We’re all familiar with the following (all-too typical) admissions story: student X is at the top of their class, has perfect or near perfect SAT/ACT scores, is captain of two teams, is editor of the school newspaper…and doesn’t get in to their top choice schools. Everyone is left scratching their heads thinking, “Admissions is totally random,” “No one gets in anymore,” “It doesn’t make sense!” The truth, however difficult, is that it actually does make sense, and the proof is in the numbers. There are approximately 37,000 public and private high schools in the United States and presumably as many students, if not more, with scores of 1400 or better on their SATs, and with the same school activities, sports, student government and newspaper staff roles, etc. So it’s no surprise that those thousands of students all start to look the same. There really is no mystery then behind why many don’t gain acceptance to their top choice schools.
So, who actually has a shot at getting in to the more selective colleges and how can you be one of those competitive candidates? Putting hooks (legacy, athletic recruits, first generation college students) aside, given the sheer volume of students applying, the only candidates who have a fighting chance are the ones who do things that are not typical and that also show real commitment, impact, character and drive. These are the qualities that really stand out to an admissions committee.
A common misperception is that students need to have a special skill or talent or do something nearly impossible to get the attention of admissions officers - land a starring role on Broadway, qualify for the Olympics, discover a cure for a rare disease, or start a company. No doubt, there are always at least a few of these standouts at every highly selective college, but most kids don’t fall into these rarefied categories. Does this mean then that most students can’t stand out and therefore don’t have a chance? Definitely not! We believe that all students have the opportunity to stand out in the admissions process, regardless of the competitiveness of the school which they are applying to, without having a “hook” and without being a Broadway or Olympic superstar.
Here’s one of the the best kept secrets in college admissions - create your own community service project, start it early, and continue to grow it over your four years in high school. This is something that anyone can do and which does not require a special talent or skill or involve expensive lessons or money. This is not just about volunteering at an existing organization like the Red Cross or Relay For Life (those are great charities and you can do that too). This is about finding a cause that has meaning to you and figuring out how to make your own special impact. Creating your own project shows ingenuity, creativity, passion, leadership and most of all, the ability to commit to something, and follow through. The ideal time to launch your community service project is 9th grade (or earlier), giving you plenty of time to develop and grow it over your high school years and demonstrate your leadership abilities. Growth can mean expanding the scope of your project to impact more people, recruiting and leading more volunteers, raising more money, and/or developing new initiatives - sky’s the limit!
There are lots of places to get inspiration. Read about what other students have done to get ideas. Check out CNN Young Heroes or the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes and see what kids as young as elementary school are doing; brainstorm with family and friends; check out your local paper which will often feature articles of others in your community who are finding their own way to “pay if forward.” The ultimate goal is to come up with something that aligns with your passions and interests and helps to tell a story about what is important to you. And don’t be afraid to involve others. Most great initiatives take “a village” and you will gain invaluable experience learning to motivate a team, delegate roles and share in problem solving and success.
Colleges are looking for students who care and want to make a difference - not only in their school community but also in the surrounding community at large. Taking the initiative and creating a community service impact project will not only help you gain a leg up in college admissions but will give you the opportunity to meet new people, discover things about yourself, learn new skills and most of all create something that you can truly take pride in.
Good luck this application season!