Why Colleges Value Authentic Not Competitive Candidates

gift box wrapped with ribbon left on table
Anirudh Kumar
Anirudh Kumar

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

It can feel like a zero sum game: the stress of senior year and the college applications process. And there’s no question about it: high-tier colleges get more and more selective each year. We see a pattern emerge. Schools select from the best applicants; more students strive to be the best; schools select even higher-quality applicants; and the deadly cycle continues. This creates an environment where top-notch schools admit tiny fractions of tens of thousands of students. Want to know how serious this is? After assessing the problem, Empowerly posits that being authentic, not competitive, in college applications may perform better.

Take a look at the chart below (by Inklings News) for an emerging trend in admissions. Notice how even as record numbers of students apply to schools, smaller and smaller proportions of them are taken in? Also notice how this applies to a breadth of various kinds of schools, not just big names like Harvard?

Considering another great school like Stanford? Only if you think you belong in the top 5%! (To put that into perspective, you’d have to best about 41,934 other students out of a total pool of 43,997!) Now that so many teens fight for the highest possible grades, work multiple jobs, join countless student organizations, and regularly take initiative in their respective communities…

A single question likely lingers in the minds of students such as yourself: “How can I possibly stand out now?” It may seem hopeless considering the lengths that almost all college-aspiring teens are willing to go to this days, but there’s one quality that can greatly improve your chances (and doesn’t require you overworking yourself either). Aim to be authentic in your choices, not just hyper competitive.

Here’s the thing; colleges know just as well as you do that intelligent and active applicants are all over the place. The trick? Take a step back from the chaotic world of admissions and make sure you’re an authentic applicant, not an overly competitive one. Schools like Stanford and Yale are packed with geniuses who had 4.0 GPAs, 2400 SATs, and multiple awards from academic competitions while in high school. What these schools lack and desire may surprise you.

Real Life Experience

I’ll offer a tale of two people; myself and a friend of mine (who we’ll call Jack). Jack was king of the school; he had perfect grades, stellar test scores, was on the varsity team for two sports, was the president of three (three!) school clubs, and clocked in over 200 hours of community service. And then there was me; I definitely had decent grades and test scores, but I was hardly involved in as many programs as Jack. Instead, I focused on what I liked doing and put my heart, not brain, into my activities (I was a soccer referee, loved helping out at the animal shelter, and messed around with the stock market in my free time). In other words, he was going out of his way to have colleges notice him, and I was just being me.

Fast forward to senior year: I got into my dream college while Jack was rejected. Was he more athletic than me? Probably. Was he smarter? No doubt. Was he all over the place when it came to volunteering events? Yep. But did he have what colleges look for? The answer, surprisingly, is no (he definitely got into a good number of schools, just not a few of the higher-ranked universities).

The key difference was that my application focused on my passion, not my ability to work ruthlessly. My essays clarified that I really loved investing in stocks, and my descriptions of working at the shelter could make any admissions officer see my appreciation for animals. There’s a fine line between being competitive and authentic; after reading hundreds and perhaps thousands of applications, evaluators can spot the difference between someone who’s going out of their way to pad their application and someone who takes a legitimate passion and applies it to his or her efforts.

Jack was a good friend of mine, and I knew for a fact that he wasn’t at all interested in the sports he was participating in, and two of the three clubs he was “president” of were hardly clubs at all; they were created on the spot during his last year in high school to strengthen the “experiences” section on his application.


Now before you start celebrating not having to care about school anymore because you’re a very passionate person, think again. Having a heart and being honest about yourself in college admissions is definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s hardly an end-all solution. Having state-recognized medals in swimming won’t mean much if you’re failing your classes,. And at the same time, a 4.0 GPA is next to nothing if you’ve dedicated your entire life to studying and nothing else. The solution is to strike the perfect balance — be an individual that not only excels (or at least works hard) in academics, but one that supplements his or herself with initiative and passion. Only when you paint yourself as someone authentic and successful will you be considered the ideal college applicant.  

In her article “The Right Way to Pitch Yourself to a School”, Linda Kulman cites university dean Jim Jump as he says, “If you’re not in the [academic] ballpark, extracurriculars aren’t going to get you in… [unless], perhaps, you’ve won the Nobel Prize or have your own sitcom.” Notice how even for students who have won a Nobel Prize or have their own sitcom, they may only “perhaps” be admitted — it’s extremely important to be well-rounded in an age when just about anyone can accomplish any one feat.

A good way to think about it: your passion is the core to all of your accomplishments. Imagine a burger made of many ingredients (lettuce, buns, meat, tomatoes, etc); you may find that the meat is the core and best-tasting part of this burger, but when you take all the tomatoes and buns and lettuce and sauce away, you’ll find yourself with a plain and dull boring piece of meat. In this analogy, consider your passion to be the “meat” of your application, the ultimate binding (but not independent) ingredient.

The Takeaway

The point? If you’re doing your best in academics and extracurriculars, a round of applause for you; having been in high school just two years ago, I know firsthand how tough it can be. Just remember to take a second and ask yourself whether what you’re doing really matters to you, not colleges.

Of course, that doesn’t mean completely letting go of academics in favor of personal activities. Pride yourself in enjoying your activities because at the end of the day, admissions officers want people, not robots. “Dare to be yourself” — you may have heard this before, but it’s meaning is extremely applicable when it comes to college admissions.

It may seem really easy to just add a few “extra” things to your application (whether they be lies or hastily-added experiences from high school), hence explaining why you must “dare to be yourself”, with an emphasis on the “dare.” Put simply, it requires courage to just tell the truth about yourself, but fear not. You may find yourself heavily rewarded for leaning into an authentic, not competitive, experience when results come around.

Questions? Let us know!