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.

Recommended reading and viewing

Here are a couple reads (and one viewing) worth taking in over the weekend.

For students and parents, Denise Pope of Challenge Success and her interview with Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is well worth the hour of your time.

For counselors, Patrick O’Connor, high school counselor extraordinaire, offers his recommended approach to the significant changes we’ll see in this year’s admissions cycle, like the new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA.

For private counselors:

Warren Buffet has a surprisingly simple 3-word secret guaranteed to make your business succeed. And here’s Basecamp’s Jason Fried with some thoughts on how to say you’re sorry (hint: “We apologize for any inconvenience” is not it).

Have a great weekend.

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.

Debunking admissions myths

From De-bunking College Admission Myths:

“The reality is that admission directors at highly selective colleges across the country — including Stanford — have acknowledged that almost 75% of their applicants would be terrific students at their universities, but they can only take a much smaller percentage. So what happens to the 70% or so of the smart, motivated, dedicated students who are denied admission to these schools? You’ll find them at a broad range of other colleges: private, public, big, and small. Similarly, what happens to the brilliant Ph.D. students who learn that there are too few openings for new professors at the Ivy League schools? They go on to be brilliant professors at a wide range of other universities. So of course it makes sense that you can find engaging and high-level, intellectual discussion, excellent teaching, and outstanding professional networks at universities all around the country. We have over 2400 four-year colleges in the United States, and at least another 2000 two-year colleges. Our kids deserve to know the truth about the full range of post-secondary options available to them.”

Denise Pope
Co-Founder of Challenge Success
Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education
Author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids

You’re in charge

I’ve written before that just getting a college degree isn’t so special anymore, that what you can actually do is more important than the name of your school or your major, and that the best way to set yourself up for post-college success is to build a remarkable college career. Even my favorite blogger agrees.

I don’t tackle those subjects to discourage students from going to college or to suggest that it’s impossible to succeed. I do it to remind students that what you do in college is more important than where you do it and that an admissions decision from a famous college doesn’t decide for you whether or not you’ll be successful. Your work ethic, character, interest in learning—those traits are what will ultimately shape your future, and you don’t need anyone else to assign them to you.

You’re in charge. It’s a big responsibility. But wouldn’t you rather own it than leave it to someone else?

Once you get there

“What you do in college will be more important than where you do it.”

It’s one of my recurring themes on this blog, one that, when embraced, not only helps families enjoy a more successful, less stressful application process, but also encourages students to make the most of their time once they arrive on campus. No matter where you go, you can’t just sit back and wait for college to change you. It will be up to you to extract the maximum value from your experience and create a remarkable college career, as I described in this past post.

Chase, a former Collegewise student who’s currently a sophomore at Northeastern University, is a perfect example. Last week, he emailed his former Collegewise counselor, Breanne, with an update. I’m sharing that email here with Chase’s permission.

Hi Breanne!

I hope all is well. It’s the last day of classes at Northeastern so I’m getting all sentimental and I thought I would check in with you!

Some updates:

-I joined Husky Ambassadors (tour guide group) last semester and I am now giving the occasional campus tour
-I survived the snow
-I worked as an orientation leader this summer and had the best time of my life
-I somewhat understand hockey
-I have switched my concentration to marketing and added a minor in journalism this semester
-I took an introductory journalism class this semester and really enjoyed it
-I am currently working as an RA in the community service hall and I am enjoying it
-I am taking an improv class in Boston and it is a lot of fun
-I participated in a 24 hour scavenger hunt called the Husky Hunt and my team came in 13th out of 150ish
-I have dabbled in Ultimate Frisbee but just don’t have time to join the team
-I just accepted my first co-op! So starting in January I will be working full time at Brightcove (video platform company) in a marketing operations position. I am excited to learn and also excited to make money.

Thank you again for all your help in getting me here. I am having an amazing experience!

Thank you,

Chase isn’t just passively observing his college years. He is all in, having fun, seeking and securing opportunities, discovering his talents and interests, making the most of the opportunities available both on and off campus. He isn’t someone who will graduate with an empty resume and then complain that the market is rough for new college grads. He’ll have knowledge, experience, mentors, references, and opportunities, most of which would not have been available to him if he hadn’t 1) chosen Northeastern, and 2) made the most of his time there.

I hope readers, especially students and their parents, will learn from Chase’s example. Students have four years to extract as much value as possible from their chosen college. No matter what name appears on the sweatshirt, you’re more likely to blaze a productive path like Chase has if you choose the right school for you and make it your mission to make the most of it once you get there.

Congrats, Chase. And go Huskies!

What really matters

From Michael K. Mulligan, Head of The Thacher School in California, in his column, Advice on hat Really Matters in the College Process:

“America’s colleges and universities are the best in the world. Going to a big name might open doors for you initially, but it is all up to you in the long run. You are better off focusing on being the best person you can be, going to the best college for you that you can get into regardless of its rank, and showing by example that you are trustworthy, dependable, and hardworking. Doors will open for you and good things will happen. Your success in life is about who you are, not where you go to college.”

Manage downs, maximize ups

A lot of the hysteria around getting into prestigious colleges comes from the belief that if you can just get into one, the advantage of attaching that name to yourself will leave you set for the rest of your life, assured that success and everything else will work out how you (or your parents) want it to.

But life doesn’t work that way.

People who get into Harvard aren’t set for the rest of their lives. They’ll still stumble.  They’ll have disappointments.  They may even have their hearts broken a time or two. These things don’t happen because Harvard failed them. They happen because that’s life, no matter where you went to college. Show me a happy and successful adult, and I guarantee you they’ve experienced their share of disappointments, too. You can’t insulate yourself from that.

But here’s the good news.

Wherever you go to college, you can learn as much as you can about a subject that fascinates you. You can discover your talents. You can try just about anything you’ve ever wanted to try, often with very few repercussions if things don’t go well.

And more importantly, you can prepare for what life will give you. You can try things that intimidate you. You can learn from your failures and come back stronger next time. You can find ways to make the best of situations that didn’t pan out like you’d hoped.

This is not my way of telling teenagers they should prepare for a life filled with nothing but recurring disappointment. There are a lot of wonderful things out there in the world for you during and after college. But a prestigious college doesn’t present an unobstructed path for you to access them.

If you’ve been working like crazy in high school to get into your dream school, you’re off to a great start. You know how to set goals and how to work for them. You’re invested in creating the future that you want. And you’re starting to prepare yourself for what it will take to get it.

But remember that no matter what your first choice college says, it won’t give you—or rob you of—those dreams. Pursue them wherever you go to college. And use your four years to learn how to manage the occasional downs so you can maximize the hopefully far more frequent ups.

No dependency

If you made a list of all the goals you have for yourself during and after college, from meeting new people to learning what interests you to getting started in a particular career, how many of them actually require that you attend one particular college?

More broadly, how many of them require that you attend a prestigious school?

And if those particular schools magically disappeared tomorrow, would you need to abandon your goals, or would you simply apply them at (by applying to) different schools.

Aim for the schools you want, sure. But remember that very few goals are dependent on a short list of colleges to help you achieve them.