When Grades and Test Scores Aren’t Enough

Myth:  Since two equally well qualified students applied to Elite U. and one got in and the other didn’t, that means admission to a highly selective university is all about random luck.

Fact:  The more elite the school, the more they have their pick among remarkably well qualified students.  The reality is, a large percentage of the kids who apply to Princeton or MIT are capable of succeeding academically at those schools, but only a small fraction are offered admission.  So how do college admissions officers decide among all those highly qualified students?  Do they just draw names out of a bowl at random?  Do they throw applications down the stairs to see where they land?


Admissions officers are taking a holistic view of each applicant – meaning they are trying to get a sense of who you are as a person.  Yes, your transcripts and test scores are extremely important – you’re probably not getting into Harvard with mediocre grades in easy classes and lackluster SAT scores.  But when it comes down to choosing among kids who were their class valedictorian and had perfect test scores, how does an admissions officer decide who gets in and who doesn’t?

Admissions officers at elite schools are looking to build an intellectual community, not just fill up their freshman class.  They want to see what you are going to bring to the table as a member of that community.  Are you going to make thoughtful and intelligent contributions to your seminar classes?  Do you have a special talent or skill that will enrich the social and cultural life of the institution?  Do you have a remarkable or unusual life story that will help others on campus see the world from a different perspective?  Are you going to follow your intellectual interests by assisting a professor with groundbreaking or cutting edge research?

How do admissions officers know if you will be a great addition to the university’s community?  They look to see if your passions and interests come alive in your application.  When they read your essay and your recommendations, do you “step off the page,” as a fully formed, interesting and engaging individual?  Or do you read like a stereotype of an overachiever who studies hard not because she loves learning, but because she likes getting all As?  So if your application reads like you just study and pursue extracurricular activities in order to be successful and get into a good school, you aren’t making the best case for your admission to an elite university.  Remember, you aren’t just trying to convince the admissions officers that a degree from Elite U. is the next step on your path to personal success, you want them to believe you will be a great addition to their community.

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Election (c) 1999 Paramount Pictures.


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