There’s no magic formula for getting into a selective college, but over a decade covering admissions for The Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve picked up a thing or two. These takeaways, based on hundreds of interviews with admissions deans over the years, may help you navigate the process.
Admissions decisions aren’t all about you.
When colleges choose applicants, they’re juggling competing goals, like increasing diversity and bringing in more revenue. Admissions officers aren’t looking for students who fit just one description — say, those who’ve earned all A’s or won the most awards. So don’t take rejection personally.
Grades and test scores still carry the most weight.
Colleges often say they want to get to know the real you, but that’s probably true only if your academic accomplishments (and the rigor of courses you’ve taken) pass muster.
You’re more than a number.
After colleges identify a big batch of students with outstanding credentials, differences among them become more important, admissions deans say. Among some of the attributes they tell me they would like to see evidence of (in essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations) are: leadership, risk taking, emotional intelligence, fire for learning, critical thinking, curiosity, empathy, optimism, grit, perseverance and the ability to overcome obstacles.
Express your authentic self.
Overwhelmed by slick, boastful essays, colleges are eager for what they call “authentic” glimpses of applicants — their experiences, passions and goals. Some deans believe they’ll get deeper insight through alternative formats like videos, pictures, audio files or documents (an Advanced Placement English paper, maybe). A handful of prestigious schools, including Yale, the University of Chicago, Pomona College, Reed College and the University of Rochester, recently introduced this option. As with essays, too much polish is no good, deans say, so you might think twice about hiring a professional videographer. At Yale, about 400 applicants (out of nearly 33,000) for this year’s freshman class sent in something in an alternative format. In at least one case, the submission — a video showing leadership and impact on others — was, the dean told me, a “difference maker.”