By: Isabelle Mokotoff
Ever since I’ve entered the second semester of my senior year, I’ve spent a decent chunk of my time reflecting on my high school experience. And, if I had to identify my one biggest regrets, it would be the amount of time I wasted stressing over the minutiae of my academic and extracurricular life that, in the end, truly didn’t matter in my college application process. I’m writing this article with exactly a month of hindsight under my belt (on December 13th I was admitted to my first-choice university – Northwestern, go cats!) and, with 80% of our spartans college-bound, I’m willing to bet that a large chunk of my readership would appreciate an article which navigates the sometimes tumultuous college application landscape. So, I will attempt to do just that in this article: lay out the DOs and DON’Ts of the application process from the vantage point of a recently accepted senior.
While cumulative grade point average (GPA), standardized test scores, and rigor of one’s course load undoubtedly play an integral role in the application process, they aren’t factors that make an applicant stand out anymore. The vast majority of students applying to a university today have quantitative data that fits within that university’s “Middle 50%” data (the middle 50% is a range, specifically the range of scores between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile for the given group), as opposed our parents’ generation when these factors made applicants stand out. In fact, “in 1988, the acceptance rate for Columbia University was 65%; as of 2014, it’s 7%.” Columbia’s decreasing acceptance rate isn’t an anomaly: you’d be hard-pressed to find a college that has steadily raised their acceptance rate in the recent past. This displays a common truth of the college application process – as the strength of the average applicant increases, admissions rates drop. With these conditions, it’s important for high school students to note that good grades and test scores are now perceived as a minimum requirement to meet rather than a reason to admit a student.
So, the question arises: what can you do to make yourself an attractive applicant? I wouldn’t be surprised if being the stereotypical “well-rounded applicant” immediately came to mind for much of my readership. And so, it is at this point, dear readers, that I must politely call your bluff. The idea of the “well-rounded applicant” is a pithy strategy packaged in poorly-chosen words. If you unearth and pursue the original intent of this grossly misnomered concept, I’m quite confident you’ll be successful in the college application process. However, most high school students (my younger self included) will interpret the idea of “well-rounded” incorrectly. Being well-rounded doesn’t mean you dabbled a little bit in every concentration available to you throughout your high school career. Instead, it means becoming an alluring applicant both academically and personally. The academically alluring portion is, as aforementioned, pretty straightforward and quantitative; you’ll find that you end up looking pretty similar to tens of thousands of other applicants. This is why you need to show your college you’re more than just a solid GPA or test score. Sustained interest in a few activities that are important to you and lend well toward your intended major make you look put together and help you build a personal brand by which admissions officers will hopefully remember you among the sea of other applicants (Pro tip: try to expressly incorporate this personal brand into your personal statement or supplementary essays for extra emphasis). For example, my personal brand was being a “word-based bridge-builder”. In multiple supplemental essays, I discussed using my journalism experience to “tackle tough-to-talk-about topics and encourage medicinal conversations” among varying faith-based and ethnic groups. As you can see from the list below, my activities bolstered the truth behind my essay. I didn’t list all the activities I completed (such as the three National Honors Societies) because I did not feel as if they were a meaningful contribution to my resume; although they might sound impressive, I had no leadership role in any of those organizations and I didn’t believe they were “on brand”.
My Activities List:
- Journalism Intern for American Jewish Committee Atlanta
- Managing Editor of The Oracle (School Newspaper)
- Participant of the School of The New York Times Summer Academy
- Student Advisory Board Member of Georgia Scholastic Press Association (GSPA)
- Three-time Chapter Board Member of Jewish Youth Organization (BBYO)
- Participant of American Jewish Committee’s Leaders For Tomorrow Program
- Intern for The Sandy Springs Reporter Newspaper
- Participant of Model UN
- Junior Class Treasurer of Student Government Association 2019-20
- Participant of North Springs Student Advisory Committee
Quick side-bar: Don’t fret if you are applying undecided, colleges understand that a decent chunk of 17/18-year-olds have no idea what they want to do with their life. However, I still believe building some sort of personal brand, even if it doesn’t relate to your ultimate career path, makes you a more compelling applicant because it shows that you have some sort of handle of who you are as a budding adult.
It’s also important to note that the application process isn’t “cookie-cutter” for every school; different application strategies should be applied to different schools. Some schools (like UNC) will value a lighthearted and funny essay, while other schools (like Georgetown) prefer scholarly essays. To determine which tones you should take for each school, a good rule of thumb is to always dissect their prompts before beginning an essay. Take a look at these prompts below and test if you can decipher the disparities in tone and diction:
UNC – What is one thing that we don’t know about you that you want us to know?
Georgetown – What does it mean to you to be educated? How might Georgetown College help you achieve this aim? (Applicants to the Sciences and Mathematics or the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics should address their chosen course of study).
Other schools take another approach altogether; I wouldn’t be surprised if UGA never even read my essay. UGA clearly puts greater emphasis on GPA and standardized test scores than on qualitative factors like essays. And of course, there are other qualitative components of applications like interviews, teacher recommendations, and demonstrated interest that can factor into your admissions decision. Tulane has made it unequivocally clear that they are greatly concerned with these factors, while it seems as if UT Austin couldn’t care less. But the bottom line remains: when applying to colleges, it’s integral to understand what factors each specific school values and master those elements.
Hope these tips were helpful, good luck Spartans!