As a college consultant, year after year I see students with the grades and potential to get into the top-tier of selective colleges, but without the right strategy and mindset.
Students have big dreams of getting into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and MIT. They push themselves to do it all. Straight A's, learning an instrument, playing a sport (or maybe multiple sports), picking up another language, starting clubs and non-profits, and having lots of leadership positions under their belt. It's all great. But amidst that high-pressure, student-burnout, 'I-must-do-it-all' mentality -- one fundamental concept is amiss: Elite colleges are not *really* looking for well-rounded students.
Most students aiming for top schools make the huge mistake of trying to be "well rounded." In high school, many students hear this refrain over and over and over again, from older students and teachers to counselors and supposed "college admissions experts." It's well-intentioned advice. Being well-rounded CAN get you into top schools; but it will be harder for you than it will be for those students who have found their "niche" or a clear direction. What you need to do is explore your passions, and structure your life around it.
Well-rounded students, if you're reading this, all hope is NOT lost. You, however have to be really strategic with choosing the right activities to include in your application, and knowing what to leave off. You should find 2-3 "niches" that your current activities will fit into, and exclude anything that does not fit those niches. You will also have to be very intentional with the phrasing of your activity descriptions on the application.
These niches could be:
-makeup and fashion
...and so many other things! It's also fine if you have more than one niches...just be sure to explore them deeply, and try to find the intersection of your niches. For example: If you're a chess player who also loves to write, maybe write a children's book of a story of a chess player. If you're a ballerina who can code, create an app that teaches basic ballet moves to young children.
Disclaimer: Please remember that to get into Harvard or MIT (and peer schools) there are no easy hidden tricks or shortcuts. Really and truly, it takes a lot of hard work, passion, and some luck. Also, while this post will focus on the top-tier of selective colleges, please remember that there are MANY MANY amazing schools. You absolutely do not need to go to Yale or Harvard or Princeton to be successful. However, we think that this post is useful for those students whose dream it is to get into one of these schools.
What Top Schools Hope To Accomplish
To understand WHY top schools aren't really looking for well-rounded students, we must first delve into what they hope to accomplish.
All top schools like Yale, UPenn, and Dartmouth are nonprofits; they don't exist to make money for stakeholders.
Instead, they aim to create as much value as they can in the world. Value can come in a lot of forms - through research, collecting and disseminating information, and lastly (but possibly most importantly), by nurturing and education students who then go on to do great things in the world.
This creates a feedback mechanism - the better a school's students do, the better its reputation. The better its reputation, the larger its endowment grows. The larger its endowment, the more resources it has to contribute to students' lives. The more resources it has to contribute, the more students want to attend. The more students want to attend, the higher its selectivity. The higher its selectivity, the higher the incoming students' academic achievement. The higher the incoming students' academic achievement, the higher the school's academic achievement.
This feedback mechanism continuously perpetuates itself.
What Students They Hope To Admit
Top schools can admit three times the number of students they choose to admit without sacrificing academic quality. It takes MUCH more than grades to get accepted to UPenn or Columbia.
These schools are looking for two main qualities in applicants:
1) Students who might change, or positively influence the world (the big thinkers, the innovators, the doers, the relentless).
2) Students who will contribute positively to their communities/ the college campus, and help other students to accomplish great things as well (the community leaders, philanthropists, and extroverts)
The Harvard Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons, summed it up well:
"Each year we admit about 2,100 applicants. We like to think that all of them have strong personal qualities and character, that they will educate and inspire their classmates over the four years of college, and that they will make a significant difference in the world after they leave Harvard."
How to Convince Top Schools that You are THAT Student?
Essentially, colleges are trying to estimate your potential future impact. THAT assessment will determine whether you are accepted, or not. I know you might be thinking "but I'm only 17, I don't even know what I want to do with my life". That's fine! You absolutely do not need to. However, you do need to have an idea of things or areas that you're passionate about, and delve deeply into them.
Colleges, in trying to predict students' future achievement, use past achievement as the best predictor.
The point of your application is to convince the school that, based on your achievements so far, you are going to continue succeeding and achieving great things in the future.
BUT the problem is, that most students try to show a school that they can achieve great things by doing as much as they possibly can.
That is the WRONG strategy.
The typical student who wants to be well rounded will try to demonstrate some competency in a variety of skills. They will have leadership positions in clubs, play an instrument, maybe a sport or two, and "do it all". High schools praise those who 'do it all' with leadership and involvement awards. In these students' minds, they're telling their schools, "I can do everything! Whatever I set my mind to, I can learn to do a pretty good job. This means I'll be successful in the future!".
This is wrong. The world doesn't see it this way and, colleges like Yale and Harvard generally don't see it this way, and far too many students waste thousands of hours in their lives pursuing this.
The most highly selective colleges don't want 'Jacks of all trades and masters of none' type students. They want to admit students who excel at one, maybe two, and maybe three things that they're passionate about. You can be a piano-playing-lifestyle-blogger-who-also-paints and get admitted. You just have to DIG DEEPLY into those passions. You also don't need national or regional rankings to demonstrate excellence. You just really need passion and commitment...and a little 'out-of-the-box' thinking. This is ESPECIALLY true in today's society, where the world has gotten a lot more specialized.
This does not mean you can't have multiple interests. Most people do! But you should NOT feel the need to "do it all".
DEVELOP A "HOOK"
The word "hook" is tossed around often in the college admissions world. A hook is something extremely unique that sets you a part from other applicants. Maybe you're a nationally ranked gymnast or swimmer, maybe you've produced and sold 10,000 copies of a graphic novel, maybe you started a non-profit with 5 employees, maybe you created an app with 1000+ downloads. These are all incredibly ambitious things, but that's what a "hook is". A hook is something seriously impressive, and difficult to do -- but still within the realm of possibility for high school students.
No one is asking you to become the poet laureate. You don't have to be a genius, or particularly 'gifted'. Everyone has that exceptional component within them, but it's up to you to unlock it and put it to good use.
Ultimately, to get into the world's most prestigious universities...you have to SHOW how you are exceptional.
Do not strive to be well-rounded. Strive to be exceptional. Strive to be passionate.
However, you cannot *just* be passionate. You must find ways to turn those passions into achievement.
With exceptional achievement, and delving deeply, you will increase your chances of acceptance tenfold.
Sources: Article 1, Article 2