Four Tips to Keep in Mind when Applying to College from an Elite High School
Case Study: Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco
The college admissions process is always difficult, but it may seem even more strenuous when a student is applying to to elite colleges from an elite high school. At an elite high school, it can be hard to:
- stand out academically,
- be in the top 10% of one’s class,
- and set oneself apart.
Here are some helpful hints to remember when applying from an elite high school, as well as more tips about how to set yourself apart... even if you feel that all of your classmates are prime candidates for elite colleges.
Focus on what makes you unique
Rather than feeling that you’re competing with your classmates, focus on what makes you different from them. Do you carry a bright pink roller backpack with you every day? Have you eaten a tomato every day for the past five years in hopes that it improves your health? Elite colleges want to know! These may sound like random and bizarre quirks, but these are actual essay topics of an accepted Yale student and an accepted Stanford student, respectively. When brainstorming responses to all application questions, think of something about yourself that no one would ever expect--the types of topics that no one else can write about are what will set you apart, not a cliche response about that volunteer trip you took.
When crafting your answers, think of the thousands of essays that each college admissions officer reads. By taking a risk with your answer and writing about something unique, you’re more likely to make a lasting impression on an admission officer’s tired eyes.
Essays, Essays, Essays
Speaking of responses, essays are the most important form of response on any college application. As I stated above, the admissions committees want to know what makes you unique, and why you’d be a great contributor to their community. Many students will submit applications with perfect SAT/ACT scores and 4.0 GPAs, so stats don’t set anyone apart; only essays do.
Time is the most important ingredient of a great essay. I recommend thinking of a good essay topic over the summer before your senior year, then honing in on that topic and getting feedback from college counselors, friends, parents, and Empowerly before even thinking about submitting an application. Writing a quick response will not compare to the quality of work that comes from many drafts of an essay. No matter how good a writer the student is, there is always room for improvement in terms of content and structure of the essay, so getting as much feedback as possible before seriously drafting the essay is crucial.
Having a unique and compelling topic as well as a well-thought out structure to the essay is essential for any student, and that’s what feedback and time spent on the essays helps to ensure.
Remember that grades and test scores aren’t everything
At elite high schools, it may be tempting to compare your scores or grades to high-performing peers. Instead, focus on the aspects of your application that you still have the chance to make an impact in, and the places where you can show who you are, such as the short answers and the essays. There’s a reason why elite colleges don’t just choose the top 5% scoring applicants. Admissions officers are looking to create a diverse and well-rounded class, so by showcasing other aspects of your character and personality, you can craft just as strong of a case for your admission of someone with a perfect score or GPA. Don’t let the fact that you don’t have perfect scores or grades deter you.
Cast a wide net in the college admissions process
Even if you have a dream school in mind, casting a wide net in the admissions process is key to a successful application cycle, especially if you’re looking to attend a Top 5 or Top 10 university.
Think about it this way: a school with a 10 percent acceptance ultimately rejects 90 percent of its applicants. To make these tough decisions, admissions officers use the slightest reasons to accept one candidate over another, and many students have very similar profiles. Because of this, it makes sense for competitive applicants to apply to as many reach schools as they’d like, so that they have a better chance of getting into at least one. Another reason for this is that admissions officers are also biased! Whether an essay resonates with the specific admissions officer who reads it is very arbitrary, which is why you increase your chances by applying to many "reach" schools.
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