Doing Well in School Is Sometimes Not Enough

One of my favorite students this year found out she was denied by one of her top choices yesterday. She has a flawless high school transcript, perfect SAT and Subject Test scores. So why didn't she get admitted?

Believe it or not, elite colleges could fill their freshman class with students like this. Having a flawless high school record and test scores is the norm, not the exception. And just because a student is "involved" doesn't mean that will seal the deal. This is a harsh reality for students who have sacrificed so much to do well in and out of school. But younger students can learn from this.

Just as a student's curriculum tends to become more rigorous with each year of high school and their test scores usually improve with time, a student's self-awareness and impact as an individual should develop at the same pace. Why? Because this will help them write more powerful essays, stand out from an extracurricular perspective, and shine brighter in letters of recommendation.

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Essays

I often hear from students that they haven't had something dramatic or traumatic happen in their lives to write a powerful college essay. I get it. I thought the same thing when I was their age. I saw myself as a typical, American teenager, with two loving parents and a nice roof over my head at all times. There was much more to who I was back then, but I didn't know how to tap into it. Every student is much more than this too. The secret is to appreciate that the small, daily moments of our lives tend to be some of the best representations of who we are. Seeing the lessons, challenges, and highlights of our day-to-day lives brings out our stories. These stories reveal who we are at the most fundamental level. These are the underpinnings of powerful college essays.

Don't get me wrong, some of the most powerful essays I have read both as an admissions dean and college counselor have been about discreet events. However, equally as powerful, are the essays about a student's home life, routines, or quirks they have. Less powerful essays? They tend to be about achievements or things that are already obvious on the application. Remember to find meaning in the little moments of your life as they make for moving college essays and a more self-aware individual writing that essay.

Extracurriculars

If a student is looking at highly selective colleges, being involved in extracurricular activities is not enough. The student has to carve out a niche with something they are doing, either to attain a "head" leadership title or make a noteworthy contribution. The latter option is actually easier to do especially if the student does something non-traditional. With few students pursuing a non-traditional activity (thus reducing the number they are competing against), the student can have greater impact on the activity, hobby, or role they assume.

Waiting until junior year to develop a niche is possible. But if the student starts doing this earlier in high school, they tend to have even greater impact. Freshmen and sophomores should explore their activities and consider pursuing one of them in a focused and deliberate way (using summer vacation to further develop this niche).

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Letters of Recommendation

Almost every letter of recommendation that I read is positive, but that's usually not enough for the student to stand out in a highly competitive applicant pool. When the student ends up being a "once-in-a-career" student for a teacher, the letter becomes transformational to the student's chances of admission if everything else in the application matches up. Younger students in 9th and 10th grade who want to get into elite colleges should think about embodying that "once-in-a-career" identity in their academic courses. When a teacher sees a student who is so innately curious about a subject matter and uses this as a vehicle to develop as a student and person, the teacher ends up writing a "once-in-a-career" letter for that "once-in-a-career" student.

Test scores matter. Grades and courses matter even more. But for students applying to elite colleges, their applications need to stand out in other ways. Essays, significant impact in extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation end up becoming influential if the student is competitive in an elite applicant pool. Being a powerful writer, transformational community member, and a once-in-a-career student take time. Younger students, take note. This is the difference maker between getting into selective colleges and getting into highly selective colleges. Start plotting your course...now.


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