Look, every article about cadging some slight advantage in the dog-eat-dog world of highly competitive college admissions seems to argue that the path to acceptance calls for academic perfection, seasoned with just the right (and credible) pinch of sacrifice in the service of others, leavened by accounts of gritty resilience, expressed in compelling and original prose.
Of the more than 34,000 applicants who tossed their hats into Harvard’s pool this year, roughly 2,000 made the cut. Even more chillingly unwelcoming was Stanford, accepting 4.7% of 43,997 applicants. Almost 70% of applicants with perfect scores are denied admission at Stanford. As an article in the Washington Post suggests, “Applied to Harvard or Stanford? You probably didn’t get in.”
Eleven undergraduate programs accepted fewer than 10% of applicants: Stanford (4.7), Harvard (5.2), Columbia (6.0), Yale (6.3), Princeton (6.5), Chicago (7.6), MIT (7.8), Caltech (7.9), Brown (9.0), Penn (9.4), Pomona (9.2), and Claremont McKenna (9.4), and Duke (9.8)
Under 20%? In order of selectivity in 2016 are the following: Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Swarthmore, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Amherst, Cornell, Bowdoin, Tufts, Washington University, Cal Berkeley, Middlebury, Georgetown, Williams, Notre Dame, and Davidson.
The ferocity of competition may come as no surprise, but it may be time to consider what some admissions folks call, the “Q” factor. I am not suggesting that quirkiness makes up for a sloppy academic profile or comatose avoidance of all activities or occasions for giving service; all of the familiar hurdles are still in place. I am suggesting that, in addition to grit, there may be room for estimation of animation, imagination, and character. In a world in which all good students fuzzily blend into a remarkable but indistinguishable mass, oddly compelling persona characteristics may cause an exhausted reader to pause, appreciate, and remember a candidate.
Most students believe they have to sell themselves in a college essay, and they are not entirely wrong. But, if the pitch sounds similar to thousands of other highly effective and responsible students, the essay may not have the impact the applicant intends. The best applications allow others to offer substantiation of the student’s abilities. Teachers, coaches counselors, and others can provide specific examples of qualities the candidate brings to the prospective college. A canny college admissions officer wants more. What makes this kid different from the rest? What attitudes, experiences, or convictions makes this applicant rise to the top of the pile?
There are some bad, very bad, ideas that find their way into college essays. They can be to revealing, too snarky, too self-satisfied, too long, too angry, too cute, too pathetic. The successful quirky application is that it avoids the cliched tropes that drive admissions professionals to consider self-harm: The last shot/goal in the championship game, the amazing trip to a really poor, hygenically challenged country, the satisfaction of seeing children’s faces light up when you walk through hospital corridors, the explanation for the A- in Calculus, the admiring tribute to the college’s founder. No, an original application offers the admissions officer a chance to evaluate creativity, intelligence, insight, courage, and authenticity. Successful applications no not feel contrived; there’s an aura of spontaneous invention that arrives with the application.
It is no accident that numbers of competitive colleges and universities have been encouraging the submission of videos for more than five years. In the past season, a wider path opened. Consider the admissions officer hitting a single page of a graphic novel with the reach and depth of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,- A Family Tragicomic.
Imagine the exhausted admissions officer. It’s midnight. Sixty lightly perused essays describing last shot/last score in championship games, exotic travel, embarrassing prom mishaps, and self-congratulatory tales of service to the needy lie on the floor. He/she picks up a single page of a graphic novel that lays bare a family’s character while demonstrating the author’s self-awareness. And, it breaks the monotony of combing essays for a spark of invention or character.
Dare to have some fun with the application, recognizing that it will be used in the evaluation of your “fit” at the colleges to which you apply. Take a chance, but don’t force it. Genuine and lucid wins the day.