Those who do

Chris, a Collegewise counselor and former MIT admissions counselor, shares this recent post from MIT Dean of Admissions, Stu Schmill, about what they look for—and don’t look for—in prospective students.

In simple terms, we want students to pursue the things that interest them with energy and enthusiasm. We want students to make decisions that are educationally sound for them to best prepare them to succeed in college and beyond. We want students to challenge themselves appropriately in the areas that are most interesting to them. We want students to engage with their community in their pursuits. And, we want students who demonstrate strong ethical character. In short, we want young people to be students and community members first, and applicants second…We don’t want students to do things just because they think they have to. We don’t want students to take advanced classes out of a sense of competition, rather than the joy of learning. We don’t want a laundry list of a million activities. And we don’t want students sacrificing quality for quantity – something that is happening far too often.

I think Schmill’s sentiments are honest and forthright. I also think that the admissions officers at most highly selective colleges would concur. But to really understand and appreciate what he’s sharing, you’ll need to read the entire thing, and you’ll need to read between the lines.

It’s true—MIT doesn’t want students who take every AP class out of a sense of competition. They don’t want students who do things because they think they have to. They don’t want students who focus more on their quantity of work than they do on the quality. They want genuinely curious, engaged human beings who will make valuable contributions in and out of class when they get to college.

But this year, MIT received applications from 20,000 of the very best students in the world, and they only needed to admit about 1500 of them to fill the class.

Those students who were admitted may not have diligently plodded through all of their schools’ AP classes driven only by a sense of competition. But most of them probably took the most challenging courses offered, and voraciously pursued their intellectual interests outside of class driven only by their curiosity and desire to learn. There aren’t very many teenagers who learn that much, that well, driven only by their own intense intellectualism. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted may not have done things because they thought they had to. But they probably did commit themselves passionately to things they really cared about. And they almost certainly achieved impressive success within those activities, whether it was community service, drama, baseball, the math club, Kung Fu, playing the cello, or training guide dogs for the blind. There aren’t very many students who can make that kind of an impact in high school, and do it all driven only by an innate sense of passion and drive unrelated to college admission. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted probably didn’t care about quantity. They never asked how many AP classes, activities, hours of community service, awards, etc. were enough. They cared more about what they were learning, doing, and contributing than they did about whether or not it would be sufficient to earn an admission to their dream college. But their applications almost certainly revealed that they did more, achieved more success, and made a greater impact than most of the applicants applying to college. There aren’t very many students who can do that much, that well, and legitimately claim that they did it because they wanted to, not because they were trying to impress colleges. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Is it a perfect process? Is it even fair? No, it’s not. There are lots of kids who worked, achieved, and cared enough to prove that they deserved to be admitted. But it’s a numbers game, and the reality is that schools like MIT just can’t admit every qualified student who applies. That’s the rub at just about every highly selective college. Too many stellar applicants, too few spaces to offer.

If you want to attend a highly selective college like MIT, please understand that there is no magic formula, no hard-and-fast list of necessary achievements that will guarantee your admission.

So what should you do?

Take the most challenging classes you can reasonably handle without sacrificing sleep or sanity. Work hard to get the best grades you can. Commit yourself to, and make an impact within, activities you care about. Be a class participator. Make efforts to learn about things that interest you, academic or not. Be a good person who cares about your family, your friends, and your community. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. Have faith that your work ethic and character will always be more important than any grade, test score, or admission decision from a particular college.

And most importantly, find colleges that fit, regardless of their prestige. Your list may include some schools like MIT where statistically, nobody stands a good chance. But balance those choices by including schools where your counselor agrees that you have a strong chance of admission.

Taking this route still won’t guarantee that you’ll get into a highly selective college. But it guarantees there will be plenty of great colleges where you’ll be one of those who do.