For high-achieving students intent on applying to prestigious colleges, one of the most difficult realities to accept is just how ordinary otherwise extraordinary accomplishments become in those applicant pools. A student who’s at the top of her class, who has outstanding test scores, who’s outworked and out-achieved just about everyone else at her school, she represents an exclusive, tiny percentage of graduating seniors. She’s a sure admit at just about every college. Here’s the rub: that tiny percentage of students who’ve done what she’s done? Most of them apply to the same schools—prestigious, highly selective, and forced by their application volume to deny qualified applicants. In droves.
With so many applicants at these schools presenting similarly remarkable applications, what tips the scales for those who are admitted? It’s not an exact science (if it were, someone would have decoded and profited from it already). But we’ve learned after 17 years of counseling Collegewise students, and from talking with our counselors who worked at those schools, that there are five traits that almost always make applicants stand out, even when surrounded by other remarkable achievers.
There’s a difference between the student who pursues things because she genuinely loves them and the student who pursues things to gain a competitive advantage for college. That difference won’t always be apparent when comparing their levels of achievement. But it’s there. It shows up in their essays, in their letters of recommendation, and even in their voices during college interviews. A student driven by a desire to attend a prestigious college isn’t necessarily a bad kid, and she might well be very successful at her dream college. But (and here’s this theme again), highly selective colleges have far more than enough applicants who could be successful. The kids with passion aren’t necessarily better kids. But interests make you interesting.
These are the students who make things happen, who aren’t content with the status quo for themselves, their school, their community, etc. Organizing a food drive, campaigning for a class to be offered, seeking out a summer class, applying for a part-time job, spotting a need and doing the work to fill it—they pursue—or create—their own opportunities. They aren’t content to wait for a parent or someone else to hand it to them. Colleges know these students will continue to make an impact in and after college. A mathematician even proved it.
Highly selective colleges know that a freshman class full of students with different backgrounds, talents, interests, personalities, beliefs, etc., is far more interesting than one where everyone fits into the same checkboxes. That’s why a student who approaches admissions by trying to copy those who were admitted before is already heading down the wrong path. Make your own choices. Be your own person. Celebrate your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses. “Be yourself” might sound like clichéd advice. But it’s an effective and surprisingly often overlooked college admissions approach.
4. Love of learning
When passion is applied to intellectual pursuits, it’s best described as a love of learning. There’s a big difference between a student who is genuinely interested in learning the material and the student who cares only about the grade. And it’s not usually their level of academic achievement—in a highly selective application pool, both students will be at the top of their high school classes to have a shot at admission. With so much intellectual talent available, why not choose the kid who’s excited about the boundless opportunities to learn, who will contribute to class discussions, and who will visit professors’ office hours to talk more about the material? Grade grubbers just take for themselves. But the learners’ engagement and intellectual vitality make the experience better for themselves, the professors, and their fellow students.
It might not seem fair that you have to be likable to get into a highly selective college, but it’s the “too many qualified” applicants curse at work again. It’s hard to blame admissions officers for seeking out likable students. Imagine you were lucky enough to have 10 different smart, accomplished students ask you to the prom. Would you attend with one you didn’t like very much? Arrogance, a penchant for making excuses instead of taking responsibility, grade grubbing, a sense of entitlement—those traits make it harder to admit an otherwise qualified student.
The surest route to likability? Embrace and embody the four previous traits on this list.