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What makes you the perfect college applicant?

Recently at work, I have been inundated with questions surrounding standardized tests:

"Do I need to take Advanced Placement exams even if our school doesn’t offer Advanced Placement courses?"

"Should I take the SAT even though I’ve already taken the ACT?"

"Do I need to take Subject Tests just as I’m trying to study for final exams?"

When did preparing for college become a boot camp full of standardized tests? The answer is that as colleges receive more and more applications each year, test scores are an easy way to separate students. Separate the good from the bad? Not even close. It just separates the students who think a certain way from those who think differently. Dare I say, there are different ways to measure success in high school and the admissions process. We are just afraid to admit it.  

"Standardized testing is not the only way to measure success. We're just afraid to admit it." TWEET THIS

I spent almost a decade working in the Undergraduate Admissions Office at an Ivy League institution. Then, I became a Dean of Admissions at a small liberal arts college where I “expected only the very best” from students applying to our institutions. Take every AP course you can, and get an A in every course you take. Take the SATs and/or ACTs multiple times, and then take multiple Subject Tests. Do something unique and special the summer after junior year. Write a masterful essay. The list is mind-boggling and unnerving.

It’s rather ironic, too, given all the expectations we have for this next generation. Most admissions officers, including myself, didn’t rack up the kinds of accolades in high school that we now expect from this new group of college-bound students. 

I remember when my tone started to change. I began having children of my own. I left that Ivy League school and became in charge of admissions and financial aid at a small liberal arts college. It was then that I saw first-hand how a student with an impeccable record and low test scores could outperform her classmates. Then, I left college admissions to be a stay-at-home mom, and I realized that my kids were already feeling the pressure of our society to achieve the ultimate success in high school.

But it all came into focus when I returned to work as the Director of College Counseling at a private all-girls school outside of Philadelphia. The girls are ambitious and truly inspiring to be around. I celebrate with them on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis whether they experience small or grand accomplishments. I give them a shoulder to cry on or just an empathetic ear when they don’t do as well on a test as they hoped or when they experience a personal setback. Whatever I say to them, they take to heart—the good and the bad. I’m in this really difficult position because I know what it takes to get into the most selective institutions. You need to be perfect, or so we tell them.

The reality is that the imperfections are the gems of a student’s life and college application. The imperfections test them, challenge them, and empower them. If they don’t experience those imperfections, they won’t be ready for failure and challenges in college and beyond. I tell the girls I work with to consider those imperfections—whether they are biological, physical, personal, or even psychological.  Those imperfections shape you. They define you. They give you an unmatched character that will allow you to achieve more than you ever imagined. Those imperfections could be topics for their college essay or just the purest form of inspiration in those challenging moments. You would be surprised how those imperfections become the very thing that help you achieve the greatest success in your life.

"Imperfections test, challenge, and empower you. Those imperfections shape you—embrace them." TWEET THIS

When focusing on test preparation and final exams, I encourage all of us in this college process to take a step back.

Is taking one more AP course really going to define a student?

Is taking as many Subject Tests as possible the silver bullet to getting into college?

Is getting all A’s in Junior year the ultimate benchmark? 

I would argue that none of these things really defines a student or sets them apart. The most enlightened students I know are self-aware, self-driven, and self-possessed. They understand who they are now and who they want to be to transform the world they live in. They are perfectly imperfect.

What if we thought more broadly about what defines success in high school, and what defines success in the college admissions process? If we get too hung up on the numbers and accolades, we will lose sight of the very individuals we want on college campuses. Because with rare exception, none of us were the “perfect” applicants when we applied to college. None of us should expect anything more from our youth.

Embrace the imperfections. Imperfections bring humility to us as human beings—and they prepare us much more for the challenges of college than a single test ever could.