There’s no doubt we live in interesting times. College has become more and more popular among young adults with each passing year, and the process of being accepted into a good college is as competitive and cutthroat as ever. With increasing competition comes increasing demands on high school students -- higher grades, better test scores, more awards and activities, and so on.
What might have been considered a great application a few years ago is now considered average, so it’s more important than ever to be make sure you are a unique applicant that will shine in the massive pool of aspiring students (especially for the higher-ranked colleges, where it may feel like only perfect students are accepted).
The key word here is “unique”; with so many more people getting A grades and high test scores, getting a stellar GPA or near-perfect SAT score is certainly a great indicator to your performance, but hardly something that has the potential to differentiate you from the crowd at higher-ranked universities. Getting good grades and test scores is still necessary to proving that you have solid academic ability and understanding, but it’s how you supplement these academics that prove whether or not you are worth of a top college. Below are a few areas in which you can try to aim for this uniqueness.
You may have heard that college essays aren’t as important as, say, extracurricular activities or classroom grades. This is true to an extent. If you write a somewhat good or somewhat bad essay for your college application, it’s not going to sway your reviewer, because near-average college essays are simply too insignificant in light of how many other variables there are, and they won’t make-or-break your chances of admission. The significance of these essays lies in their extreme cases; very bad essays are a huge red flag (maybe you rushed your college application, have very poor writing skills, don’t take college seriously, etc), while very good essays are a way to firmly grasp your application reviewer’s attention. We’ll ignore the former because if you’re going through the work of reading this article, chances are you care enough about college to not write a poor essay.
Why can a good college essay strongly affect your chances for admission? The key is personal insight. Grades, test scores, and your extracurricular activities do help understand an individual’s intelligence, dedication, commitment, and overall performance, but they are awful at exhibiting character and personality. College essays are where you are in your purest availability; every single word is from you and about you (for example, an “A+” only says “intelligence” or “hard-working”, whereas a few sentences about your passion for animals clearly and extensively gives a picture of who you are). At the end of the day, colleges want unique individuals that can make a difference outside of a classroom setting -- leaders, visionaries, and so forth. If you can be creative enough to show these qualities in a special college essay, you may be able to leverage your personality heavily in your favor (though, remember, this is a very rare case; most college essays fall somewhere in between excellent and poor and as such don’t carry much weight in your chances).
Here’s an example of a bold college essay that was extreme and unique enough to warrant an acceptance, all while being humorous, but be careful before taking risks like these (your application reviewer may very well decide that college applications are no place for humor). One year, one Harvard application question was, “In 500 words or fewer, demonstrate bravery”, to which a student replied, “Go Yale!”. He was accepted.
Having a good number of extracurricular activities is a great way to show that you’re well-rounded and deeply engaged with your world, but it’s the quality of these activities that can really be useful for college applications. You can read more about how to ensure quality in a given extracurricular activity [here], but the main point is that there are 3 aspects that make an activity look great. Longevity, or how long you plan to stay dedicated, gives significant insight into your ability to commit and appreciate a given cause or experience. Depth, or the meaningfulness of the things you learned from that activity, shows results and the ability to extract usefulness from experiences. And finally (and perhaps most important) is progression and leadership; if you worked your way up to a high rank in which you might be considered a “leader” (club president, captain of sports team, head camp counselor, etc), you’ve struck gold. Colleges love leadership qualities because they reveal the students with the most potential to becomes leaders during or after college, and it’s students like these colleges will go out of their way to enroll.
Try to aim for at least 2 of these 3 qualities in any extracurricular activity you pursue; if you end up establishing a portfolio of activities that actively portray longevity/commitment, depth, and leadership, your extracurriculars will be in a position to highly impact your admission chances.
I know, I know. I said academics don’t vary enough in today’s competitive world to provide serious leverage in college applications, but there’s two scenarios in which it can. One is relative performance; the usefulness of good grades and test scores depends heavily on where you plan to go to college. If you’re looking at a liberal arts college in a fairly rural area, then it may very well be that a 3.7 GPA is considered outstanding and you’re accepted on the spot. If, on the other hand, you’re looking apply to somewhere like Yale or Harvard, a 3.9 GPA is only going to help you fit it and not much else. The relative competitiveness/ranking between colleges is a big key into deciphering the potential that grades and test scores have for your application, so do you research and try to figure out where your grades may have a higher impact.
Another way in which academics might do you good is when perfection comes into play. A 4.0 GPA, 1600 SAT, or 36 ACT may only be incrementally better than, say, a 3.9 GPA, 1580 SAT, or 35 ACT, but the big thing is perfection. You may have heard about the saying, “Nobody cares about second place”, and it’s true even in academics. Getting absolutely perfect scores (being “first place”) is like winning a race, and indicates tremendous intellectual ability and a favorable hard-working attitude. Scores and grades like these can certainly say “I know what I’m doing” on your college application, and will be looked at favorably by just about any school.
A few things to note about this. For one, only getting good grades and test scores while having no outside activities indicates a narrow-minded individual as opposed to one that is well-rounded and deeply involved in a variety of experiences, so don’t throw everything away in pursuit of perfect scores (which, I should add, is a seriously difficult goal). Secondly, it will definitely show if you try to take easy classes for a 4.0 GPA. If you’re avoiding all honors and Advanced Placement courses because you think colleges will be impressed just by your GPA, think again. In most cases, you’ll have to submit your high school course transcript with your application, and someone who looks for the easy way out may not be a desired applicant.
Overall, it’s important to remember that we live in years where a lot of students want to get into good colleges, and as a result, the competition is on the rise. Good grades and test scores are becoming the norm, so it’s important to look at different areas in which you might be able to differentiate yourself and rise above the competition. These areas include college essays, where insight into personality can be a deal-breaker, extracurriculars, where qualities such as commitment and leadership can be best-showcased, and academics, where perfection is always an asset and even decent grades can be considered excellent when applying to certain colleges.