Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Move Your Application to the Top of the Pile

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” -Steve Martin.

admissionsmanwithpileWhile guiding suburban high school students in New Jersey and New York as they apply to college, I have become acquainted with many distinctive, talented adolescents. I have also observed many similarities, such as the colleges to which they gravitate and the fields of study that appeal to them. I can also imagine that college admissions counselors weed through hundreds of applications each year that must seem, to put it cynically, rather interchangeable.

I have written that the goal of college applicants should not be to entertain a bored admissions reader; if an admissions professional becomes too weary of reading about the typical experiences of adolescents, it may be time for a new line of work. But I do believe that the “sameness” factor represents an obstacle for the applicant. The burden is on the applicant to show why he or she can bring something truly unique to that college. In marketing, we call it “value-added,” something beyond offering a “me-too” product. That “value-added” attribute should be something the customer actually needs.

bballhoopCollege consultants often refer to “value-added” attributes as “hooks,” special qualities beyond strong grades and high test scores that help an applicant stand out from the crowd, addressing institutional needs for building an ideal class. Michelle Kretzschmar, creator of DIY College Rankings, has described three categories of admissions “hooks”  below:

1. “You’re Born with It” : This type of hook includes legacy students (i.e., one’s parents attended the college), development students (i.e., one’s family is making a significant endowment to the university), underrepresented minorities (e.g., African-American, Native American and Hispanic/Latino students), or first generation to attend college.

2. Individual or Family Investment: This category includes recruited athletes and full-pay students, who are also most likely to apply Early Decision.

3. Personal Initiative: This category includes students who uniquely meet a college’s institutional needs (e.g., attracting students for specific academic programs) and students who offer extraordinary accomplishments outside the normal high school range.

golfscholarshipIn her provocative book, The Dirty Little Secrets of Getting Into a Top College, educational consultant Pria Chatterjee identifies eight factors admissions officers use to determine the ideal class: race, geography, legacy, citizenship/nativity, family income level, academics/field of study, athletics, and extracurricular activity. She stresses that the first five factors are “givens” and an applicant only has control over the last three factors. I generally agree, although I do feel that an applicant has some control even regarding the first five factors.

“Given” Hooks the Applicant Does Not Control—But Can Tweak. With geography, for example, it is unlikely that a student’s family can move to South Dakota just to have a better chance of acceptance at an elite Northeast college that prides itself in attracting a student body from all fifty states. However, a student from New Jersey can apply beyond the Northeast Corridor “comfort zone,” to rising star colleges in other parts of the country that have a stated institutional goal of shifting from a regional to a national school. I have pointed out the wisdom of this hidden gem strategy in blog posts, such as “Don’t Follow the Lemmings.”

A student at workApplicants can also simply choose whether or not to use their “given” advantages. One does not have to check the optional box for (or write an essay about) one’s minority status, or apply to the institution his or her parents attended, or apply Early Decision (which favors families who do not need to choose between colleges based on merit awards). Every student’s philosophy and personal situation differ, but in today’s competitive application landscape, why not capitalize on one’s natural advantages? If you’ve got it, flaunt it!

Hooks the Applicant Can Control More Fully. This is where the applicant has tremendous choice. I have covered the athletics hook in a separate post, “Becoming a Recruited College Athlete–Or Not?” I describe how a college applicant can control the other two hooks below.

languagelearningIn the area of academics/field of study, the applicant should consider how to express one’s interests within the context of what an institution needs. Pria Chatterjee illustrates by listing the top fifteen chosen majors for Yale’s 2017 incoming classBiology, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, cognitive sciences, economics, econ/math, English, history, international studies, math, physics, political science, politics/econ, and psychology. She points out, however, that foreign language, art history, and the classics are notably absent. These academic departments have faculty, staff, offices and other administrative overhead; how can a university justify continued support of these liberal arts majors if not enough incoming students express interest in them? I have heard this phenomenon playfully called the “butts in the seats” rule: if a program has so many seats, it has a vested interest in filling them. I am not cynically suggesting that an applicant should express disingenuous interest in an unusual major (knowing it is not binding). One’s integrity should always be the rudder steering applications to college.

girlwithawardsMost students, however, simply do not put much thought into the box they check for intended major; they often have no idea what they want to major in anyway.  If a high school student is accomplished in foreign language, why check the typical catch-all box for international relations? There are too many IR majors and the U.S. Department of State does not have openings for that many diplomats! Why not express interest in a substantive foreign language major (e.g., Mandarin, Arabic, or Russian), with a minor in IR? How about a philosophy major with a minor in cognitive science, or a classics major with a minor in anthropology? Such twists in expression of interest make an applicant stand out, and to me, do not seem inauthentic.

roboticsMs. Chatterjee coins the phrase “Admissions Arbitrage by Field of Study,” and suggests applying against the grain in academic fields where there is a disproportionate difference in the participation rate of men and women. Fields dominated by women include: accounting, education, foreign languages, health careers (skewed by nursing), psychology, and social services. Fields dominated by men include: natural resources, computer science, and engineering. Time and again, I have seen the admissions advantage, and often merit scholarships, go to qualified women in STEM fields.

guywithmikeIn the area of extracurricular activities, a student has a great deal of choice, since it is all about individual effort. Pria Chatterjee stresses that only standout accomplishments in the arts or community service count as a true “hook.” She also points out that activities that go against gender or racial/ethnic stereotypes can help distinguish an applicant.  Cal Newport offers rich, original ideas in his bestseller, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), that help students to focus on (i.e., immerse oneself) in endeavors offering the opportunity to innovate and create meaningful accomplishments versus racking up a laundry list of “jack of all trades” activities. Professor Newport’s StudyHacks  blog should be a staple for college-bound high school students and their families.

boyalivebrainbookI cannot agree more with this quality versus quantity approach.  Jack Andraka, the high school sophomore who invented an early warning test for pancreatic cancer, did not need to check every activity box to be considered by elite colleges. I don’t know what else Kai Kloepfer did in high school, but I don’t care, because he invented a device that uses fingerprint sensors to prohibit anyone but certified users from firing a gun, to prevent children and teens from injuring or killing themselves after accidentally stumbling upon firearms. Arsh Shah Dilbagi developed an affordable, portable breath-to-speech device for speech-impaired or paralyzed individuals, such as those suffering with ALS. I am not curious about how many clubs he joined.

These young people became standout achievers, not by checking boxes, but by focusing on a breakthrough idea and making it happen. I am sure their college applications did not bore admissions officers; there will always be a place in institutions of higher learning for students who truly make a difference.