For the last 20+ years, I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of high-achieving college bound students applying to universities in North America. With very few exceptions, my clients meet all of the obvious, objective criteria for admission to the most competitive schools. Rigorous academic courses, high performance in these classes, combined with top percentile test scores (SAT 1500/ACT 34) are the baseline ingredients. While parents and students are often shocked by admission decisions, in most cases I can predict with a high degree of accuracy those that will be accepted to the most elite programs based purely on my gut instincts: they possess the it that colleges want.
So what is it that the top colleges are looking for in applicants? At a minimum, it’s being more than a high-achieving student, as illustrated in these enlightening statistics:
- 91% of Princeton applicants with a 4.0 GPA were rejected in 2018 (source)
- 94% of Brown University’s applicants are in the top 10% of their high school class (source)
- Annually, Harvard has more valedictorians apply than incoming seats available (source)
Rather than take the traditional approach and personally offer tips and techniques to help you standout from such a crowded and competitive application pool, I’ve contacted many of my past clients to have them share their journey through the process with you. Over hours of interviews, I’ve tried to capture the true essence of who they are and listened to how they expressed it and linked it to academics, hobbies, competitions, internships and research. In this post, you’ll read courageous stories highlighting how these individuals made choices, reflected on their experiences, impacted their communities and grew as students and human beings.
Being socially aware and creating networks of people who shared their passions and interests propelled them higher than they could have individually. Satisfying their passions, curiosities and interests were the driving force behind their efforts, not building a resume or impressing colleges. Within their applications, especially in essays, they didn’t tell admission counselors about their extrinsic qualities, instead they showed their intrinsic character through a cohesive narrative.
These stories of successful candidates are not meant to intimidate or impress, but rather to stimulate you to create your own map. While each student had their own unique passion for an activity, hobby or area of interest, the traits, values, strengths and grit in their successes were universally similar. As you’ll see, it was their soft skills that made these candidates special and prized.
Upfront I want to thank these students and their parents for sharing their stories with you. They appreciate the advice they received during their high school experiences and want their stories to be their own “pay it forward moment.”
“Tell me about yourself”
Serena walked into our first college planning consult and I was immediately aware of her presence. Beyond her external beauty, her affect inspired engagement and quiet confidence. Although her mother joined this meeting, she clearly was just along for the ride; Serena was the driver.
“Tell me about yourself” is a standard opening question I use to measure self-awareness and ability to verbalize their past, current and future. After posing this question, I’m often greeted with a blank gaze and bewilderment, followed by a haphazard summary of their academic background and extracurricular activities. However, Serena was different and I could immediately sense it. She opened her response by sharing that she was a dancer and an artist, and connected her love for physics to both of these personal passions. Detailing how she could contort her body to increase speed and control displayed her ability to link and apply STEM with humanities. Serena’s maturity, depth of insight and connective thinking made me instantly realize that she had the it most competitive colleges seek. She closed her response by describing her interest in BioMedical Engineering and indicating Rice as her top choice school.
From our initial interaction to her eventual acceptance to Rice, Serena was uniquely herself, as exemplified in a simple and authentic personal statement that weaved together her passions for physics, art and dance. Serena’s authenticity, combined with her logical and creative talents, made her an ideal candidate for Rice’s School of Engineering.
Rachel is a person you immediately like, trust and respect after meeting her. She is a 10/10 on the likeability scale. Peers, faculty and her high school administration looked to her for opinions and direction. The mere mention of her name to other students, parents and community leaders brings about a smile and statement of admiration. Throughout high school, she formed a broad social network of friends and supporters. From STEM engineers who force logical and detailed process thinking, to community theatre performers who passionately displayed their feelings and emotions. Rachel was a leader within each of these diverse groups since she was able to adjust her analytical versus emotional responses to meet her groups needs.
Rachel never hides her opinions or looks to align with the majority, but challenges everyone to elevate thinking and dialogue. One example that encapsulates Rachel is when she lobbied the faculty and administration of her high school to add more humanity courses to the theme based Engineering and Technology academy. Critically, she did this at the end of her junior year knowing she personally would not benefit from it.
