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If You Don't Live in Alaska, Here's a Secret to Getting into College

Over the past few days, I've been emailing back and forth with a mom from Alaska who had some questions about the college process. I was reminded of my days working on the college side of the admissions process and how rare it was to get an application from Alaska. As fellow admissions officers, we used to joke that we should pick up our families from the Northeast and move to the Last Frontier. We knew that if the student was competitive in the applicant pool, the fact that they were coming from an underrepresented state could be the tipping factor when the admit rate was so low.

While not everyone can grow up in Alaska, there is a very valuable piece of information within this example which reveals one of the secrets to getting into a highly competitive school: Colleges want what they don't have (or what they have very little of) within their current student body. The trick for the student is understanding that special thing that they can offer, intrinsically or intentionally, to the college of their choice. If it's intrinsic, it's simply something the student has no control over. If it's intentional, the student made clear choices in their life to allow this to come to the surface.

I often refer to these special qualities as "tags" in the admissions process. It can literally be a tag placed on the application to alert admissions officers or an admissions committee that the student has something that the institution highly values. These are often referred to as "institutional priorities." Every college has them, but few will publicly acknowledge them. There is much secrecy surrounding "tags" partly because they can change year-to-year, but also because sometimes they are a lot less formal than a student's home address. In other words, if the student does something or is interested in something that is highly unusual it can be the thing or "tag" that gets them admitted. Because I was a regular kid with no special "tags," I like to embrace the term so that it can apply to anyone—those who are born with something that sets them apart and those who pursue it.

Here are a few intrinsic tags that are highly valued by colleges. Students either have them or not:
  • Geographic diversity: Coming from an underrepresented state or in some cases an underrepresented area of the state, or side of town.
  • Racial diversity: Coming from an underrepresented racial background for that specific college.
  • Socio-economic diversity: For elite colleges with large financial aid programs, coming from a low socio-economic background can work in a student's favor as these colleges are trying to increase this group who have historically been scared off by the high price tag of elite higher education.
  • First-generation students: This usually refers to students whose parents did not receive a college education.
  • Legacies: Students whose parents attended the college/university. (This tag is not nearly as powerful as it once was at elite colleges because of the growing size of their applicant pool and shifting institutional priorities.)
  • Potential Donors/VIPs: Students who come from well-connected families of influence or extreme wealth.
  • Recruited athletes: If the student is supported by the varsity coach at the college, their chances of admission can be extremely high compared to the greater applicant pool.

"These days, colleges are striving for a diverse student body—but what constitutes "diverse" can change year to year." TWEET THIS 

Here are some intentional tags that regular kids can have:
  • A well-developed extracurricular activity which is highly unusual (i.e. curling) or having achievement in this activity which is highly unusual (i.e. national recognition), or both.
  • A nuanced and well-developed academic interest (i.e. the student who is interested in studying a very specific field).
  • Interest in a less popular major or program at the college as long as the student's interest is genuine and their ability in this area is clear.
  • An outside talent with exceptional promise (writing, speaking, dancing, singing, etc.).   
  • Being the only applicant from your school (this usually means that the student is looking at unpredictable or less popular colleges for their high school or community).
  • Sharing something about yourself, home life, culture or upbringing. I could have listed this in the "intrinsic" list but I didn't because so few students are willing to share this information in their essays or applications in general. This is usually an intentional decision and it can translate into an unexpectedly positive admissions decision.

A significant part of the college admissions process is about self-discovery. When students uncover some piece of their story or celebrate something that is truly distinctive about them, they not only get admitted to college but they will evolve into a more mature version of themselves. Usually what they uncover or celebrate in their applications is something that may not be cool or popular among their peers, but it is often viewed as super cool to an outsider like an admissions officer. Embracing our own story (and not anyone else's) leads to college acceptances, professional success, and personal fulfillment.