What the Shy Student Needs to Know About College Admission

Just be yourself. You hear it from counselors, this column and Mom. It’s good advice. But what if being yourself means being rejected by your favorite college? That’s exactly what can happen to someone whose only “deficit” is being reserved. In a society where the extrovert gets the guy, gal or school, the shy student can be left behind.

Admissions officers are looking for students who will contribute to the campus community. Nothing wrong with that. But why does everyone have to be a leader? How can everyone be a leader? The sorority president who organizes a charity fundraiser needs other people to stuff envelopes and run the event to make her idea a reality. And what would the director of a play do without a crew working behind the scenes to carry out his vision?

At a National Association For College Admissions Counseling conference some years ago, I was delighted to see this issue addressed at a session titled “Promoting the Shy Student.” Panelists agreed that shy people get lower ratings in the admissions process. A teacher who writes a recommendation letter saying a student has a quiet depth or is insightful but doesn’t often share her ideas in class may unintentionally sink that student’s application. One admissions officer who had worked at a prestigious university started a shyness awareness workshop for the school’s readers, to counteract their bias toward shy people.

Everyone would be better served if admissions officers had a broader perspective as they look for students with something to offer the community. The shy student who rarely speaks in class might be the person who helps classmates with physics homework. The student who doesn’t initiate group activities in the residence hall may be the great listener that other students turn to when they need to talk. And what about the student who trembles at the thought of an oral report but writes a beautiful poem for the literary magazine? Don’t these students make a valuable contribution to the campus community?

Of course, there’s also the possibility that a student who is shy in high school might become more outgoing and contribute more in college than the student who was very involved in high school and doesn’t join a single organization in college.

We hear that colleges want racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. It would be nice if they also valued diverse personality types. But the preference for extroversion is not likely to change soon. So the question for shy students is whether to embrace your reserved nature or try to change it.

I think shy students who feel good about themselves certainly are entitled to decide they don’t need to change. But the truth is that many shy people struggle with a lack of self-confidence, and it may be worth pushing beyond their comfort zone, not just for college applications but to feel more engaged in the world.

There are steps that shy students can take, short of a total personality transplant, which will enhance their chances of getting into their best colleges. Establishing a one to one relationship, perhaps by volunteering to tutor a younger child, can be a safe and rewarding way to contribute to the community.

Shy students might also ask teachers for help in finding less threatening ways to contribute to class. Students who really want to challenge themselves could even take an acting or public speaking class to become more comfortable talking in front of people.

For those who are not ready to venture out of their comfort zone, highly selective colleges may be a tough admit, but with strong academic records they will still have many options.

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