Admit It! You’ve wondered if there’s a magic formula or a specific “it factor” that college admission offices are looking for. Recently, it feels like every email I’ve sent or every College Confidential “chance me” thread pleads with me to share what the magic formula is for getting admitted. Prospective students and parents know that it takes good grades, challenging courses, and strong standardized testing. They also know it takes “something else” but sometimes they’re convinced that we know exactly what that “something else” is. I’m here to tell you that we don’t. There is no magic formula, I promise. There is no perfect extracurricular resume. An essay that automatically grants someone admission simply doesn’t exist. Ignore those people who tell you that colleges are looking for bassoonists over clarinetists or that they really like to see service on your resume or that if you have a heartbreaking story of surviving cancer you’ll be a shoe in. Likewise ignore those people who tell you that if you cure cancer, you’re also in. That simply isn’t true either.
It’s up to each individual applicant to express him or herself through the application and to share his or her story with the admission committee. There are no guaranteed admits and no guaranteed denies. Everyone starts out equal and the decision will depend on which way the application takes us. Sometimes we will admit a student whose SATs are a bit low because they have an exceptional talent or perspective to share. Sometimes we will not admit someone with a perfect SAT because we feel that student is no more than a nice number. For some students it will be their essay that puts them over the top. For others it will be an intellectual curiosity born out in raw numbers (GPA and SAT) as well as individual research initiatives and teacher recommendations. Yet other students will demonstrate a level of leadership rare for a 17-year old. Most students will be somewhere in between. What decision we make depends on the application and the application depends on you.
Steve Singer, a long-time college counselor, recently wrote a blog for the New York Times in which he encouraged students to simply be themselves. There’s no substitute for being genuine, for being real, for being you. Don’t try to make yourself out to be something you’re not. If you’re not passionate about athletics, don’t try out for the varsity team. If you’re not funny, don’t attempt to write a funny essay (I promise you it will end up the opposite of funny). If you’re not close to your AP Calc teacher, don’t ask him/her to write a letter of recommendation (it will come off as trite or uninformed). I tell students to make the two-dimensional application seem three-dimensional. Use your voice to write your essay. Demonstrate your passions through your extracurricular activities. Ask your favorite teachers, the ones who truly know you, to write a letter of recommendation. Or, to quote Mr. Singer, “Be yourself. It’s the only marketing device the can work.”