More Thoughts on Highly Selective Colleges

I recently wrote a post about academic competitiveness, an issue that is (or should be) important to high-performing students and their parents – especially those interested in highly selective colleges  The choices you make in high school – both in and out of the classroom – will be scrutinized by college admissions officers looking for that “something” that makes you stand out from their very talented pool of applicants.

I am frequently asked what “well-rounded” means.  Part of the problem is that it means different things for different students, depending on their interests and talents.  It does NOT mean that you are really good at lots of things – a Junior Olympic swimmer, a black belt in Karate, certified in CPR and first violin in your state’s academic all-star band.  No college expects you to do all of these things at that very dedicated level of involvement.  However, highly selective colleges are interested in learning what you are deeply interested in – what you are passionate about – and how you have spent your time in pursuit of those passions.

Take a few minutes and read (or listen) to this story that recently aired on WBUR about how students spend their non-classroom/homework time.

One of my colleagues recently attended a professional seminar at which Columbia’s Admissions Director spoke.  She wrote a brief summary of his key points:

  • Angular/niche applicants are on the rise (see comment below about my conversation with a Princeton admissions officer)
  • Colleges are feeling pressure to admit greater numbers of low income and first generation applicants
  • Supplemental essays are tremendously important – there is no substitute for strong writing with a genuine student voice
  • The need to demonstrate “match” is also very important (related to above – you have to be able to tell them why THEIR school is a great match for you, not just why you are going to college – and you need to be able to express that well in writing)
  • Independent intellectual curiosity is important – this means going above and beyond what is offered to you in school.

With regard to the “angular/niche” issue – I heard a Princeton admissions representative refer to these applicants as “pointy” – as in, if you are not well-rounded, you are pointy.  But keep in mind that pointy applicants to top schools are VERY pointy – they actually are Olympic-caliber athletes, or concert musicians, or inventors with patents or already-working actors.  If you are going to choose the angular route, you need to realize the very talented pool in which you will find yourself.

So what does all of this mean to you?

  • Get good grades and keep them as high as you can
  • Choose hard courses – Honors and APs
  • Take supplemental courses at your local community college if you can
  • Take an interesting course related to your area of interest over the summer
  • Volunteer in a way that is connected to your interests (Are you an environmentalist?  Find a local group and help them plant trees, or collect recyclables, or clean the beach – and do this more than once!)
  • Start looking at colleges early, and visit as many as you can, so you can understand why you fit well there
  • Write a summary after each college visit about why it’s a good match for you

For students interested in applying to highly selective colleges, realize that there are many of them and they are different from each other.  Dartmouth is not like Yale is not like Cornell, and none of those are like Princeton.  Look beyond the name and think about each one as a unique place.  Then think about why that place is the right place for you!

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