Learn from the child genius

Tanishq Abraham has accomplished quite a bit for a 12-year-old. He’s been enrolled in community college since he was 7 (the same age he also gave a TED Talk). He earned his high school diploma at 10. He’s earned three associate’s degrees, and he’s currently deciding where he’ll transfer (with junior standing) to college this fall—he’s been accepted by UC Davis and by UC Santa Cruz, where he won the Regents Scholarship, the highest honor they award entering undergraduates.

But Tanishq didn’t get into Stanford. And even this child genius is struggling to understand why.

To most counselors and admissions officers, the outcome actually isn’t that surprising. Stanford admitted only 5 of every 100 applicants this year, the lowest acceptance rate in the school’s history. When a school receives applications from the most accomplished students—not just from the United States, but from all over the world—they have to look for reasons to say no to plenty of brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime type kids. That’s what it means to apply to a highly selective college.

Good counselors have to spend a lot of time convincing high-achieving students (and those students’ parents) to include some less selective schools on their college lists. When students have taken the hardest classes, earned A’s, scored off the charts on tests, and flourished in activities, they’re recognized as some of the best and brightest at their schools. So it’s not surprising they often expect to be admitted to highly selective colleges. In fact, it’s totally reasonable for them to wonder what more they could possibly have done.

But if you’re going to take your shot at any school that denies just about all of its applicants, it’s important to understand what—and who—you’re up against. You owe it to yourself to have a college list that guarantees you a few options you’ll be excited about. And you can’t write off all your hard work as worthless if a highly selective college doesn’t say yes.

Tanishq is living proof that nobody, not even a genius, is a sure admit. But he’s also a good reminder that you can find smart, accomplished, talented students at plenty of colleges that may not vie for the top spot on the rankings lists.