By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
In Part 1 last week we told you about some of the things you need to do if you want to really, really stand out from the pack as an applicant to famously named colleges. If you are applying to the top 50 or so colleges in the country, then amazing scores and a stellar GPA are just the baseline to get your little foot in the door. This week we take you even farther into the realm of “what can I do to get in?”, discussing things that only the top applicants can–and must–achieve. If that Ivy League sweatshirt is really your goal, then hopefully you are a freshman or sophomore reading this, and may the force be with you.
Be really, really, really, truly nice: This one is important and hard to fake. When I look back across my twenty years of working with students and I consider the kids without a hook who went to top colleges, they were all extremely nice people. Why do I think this helped them? Because of the glowing recommendation letters they surely received and the attraction of having kind, humble people on a high powered, competitive campus. Kindness cannot be faked, and it certainly cannot be faked across four years of high school, so when your rec writers talk about you as the salt of the earth, when they glow and rave and can’t find enough to say about your sweetness and optimism, when they come little short of saying they’d like to adopt you, well, that’s the rec letter that every student should dream of. Nice kids, +1.
Do independent research: Start early and explore topics that might appeal to you. When you find one, brainstorm all of the ways that you can learn more about this topic. This research does not involve points or grades; it involves you immersing yourself in something for fun. You can read magazines, articles, blogs, books, newspapers; you can interview people, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, do fieldwork, research in a lab, email faculty active in the area, conduct experiments, build something, etc. Find something that fascinates you, and teach yourself about it. That’s what scholars do, so if you want to go to a hard-core scholarly institution, demonstrate on your application that you already fit in. The possibilities for learning are endless, so have fun!
Icing on the Cake
Learn a third language: So few kids do this that it really stands out. If you grow up speaking a few languages, that is certainly attractive to colleges, but if you go out and learn an extra language on your own, wow, that is outstanding.
Publish something real: No joke. Like a novel, a textbook, a nationally read blog, or a syndicated column. This indicates to a college that you are a serious academic or a serious mover and shaker. Not many kids will publish, so it really, really makes you stand out. One other way to do this is to serve as a student assistant on a research paper or project, working under a faculty member; then your name can be published on the paper, and that’s impressive. Publication is the password in academia, and if you can join in that fray at your age, well, that’s impressive.
Hope for those with lower numbers and no hook
Can you ever get in with lower numbers? Sure. You might be an amazing applicant who has a clear passion or a serious accomplishment, but if your numbers are lower than those mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, your target college is going to have to really want you for them to consider admitting you; while your accomplishments may be stellar, your average numbers will bring their averages down in the annual rankings, and they don’t want that, ever. So, for them to take you, two provisions have to be in place: you have to be so amazing that you are worth the statistical cost to them of lower averages, and they have to have such a strong pool that year that the effect of your lower numbers won’t be too drastic. These are things FAR beyond your control, so if your numbers are lower, I would advise that you not set your heart on a college with historically high average numbers.
So, if you plan to do these things, start now. You might not be able to do all of them, but the more you do, the more you can stand out from a very accomplished pool of people. Always remember to be who you are and be true to yourself. Above all, be honest. Don’t do things just because you think they look good; follow your heart and pursue your dreams! Best of luck to you!