College Admissions: Let’s Go Dragon Slaying

Farah Weheba
Farah Weheba

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Good grades aren’t enough to drive admission to a top tier college. What sets you apart in college admissions is demonstrable weirdness. We’ll explain.

How Admissions Decisions Work

Good grades aren’t enough to drive admission to a top tier college. Instead, admissions decisions are actually driven by how unique a student is. This is because every applicant who makes it to the final deliberation already has good test scores, grades, letters of recommendation, etc. So what sets you apart is demonstrable weirdness.

Yeah, weird is good. Totally serious. 

Selective universities have too many students applying who are qualified for a super limited number of spots in their class; therefore, admissions committees are always looking to cut generic, duplicate, repeatable, or similar profiles.

Dragons With Several Heads

The first dragon to slay: academics and test scores.

Before you can level up for further consideration to a top 50 school, cover the basics. For instance, grade point average (GPA), rigorous classes taken, and high SAT/ACT scores are key.

Next, the two-headed dragon: strong and outstanding extracurricular activity.

Memorable stories; unique initiative and creative resourcefulness; demonstrable persistent drive and leadership over time; and self-awareness about your goals and mission statement; all of these are key here. In fact, these set some apart from other applicants who slayed the first dragon.

The three-headed dragon: memorable essays.

Your admissions officer is a person, not a bot. Essays that resonate with people are subjective, but creating a moving story about your growth as a person in a narrative form is pretty appealing. As a result, essays matter a lot. Essentially, it’s where you get to explain who you are. Essays only represent the final 25% of the overall admissions decision. This is the last impression and the closing argument to try to convince an admissions officer to argue to put your application through to the next round over another qualified applicant. 

Other Enchanted Obstacles

Your rec letters.

Optional alumni interviews can add to your profile too, if the interview goes well. It can hurt your chances if it doesn’t go well. Oddly, good interviews or letters of recommendation don’t add a ton to your chances of acceptance. But, a bad alumni interview (or a less than enthusiastic endorsement, in the form of a rec letter from a teacher who doesn’t know you very well)? Yes, these can hurt your chances of getting accepted. So, make sure you ask teachers who you’ve fostered strong relationships with and who have gotten to know you. Ask for letters of recommendation from teachers who really see you, and who you really appreciate as educators and have thrived under their teaching styles. Ask teachers who see you as a holistic and dynamic person with real academic drive, potential, and a curious mind.

Mishandled essays.

A student can also mishandle a controversial topic in their essays- if content comes off as entitled, blindly privileged, sexist, discriminatory, callous or prejudicial….that dragon would take your application out of the game. See our article Controversial Essay Topics for helpful tips on navigating some of these murky waters.

Admission to Schools Beyond Top 100

Outside of the Top 100 universities, importance placed on just the basics- dragon #1: academics and test scores- is more critical, while a unique extracurricular profile and unique essays become less necessary.

In Dragon-Slaying Summary….

  • If you are not admitted or are waitlisted, it may be because there is an applicant similar to you already represented within the applicant pool.
  • The best way to distinguish your application is to point out all of the most unique and remarkable aspects of yourself that are not likely to be duplicated on the admissions officer’s desk by another of your peers.

Working with an Empowerly counselor can help you position your personal brand and story in the most outstanding way, allowing your admissions potential to fully set sail.

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Questions? Let us know!