First of all, let me point out that there are about 4500 colleges and universities in the US alone, and many, many of them have as much or more to offer than the handful of the most selective colleges that every high school junior knows about. That being said, it can be instructive to know what the message is that these highly selective colleges are bringing this year.
Recently I attended Counselor breakfasts hosted by Dartmouth, Northwestern, Princeton, UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt, and Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford. Some of you may have attended their evening presentations.
First, it is a given that these colleges are among the most “prestigious” and selective in the world. Because of that, top students from everywhere take their chance that they might win the “golden ticket” and gain admission to one of their colleges. As this cycle creates more applicants, the selectivity goes up, and so on. The Common Application, as we know, has encouraged more students to apply to more places; additionally, as we become a more global society, students are much more likely to apply to colleges in increasingly wider geographical regions.
We heard of record breaking application numbers—39,000 to Vanderbilt, 35,000 to Princeton. UC Berkeley had 89,000 applications! “They can’t all be a good fit,” said the Dartmouth rep. How can one demonstrate fit? He went on, “We are looking for fit; fit is not demonstrated interest.” In other words, just because you really want to go to a particular college, because you have visited and scoured the website and opened every email, it doesn’t guarantee that you are a fit for their college.
First of all, to be honest, it is highly unusual for applicants to these colleges to be given strong consideration if they do not have a A’s in the most rigorous courses they are able to take and test scores that are at least well within the college reported mid-50th percentile. Perhaps recruited athletes, children of celebrities or major (really major) donors, or students who themselves are “celebrities” through talent or exceptional circumstances—but for the most part, they are looking for “excellence” as a first criteria. That means if you have too many B’s, particularly in junior year and are at the low end of the test score range, you might want to really think through your early application strategy of applying to a place that is highly unlikely for even the thousands of Valedictorians they deny each year.
What each of these colleges is looking for in the totality of the application is the ability to succeed academically (transcript and test scores, teacher recommendations), motivation, passion, resilience, kindness, persistence, collaboration, integrity, kindness, leadership, generativity, talent, kindness, curiosity, maturity, openness to new ideas, and kindness (teacher and counselor recommendations and student essay). Oh, and did I mention kindness? They want to know what kind of person you will be in the classroom, as a roommate, as a “kind voice in rigorous conversations,” as someone who will mesh well, a future alum they can be proud of.
For your teacher recommendations, you don’t need to choose a teacher whose class you aced easily—maybe better to choose one who can attest to your excellent character. These colleges generally look for teachers from “different sides of the brain,” describing your performance in quantitative reasoning vs. your ability to think analytically about humanities, for example. They all said if you choose an “other” recommender as well, such as a coach, they need to provide significant new information and a different perspective, not just an endorsement of what a great person you are. Getting letters of recommendation from an “important” person—superintendent, prominent business leader, political figure, etc. is only relevant if they know you well and have something significant to add (“The relationship and the content is what counts, not the title of the recommender!”) The reps asked that students remember that “they read a lot of applications and don’t appreciate being burdened with unnecessary trivia.*
They discussed the importance of the student essay or personal statement. Since they read a lot of applications and spend very little time on each one, the essay needs to be interesting from the very first sentence, give an insight to the student in story form in the student’s voice. They noted that the essay is a substitute for the interview; even if you do have an interview, the interviewer is NOT on the admissions team! They pointed out that they are getting a lot of the same themes: try to avoid writing about sports injuries, volunteerism or cooking! They have become clichés!
They stressed that despite the many examples of “essays that worked,” everyone does not need to come from a disadvantaged background. What they are looking for is “distance traveled.” What have you done with the tools and opportunities you have been given? What have you accomplished? “Even highly privileged kids can ‘shine,’” they said. They will take “pointy” kids—kids who are great people, all walks of life. They stressed they are looking to create a well-rounded class, not a class of well-rounded people.
As they look to build their “well-rounded class,” each applicant needs to fit their criteria of what they are looking for. If they don’t see a student as a fit, chances are, the student would not be happy there. That’s why it is so important for you to really understand yourself first, your strengths and interests, and look for the colleges that speak to and will develop those strengths. If you do that, the next step is how to demonstrate that fit to the colleges.
(Ironically) they all are concerned about how stressed students are. Eg. Stanford thought they were asking a “fun” question: What would you do with an extra hour in a day? 90% answered something like, “Sleep,” “Hang out with friends,” or “Have fun.” This is a concern that students are too stressed out (but are they adding to the problem?)
This is why we continually stress that you need to be enjoying your time in high school, learning because you love it (not to get a transcript that will get you into a particular college) contributing to your school and community because it is in your heart (not because it will look good on a resume—or even in a college essay!) Try new things, discover talents, take on a leadership role—in a club, sport, play or even in a group project or lab—because it will enrich your life. If you do those things, this college thing will work itself out!
Meanwhile, get me those emails, keep in touch, and have a great (and safe) summer!
Patricia Bostwick, MA, LPC
Director of College Counseling