Rachel was accepted to the highly-regarded New Jersey Scholars Summer Program that connected her with a cross section of students who had the ability to blend the humanities with technology. Although Rachel could have followed her peers into summer engineering or other STEM focused competitive summer programs, she opted to take the risk to collaborate with peers who shared her passion to solve problems using both STEM and humanities. She was accepted to Harvard in the regular decision period and is in the school of business with a concentration in economics.
Recognized College Level Research, Competitions or Experiences
Abinitha has a deep interest in linguistics. In high school she formed a relationship with a Princeton professor to study bilingualism/computation. Through this connection she was introduced to a Yale researcher studying engineering linguistics. Leveraging this introduction, she earned a summer internship satisfying her intellectual curiosity in a computational study of words, inflections and meaning. In one of supplemental essays she stated, “When I attempted my first linguistics puzzle, it seemed as if I entered a portal- a portal I often revisit. Linguistics shows me new worlds: real and imagined, past and present, east and west, north and south. Language inspires me to realize new patterns and complexity of the world around me- to notice the small things.”
Abinitha showed her collaboration and research leadership skills through the Science Olympiad and described it in another essay. “In every crevice of Scioly, I find sincere passion to create, innovate, and understand. My fellow members inspire me to think outside of the box, intuitively, or sometimes not at all- to just go with the flow. As I study for events, I become immersed in a pool of pure curiosity, sometimes drowning but eventually rescued by the buoyant forces of determination and encouragement from my peers. I am so grateful and honored to serve as the captain to this amazing group of people. Organizing team bonding sessions and group labs, I strive to promote the team spirit integral to Scioly.”
Another way she expressed her knowledge and passion in this space: “To engineer such products and take into account the needs of individuals from data, I would like to study computational linguistics. Like creating code that analyzes electronic medical records for factors that lead to increased heart risk, applications of computational linguistics inspire me.”
Abinitha didn’t just tell admissions of her interests, passions and skills, she showed them her involvement in essays, interviews and in selecting teachers and advisors who could confirm and support her expertise in these areas. She earned a seat at Princeton University.
Evelyn had a fascination for autism throughout high school. Her curiosity ranged from causes, behavior, remediation and impacts on caregivers. Her activities in high school started with forming clubs, educating people by making them aware of the autistic community and helping form support communities for autistic students. Later she involved herself in college level research and began writing articles documenting stories from autistic caregivers which were well received by families suffering with supporting their loved one. In her search for a college she explored the autism research being conducted on each campus. Evelyn was approached to publish her articles into a book and it was later translated into Chinese. Evelyn was accepted to Brown and will study neuroscience and cognitive behavior. Prior to committing to Brown she exchanged multiple email exchanges with professors doing interdisciplinary research on the topic of autism.
Victoria knew who she was and more importantly who she wanted to become. Spending four years at a theme based engineering high school, she knew a career in STEM did not fit her personality and aspirations. Although she did well in the sciences, math and engineering, she yearned to explore the humanities. Her high school, however, offered no electives in psychology or other social sciences. Rather than consider her experience at this school a waste, she realized her training in engineering made her more precise and analytical in studying the humanities. She also became adept in linking academic experiences in order to come up with more creative solutions in all aspects of her life. For instance, Victoria created navigational maps that helped plan out her essays (multiple responses for each prompt), deadlines, core values for each school (mission statements, reach options, strength in interdisciplinary studies) and fit (demanding versus relaxed academic environment and social atmosphere). Her approach to the application process mirrored her training as an engineer. Unlike most of her high school peers, Victoria had refined oral and writing skills allowing her to express her thoughts maturely and defend them flawlessly.
