As admit rates for elite colleges and universities across the country continue to plummet year after year, you might find yourself wondering (particularly if you’re a college-bound high school student yourself), what exactly it is that these schools are looking for, anyway. They want smart, hardworking candidates, but at the same time, they famously reject plenty of valedictorians and place the files of perfect SAT score recipients in the “deny” pile — probably with a diabolical smirk. They want individuals who enrich the lives of people in their communities, but if you think hundreds of hours of volunteering dutifully cataloged in your planner will write you into Stanford, think again. They want teenagers who have distinguished themselves outside of the classroom, but while your mom might beam over your varsity tennis letter, it’s less likely to have the same impact on Duke’s Dean of Admissions (hi, Christoph Guttentag!)
Here’s where this blog post takes a turn and begins to closely mirror a dating advice column. As our mothers and well-intentioned great aunts have oft said, trying too hard to impress someone else means playing a game you’re likely to lose nine times out of ten. We don’t mean that it never works at the outset. You might be able to convince the literature-loving girl in your homeroom that your ideal Friday night involves a cup of Earl Grey and some Audre Lorde, just as how you might, after at least a couple of years of cancer-promoting stress and one too many sleepless nights spent pouring over a chemistry textbook (when you’d rather be doing literally anything else — like herding some sheep), be able to convince a school that’s entirely wrong for you that you should be among its incoming freshmen.
But parading around as anyone other than who you actually are is an exhausting charade, and it’s bound at some indeterminable point to crumble more quickly than a Scottish shortbread.
So what’s the practical advice here? If you think about it a little more, what admissions officers really want makes a whole lot of sense. It’s what you would want, too, if you were trying to build a class and a community out of thousands and thousands of high-achieving 17 year-olds. They want people who are curious rather than simply eager-to-please, who think deeply about the world around them and question what they see rather than merely accepting it. They want people who are driven to succeed on their own terms as much as anyone else’s, who feel very strongly about a few things instead of lukewarm about many. They want people who genuinely want to share what they know and care about — with the rest of the world, yes, maybe one day. But in the more immediate sense, with their roommate over some really tasty pho, or with their seminar professor, or with the guy down the hall with a strange affinity for stockpiling empty Domino’s pizza boxes (hi, Ben!)
You can be precisely what elite colleges want, but — and here’s the catch — you’ll have a much better time of it and likely be more successful in a very tangible sense if you try not to. We don’t mean showing up to your SAT on four hours of sleep because you followed your inner voice and it led you to a raucous Bon Jovi concert the night before. We do mean reading and listening to things you find interesting. We mean making art if you want to make art and stargazing if you’d rather contemplate the vastness of our solar system and creating an Instagram account for the Russian voodoo dolls you make by hand. We mean having the courage to follow what pulls you and the self-awareness to politely but firmly reject everything else (the very writer of this article received at least 4 Bs — the horror — in advanced STEM courses in high school, and guess what? It didn’t matter! In fact, an admissions officer at the top 10 school she eventually attended told her that it was really cool that she had instead focused so much time and attention on the non-STEM thing that she really loved and actually wanted to pursue in college and beyond!)
All said, it’s annoying and probably even vaguely condescending advice. But the thing is, it works. In order to be a person colleges want, you don’t have to become an unhappy, sleep-deprived zombie with a strong sense of whatyou should be doing but a very weak sense of whyyou should be doing it. In fact, they (and we) would rather you didn’t. Focus unabashedly on the interesting, unique, and downright strange things that draw you in and infuse your young life with energy and purpose. The rest is noise.