An Important Takeaway from The College Admission Series
Recently, my podcast, Hold Me Back, conducted a series of interviews with college admission leaders as part of our College Admission Series (Duke, Cornell, Georgia Tech, TCU). While the interviews provided plenty of eye-opening insights, one particular statistic took me by surprise: at highly selective schools, less than 15% of students with both perfect GPAs and standardized test scores receive offers for enrollment.
Clearly, this is not the reality for most colleges because it’s estimated that two-thirds of schools in the country accept the majority of applicants. But for elite schools, these plummeting admission rates reflect a seismic shift from where things stood for previous generations. Clearly, for today’s students, getting an acceptance letter from their dream college is no longer just about intellect and academics – that is now simply an ante – because being ‘perfect’ academically could still mean failing at their objective nine out of ten times.
At highly selective schools, less than 15% of students with both perfect GPAs and standardized test scores receive offers for enrollment.
This new reality has given rise to a multi-billion dollar industry of college admission consultants, whose primary goal is to increase the odds of students being admitted to their “reach” schools. How? The answer to this multi-billion dollar question is by making sure student’s applications “stand out” in the morass of thousands of seemingly “perfect” applicants. In fact, the industry has packaged this concept in a term they have coined “the stand out factor”. Moreover, independent consultants have gone as far as to differentiate themselves based on the strategy they’ll use to help their customers stand out from the rest.
The Stand Out Factor
The range and breadth of ways consultants propose to help a student “stand out” is as impressive as it is, at times, disturbing. Some will simply help ensure essays are compelling and well written. Others will help a student define their “personal brand” and ensure that it clearly comes through in their application. Still others will help students find a “white space” interest for them to pursue in order to stick out (Luge, anyone?). While some consultants will go as far as to help students start a non-profit company and promote and market it. And not surprisingly, all of this comes with a hefty price tag.
But do the pundits in this multi-billion dollar industry truly have the right formula? Based on my conversations with some of the most prominent thought leaders in the admissions world, perhaps not. What I heard from these experienced leaders was as resounding as it was consistent: a student’s ‘stand out factor’ is not something that is constructed, it is something that should be discovered and fostered by the students themselves. The way to truly ‘stand out’ according to these leaders, is to take the time to discover your passion (and it’s okay if that takes a couple of years), and when you find it, do something with it that has an impact, big or small. It doesn’t have to change the world, or even your community, but it does need to demonstrate a level of commitment, creativity, and perseverance that sets you apart in some manner from the ordinary.
Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech, shared that the students that stand out aren’t the ones who try to ‘fill the stat sheet’ with as many volunteer, sports, and club opportunities as they can muster, “It’s not about quantity, but what a student does with the opportunities they decide to pursue. It could be something simple like recruiting others to get involved with their particular pursuit or passion.” And yes, being a leader of one organization in which a student is clearly interested, will likely stick out more to admission officers than being a card carrying member of five clubs or non-profits with impressive missions.
“It’s not about quantity, but what a student does with the opportunities they decide to pursue. It could be something simple like recruiting others to get involved with their particular pursuit or passion.”
Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University, stressed that being true to yourself matters, and that it comes through in applications, “It’s about authenticity and impact. Take the time to discover what you’re passionate about, and when you do, do something with it, big or small.” To be clear, according to all my interviews, there is nothing wrong with volunteering for non-profits and raising money and awareness for a great cause. In fact, the world needs more students thinking about making the world a better place. But there is also nothing wrong with a Star Wars geek who starts a blog, forms a discussion board, creates a memorabilia club, then starts a website which funds part of her/his college education (or even donates the proceeds to a non-profit). Colleges understand that high school students aren’t always in the position to discover their ‘life long’ passion – after all, that’s what college is about! But they do want to see a high school student eventually hone in on a focused set of interests, and the pursuit of that interest come to life across multiple areas of a student’s life (i.e., job, classes, entrepreneurship, teaching, volunteering, etc).
“It’s about authenticity and impact. Take the time to discover what you’re passionate about, and when you do, do something with it, big or small.”
Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University, got to the heart of it with a powerful insight, “Imagine if a student spends their entire high school life pursuing something they are not passionate about just to try to get into a college and then doesn’t get in. And the odds are they won’t get in. That’s a horrible waste for so many reasons. So they might as well spend that time on something they love.” I found that to be a sobering thought. High school is tough enough, so imagine adding hundreds of hours doing something that provides no enjoyment because a student or parent believes it will look good to a college. And as it turns out, it’s likely a flawed strategy to begin with. Consider this comment from Mr. Guttentag, “The students who often do the best in our application process are the ones that care the least about the application process.” The spirit of Mr. Guttentag’s comment was a theme I heard throughout my interviews – the students that stand out are the ones who are less concerned about what they think colleges want to see, but rather, have the courage and drive to chart their own course on pursuits that matter to them.
Becoming A Part of a Diverse and Positive Community
It became clear to me after conducting these interviews that when applying to college today, students are not just applying to be part of a classroom, but to be a member of a diverse and positive community. And because many schools can now afford to be more selective, they are becoming less compromising in looking for qualities that contribute to the type of community they want to create on their campus. What are those qualities? Well, each college has their own mission and values that drive the answer to that question, but some traits that I heard quite often included curiosity, humility, open-mindedness, resilience, drive, confidence, and kindness. But when it came to the concept of the “stand out factor” (ironically, a packaged term most of them had not heard), three traits came up again and again – authenticity, passion, and impact. Standing out starts by being true to yourself, by looking in. If the starting place is trying to solve for “how” to stand out to a college, you’ve already lost your way. Once you discover that passion, double down on it. And at that point, in my view, it’s perfectly fine to get help in discovering all the ways you can bring that passion to life, impact your community in creative and meaningful ways, and yes, even tell that story to colleges when the time is right. And many college consultants are great at helping you do just that.
Let me leave you with a final thought. Imagine you work for a competitive university reviewing applications. You have thousands of applications to review and about eleven minutes to review each one. You’ve reviewed tens of thousands of applications in your career. Do you think you know the difference between ‘authentic’ versus “formulaic” applications? How many times have you seen applications filled with multiple high profile club memberships and non-profit commitments? Do they stand out? How hard is it for a student to join a non-profit? How is it different from the other thousand students who’ve also volunteered? What does that really tell you about the applicant? Now what about a student who loves movies so much that they created a movie review blog. Then a website. The site garnered enough of an audience that advertisers paid to be on the site, and influencers promoted the site. Then that student got local artists to create original movie memorabilia that was sold on the site (without copyright infringement). Then they donated a share of proceeds to the same charity they could have volunteered to join. What does that tell you about the applicant?
To hear more from experts in the college admissions field, check out our ‘College Admission Series’ on Apple Podcasts.