Victoria did not want to work with a college coach since she felt her thoughts and aspirations would be filtered out of the process. Her parents knew she had a strong personality and would be stubborn to suggestions. My role became the mediator, allowing Victoria and her parents to preserve their wonderful relationship. Although they gave advice, her parents quickly realized Victoria owned the process and accepted her responsibility for outcomes. Best of all, she defended all of her early school choices with reason and logic. Being accepted to Princeton in regular decision after a deferral from Yale, she quickly realized the academic demands and rigor in research options was the better fit for her.
Many students struggle to reflect on their experiences in school and measure them through the lens of their strengths, values and character traits. They follow the path peers or parents lie out and rationalize this is what college admission reps want. Summer successes are resume builders not career development experiences to rule college majors in or out. Victoria discovered what she didn’t want as a college major and had the strength to verbalize and defend it. Taking risks after measuring rewards and consequences is a skill that can be learned and developed. Victoria learned and applied self-awareness skills early and often.
Lucia was a dynamic combination of creativity and leadership. She had a humble confidence that came through during all our conversations. Her application hook was her journaling. She would use her journal to express her reflections, emotional feelings and aspirations. As a class leader, she was highly respected for grit and determination to get things accomplished collaboratively. Lucia was a listener and had very refined social awareness skills. She introduced others to journaling and shared approaches and thoughts with them forming strong networking bonds. Lucia was authentic in all her communications and possessed a contagious positivity; I always felt personally energized and invigorated after meeting with her. Each of her essays had an interesting twist and her responses to interview questions were mature and conversational. Lucia is currently at Brown, focused on the humanities taking interdisciplinary courses, and is broadly connecting to the Brown learning community.
Capacity for Leadership
Kaylee is detailed and organized in everything she attempts. Starting in personal leadership with her interactions with advisors and peers in grades 9 and 10, she effortlessly ascended into leadership roles as an upperclassmen, both in and out of school. Kaylee was elected to an officer position in student government where she leveraged her communication and negotiation skills in creating new high quality activities that lifted school spirit. Outside of school, Kaylee earned the Squad Commander position based on her performance in the classroom and on the EMT rigs. This experience and her hospital volunteering confirmed her college major(s) as psychology and biology, with a long-term goal of becoming a physician. Kaylee was accepted to Washington University during the early decision period.
Sonny attended a medical theme based high school and was a constant advocate for wellness, first aid and health education. He lobbied his state legislators to require young drivers to be CPR certified as a requirement for a driver’s license. Not only did he advocate for healthcare awareness in New Jersey, he helped student leaders in other states form chapters of the organization he founded. Sonny was accepted to many accelerated medical programs and most competitive schools as biology major.
Lily saw the world the way it was and tried to make a change. She regularly confronted the discriminatory behavior of others and was incredibly self-aware of her own personal biases. In building her college list, she lasered in on schools who shared her values. Lily was accepted to many competitive schools, but was deferred to some of the most competitive ones. Her true gritty character was revealed in the way she approached getting into her top choice school, Hamilton. Lily lobbied admission reps, faculty and current students to find best approaches to earn a seat in the fall. This demonstrated interest was recognized and Lily came off the waitlist. Best of all, Lily earned a position at Hamilton’s Career Center helping other students navigate finding and securing internships and full time employment after graduation.
Parents and students often compare themselves to college profiles using GPA and SAT/ACT filters. If they match or exceed the average numbers, they often view those college options as targets of safety picks. Unfortunately top schools take a broad view of their candidate pool. Many perfect GPA and SAT/ACT score candidates are rejected by these most selective schools. Writing mature and reflective essays that show their angular strengths and passions, research/internships, music/art or athletics, awards and recognition or leadership can often upend the perfect scores. Colleges want collaborators, volunteers, and on campus leaders that make their campuses inclusive, happy and achieving.
In each of the case examples explored above, there was a consistent theme that each of these clients used through their essays, teacher recommendations, interviews, summer experiences, activities and hobbies and values which screamed their authenticity and readiness to quickly make an impact on their educational communities. Each of these students knew who they were and where they wanted to go.
Ultimately, you need to be more than just your GPA and SAT score, and hopefully hearing from some of my former clients can help you discover that within yourself.