Every year, when admission decisions are released by the most selective schools in the country, thousands of high-achieving students are disappointed and wondering why they were rejected after working so hard throughout high school.
Unless you work in college admission, it is difficult to understand the level of competition. There are thousands of applicants who have 10 or more AP courses, straight A grades, and SAT scores above 1400. When it comes to Ivies and similarly competitive schools, it’s not enough to be valedictorian, varsity athlete, and editor of the school paper.
When I look at the students who are admitted to the most selective colleges, what they have in common is a genuine intellectual passion. It’s more than taking the most rigorous curriculum offered at their high school. These students take the initiative to learn about subjects that fascinate them.
Several years ago, a student told me the highlight of his weekend was reading Scientific American in bed on Sunday morning. He loved science and politics, and especially enjoyed discussing how one impacts the other. Most high school students, even if they take loads of AP classes and earn top grades, just do not spend their time outside of school thinking about how a decrease in the rate of population growth will lead to an aging work force and smaller industrial base, and how we can deal with the ramifications. In his first semester of Stanford, this student met with one of his professors every week because he couldn’t get enough of their discussion about contemporary African politics.
Another student who was accepted at MIT found a summer internship at a major research facility while in high school. He sought out experts in his field of interest and attended their lectures, because he was truly excited to learn everything he could about astrophysics. He even wrote a science fiction novel during summer vacations, creating a model of the solar system in his bedroom while doing research for the book.
What set these students apart from all the others who also had a long list of AP courses, perfect grades, incredibly high test scores and a slew of extracurricular activities, is their real excitement about a subject and the initiative they demonstrated in finding ways to deepen their knowledge. These students would take AP and college classes even if they weren’t important for college applications. They just love learning.
The other common thread I see in students who are admitted to the most competitive colleges is that they have had an impact while in high school, and are likely to have a real impact not just at their college, but in the world. Of course, the vast majority of students who graduate from elite colleges will not be political leaders, Pulitzer Prize winning writers or scientists who change the world, but looking like you have that potential surely helps when you apply to these schools.
There will also be plenty of graduates of less selective colleges who will make major contributions to the world, and even more who will have happy and productive lives. If you are one of the thousands of disappointed seniors wondering why you worked so hard in high school, know that the work ethic, motivation and self-discipline you developed will serve you well in college and in life. Your commitment to achieving your goals is clearly reflected in the success you have had in high school and no college rejection changes that. The fact that you applied to the most selective colleges means you are driven to excel, and that drive will enable you to continue to be successful at whatever college you attend.
Students who will be applying to highly selective colleges in the next few years may be up against similarly low admit rates, so expanding their list of “good” colleges can save a lot of grief. Whenever I meet a student who plans to apply to the most competitive colleges, I share the story of the young woman who attended a public university in her home state. She was admitted to several highly selective colleges, but was not ready to venture far from home. So after a few moments of wondering whether she would regret giving up the opportunity to attend a more prestigious school, she accepted a full ride scholarship at the public university, where she was a top student in the honors program and also found time to have some fun. She is graduating from Harvard Law School next month and has said she is very glad she did not attend an Ivy League school as an undergraduate. She enjoyed being at the top of the class in college, and she received the most glowing recommendations from her professors, which she might not have gotten at a more selective school. After four years of building her academic confidence, she felt ready to take on the intense, competitive environment at Harvard. She was also able to use her college savings account for law school and is graduating with no debt. That’s what I call smart.