I worked with a student once who had all the characteristics you need to get into the most selective colleges. Perfect grades, perfect test scores, a voracious appetite for learning, an excitement about all the opportunities waiting for him in college, likeable, self-effacing, and most importantly, he had a little–just a little–swagger.
I say "a little" swagger because outright arrogance is never a good trait. But a student who's actually smart enough, motivated enough and hungry enough for the challenges of attending a highly selective college has a sense of confidence about him or herself.
Getting into college is a lot like dating. Nobody likes the meek person who pines away for someone from afar. Confidence is contagious. People want to be around it.
The kid who applies to all the Ivy League schools because they're "good schools" doesn't have any swagger. He's pretending he does by applying to only reach schools, but he's really just hoping one of them says yes. That's like asking 10 beautiful women to the prom and acting confident while you do it. Everybody knows you're just hoping for one to agree to go with you. It's really more desperate than confident.
The kid who worries that his life will be over if Princeton says "No"? Guess what–no swagger there.
The kid who makes all his decisions in high school based on what he thinks Stanford wants? Nope–no swagger there, either.
The kid who works like crazy because he wants to be successful at whatever he tries, the kid who gets A's but really just wants to be challenged and intellectually stimulated as much as possible, the kid who can't wait to go to college and knows that wherever he ends up, both he and the college will be equally lucky–Now, that kid's got some swagger.
My former student showed his swagger during one of our meetings when he said,
"I figure if I can leave college with a degree in electrical engineering and four years playing division I water polo, I'll be unstoppable." It wasn't arrogant–he was right.
He didn't say, "If I get into Stanford..." He knew his future success wasn't predicated on him attending a highly selective college. He knew he was going to do it. That's swagger.
And like all of our students who've attended highly selective colleges, there was no doubt in my mind that this kid was going all the way.
He went to Stanford and today is thriving at a capital management firm. I don't understand a single word of his job description, but I'm sure he does.
If you want to get in and succeed at one of those 40 famous colleges that reject most of their applicants, you'll need a little swagger.