicant. I won’t be talking about applying to state schools, since they generally only look for a good academic record and test scores.
Being Genuine and Consistent
There is a lot more that goes into applying for an elite university, and students are often misguided as to what these universities actually value. The first thing you have to recognize in college applications is that different universities will look for different traits in an applicant. Often times, students will acknowledge this fact and go on to become a “chameleon” sort of applicant, making themselves sound like the perfect applicant for each school.
Maybe you heard that Berkeley likes activists in their student body, so you go attend a protest in your community and write an essay about how you changed the world through your spirit of strong activism (which, of course, is an exaggeration). Maybe you heard that UPenn likes entrepreneurial-minded students, so you start a cookie business for a few weeks, quit, and call yourself an entrepreneur. Even worse, maybe you fabricate a story entirely to make yourself sound good.
I strongly advise against this approach for two reasons. One, colleges can see right through shallow or fabricated applications, and two, if you do get into a college using a fake persona on your application, you might not be a good fit for the school and may even come to hate it. If you stay true to yourself, you are more likely to get into the college that will fit your personality and what you want. Just as much as colleges are looking for applicants that will fit into their school, you need to also recognize that you should pick colleges that you will fit into. You don’t want to attend a college that doesn’t offer what you want from them—that’s not an invalidation of your application, it’s just the college saying that perhaps they’re not right for you.
The key here is passion. Think of your passion as your destination, and focus on controlling your path to that passion, not the passion itself. Both fortunately and unfortunately, your passion will determine two of the major criteria on your applications, but you have the power to meld your passion perfectly into each of those factors.
One of these major criteria is extracurricular activities. With your extracurricular activities, it is important to be consistent and create a profile of activities that you enjoy and believe will leave a lasting impact on your career. For example, if you’re truly interested in aerospace engineering, you might want to consider joining rocketry club or RC plane club.
Dealing with Limited Opportunities
If your school doesn’t offer clubs that fit your specific niche, you can find outside competitions that your school isn’t participating in. I knew that my school had never joined the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair before, but I was still eligible to participate as long as I signed up and indicated that I was a high school student. Going outside of school to find competitions and activities is perfectly acceptable, as colleges don’t specifically indicate that your activities need to be sponsored by your school.
Better yet, if you can’t find a club that perfectly fits your interests, you can try to found a new club at your school. In addition to allowing you to explore your passion, it shows colleges that you care enough about your passion to take the time to start a whole club, and also demonstrates your leadership ability.
You can also try to be flexible with the activities that your school does offer. If you are interested in designing role-playing video games, but your school doesn’t have a dedicated video game club, joining both a coding club and a creative writing club would be a perfect substitute. Role-playing video games are programmed using code, and their storylines are written in a creative format, so the combination of those two activities contributes greatly to your exploration of video game design.
Going back to the aerospace engineering example, while an interest in aerospace engineering isn’t necessarily best expressed through being a member of, say, the math club, math is still a core pillar of the STEM fields, and on a daily basis, aerospace engineers still need to use math to calculate aircraft trajectory or the strength of their plane’s structure. This type of activity should not be used as the “spotlight” of your activities, but it is certainly a good addition and helps to reinforce the idea that you are focused on exploring your passion.
The Benefit of Consistency
The important point to take away here is that your activities should all complement each other and really give application reviewers an idea of what you find fulfilling. It’s perfectly fine to participate in clubs that you’re not necessarily passionate about, yet still find fun, but realize that they won’t add anything to your application; if anything, they may confuse readers and distract them from the unique applicant profile that you have already built for yourself. If an activity does not demonstrate your passion or show another positive characteristic about you, there is no point in even including it—your job here is to distinguish yourself from other applicants.
The upside to this approach is that even if you don’t get into the colleges you want, you will still be learning valuable skills that you can use in your career later on in life. I learned how to wire and program an Arduino in high school, and that skill transferred to college because I still use Arduinos for rocketry and lab research. You’ll also find that by taking this approach, you’ll enjoy high school a lot more, because you’ll be doing things you actually like rather than things that you’re forcing yourself to do for the sake of college applications.
Writing Masterful Essays
The other big criteria that colleges look at when determining if you should attend their school is your essays. The Common App will have one essay that everyone has to write (you can choose your prompt for this one), and each school you apply to will also have their own supplemental essays that they want you to fill out (these you usually cannot choose). The only thing I can really say here is to make sure that you are genuine.
Paint an honest picture of yourself, and don’t make anything up. You may not think that you’ve done anything impressive, but that doesn’t mean colleges will see it the same way. Remember, you are still a high school student, and colleges recognize that. You don’t need to be at the top 1% of your craft, but you should be able to demonstrate that you are working towards it. For essays that let you choose your prompt, choose a prompt that allows you to best express your passion and explain why it’s such an important part of your life. You’ve already invested in your passion by doing the activities that you love—now you just need to write about them.
How Important are Academics?
Aside from the passion factor, which you yourself cannot decide since it is inherent, you can pretty much only control one other criteria on your college applications—your academics. This includes your GPA, AP/IB classes, and SAT/ACT scores. I don’t really have any specific advice to give here since it is obvious that a high GPA, a rigorous course load, and high standardized test scores will make you more desirable to colleges. I will discuss optimizing each of those academic factors through better study habits and time management in separate blogs, but for the purpose of this blog post, I will only talk about how to select an academic schedule that actually works for you.
It can be tempting to dedicate your entire high school career to perfecting your academic record, but after a certain point, academics don’t really matter anymore. Numbers won’t distinguish you from other applicants—otherwise, only valedictorians or students who score a 1600 on their SAT would be able to get into top colleges. That is not to say that academics aren’t important, but as long as you are around the 25th to 75th percentile of a college’s GPA and standardized score distribution, you are perfectly qualified to get into the school. Johns Hopkins’ average unweighted GPA for incoming accepted high school students is about a 3.93. I got a 3.92, which was pretty much about the average. Its 25th to 75th percentile of SAT scores is 1470 to 1560, but I still managed to get in with a 1460.
This goes to show after you cross a certain bar in GPA and SAT scores, colleges will disregard your academics and focus primarily on the unique profile that you have built for yourself through your extracurricular activities and essays. Therefore, I believe that, as long as your academic factors are relatively good, it is actually more important to focus on your extracurriculars as opposed to further raising those scores. It will make you happier because you actually have something to look forward to every week, and you’ll also be making a much better impression on college application reviewers.
The Big Takeaway
I’ve emphasized this a lot in this blog post, but I have to say it again—passion, passion, passion! Passion should be the basis of your college application, and your goal should be to showcase it. I guarantee you that it’ll make a difference when you apply, and even if it doesn’t quite get you the results you want, it will make a difference in your college career, and hopefully after that as well.