I tell my students that if I had to apply to college now, I would never get into the University of Pennsylvania again. My high school grades and SAT scores were fine in high school, but I had virtually no extracurricular activities or community service. Today, a stellar transcript and strong test scores are necessary, but not sufficient, for admission to competitive colleges.
At highly selective colleges, more than 80 percent of the applicants will have strong records, but with admit rates of less than 20 percent, the vast majority of these qualified students will be denied admission.
While there is no guaranteed path to a prestigious school, there are ways to improve your chances. Being class president is nice, but when thousands of class presidents apply to Yale, how do you stand out? It’s not the office you hold, but what you do with it. Take advantage of the opportunity to initiate and complete a project that will demonstrate your leadership. It could be getting the class involved in a project to paint houses for low-income families. Or recruiting students to serve as mentors to underprivileged elementary school children.
You don’t have to be class president to take the initiative. One computer whiz solicits used computers from corporations and refurbishes them before donating them to foster kids. Another student collected children’s books, built bookcases and installed them at a shelter for battered women and their children. Then, the next spring he organized a “read to children” program at the shelter.
These are some of the creative ways students have made a contribution to their community, developed their own skills, increased their self-esteem, and ended up with impressive examples of leadership. It starts with identifying a need and knowing your skills, so you can find a way to meet that need. One of my students, who has done extensive community service, saw children walking the streets of a Mexican town without shoes and started a charity to deliver donated clothing and other goods to them.
Think about what you believe in, what you’d like to see changed in the world, and find a way to make an impact. If it’s unusual, that can make it more interesting. For example, a student who is a conservative Republican may disagree with the way gay people live, but believe that discrimination is wrong. He establishes a gay-straight alliance at school because he thinks it’s important to encourage dialogue and understanding. This project would stand out because we wouldn’t expect it from a conservative student. Admissions officers who want to create a diverse, accepting community might be impressed by the display of tolerance and leadership.
It’s always great if a student who has a passion can find a couple ways to express that passion. For example, if a student loves art, he or she might take classes at Otis College of Art & Design during the summer, and find a community service project that involved art, like running an art workshop for elementary school children, or doing art with sick kids in a hospital, or starting an art therapy program for nursing home residents.
Pursuing your genuine interests makes it easier to stay involved in those activities year after year. That kind of long-term commitment not only impresses admissions officers, but more importantly helps you to develop a sense of competence and self-esteem. That’s a good thing, wherever you go to college.