Myths and misconceptions surround the college admissions process. How “well-rounded” do I need to be? Do I have a chance at top schools if I don’t have a 4.0 GPA and perfect standardized test scores? What’s the secret formula to getting into these elite institutions?
Unfortunately, there is no secret formula to college admissions. In our years working with hundreds of students, however, we have noticed common characteristics among our most successful students. Top schools and elite institutions are looking for students that are academically gifted, emotionally intelligent self-starters, who make an impact on their community, and contrary to popular belief, students with a “hook,” or a singular focus.
How do I most effectively choose my high school courses?
Let’s start with arguably the most important factor in college admissions: academics. For top schools, applicants must demonstrate their academic competitiveness, and for good reason. Incoming freshmen to schools like Princeton or MIT can expect rigorous academics whose difficulty far exceeds the content of any high school AP or Honors course. Students who wish to prove their academic potential to top schools should understand that “course rigor” is a top consideration for college admissions, meaning that schools actively evaluate how rigorous a student’s transcript is compared to their peers. If taking 3-5 AP or Honors courses is considered rigorous at your high school, this is a good indicator that top schools (based on your school’s profile) will be aware of this and will actively look for students who have challenged themselves to such a degree academically throughout high school.
It’s important to note that course rigor should not be pursued at the expense of your grades. Students should not necessarily sign up for every advanced class they have the opportunity to take. For example, if a sophomore is already struggling in their pre-calculus class, it may not be the best idea to take AP Calculus their junior year. Students should prioritize courses directly related to their interests or potential college major, so if they are a humanities-geared student, their AP and honors classes can reflect their strengths in this subject.
Standardized testing: is it still required?
Testing is another incredibly important consideration in the process, though this changed slightly in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This past year saw schools implement “test-optional” and “test-blind” policies, though students should be aware that based on last year’s admissions statistics, “test-optional” schools overwhelmingly admitted students with test scores. At Georgetown, for example, 93% of students admitted early had submitted test scores. This means that unless a school is fully test-blind, it will work to your advantage to submit a strong ACT or SAT test score. We recommend that students take a diagnostic exam for each of these tests to determine which exam is a better fit for them. There is no advantage to taking one exam over the other, but there are a few key differences between the exams. For example, the ACT is more of a time crunch and includes a science section, while the SAT does not. Students should expect to take the exam a couple of times before achieving their goal score, and should aim to complete all of their testing before the end of their junior year.
How do I find my hook?
Outside of testing and academics, which are relatively straightforward components of the process, there are extracurriculars, which are certainly not. We mentioned earlier that schools are looking for students with a “hook,” or a singular focus, so what exactly does this mean?
Contrary to popular belief, colleges are not looking for “well-rounded” students who are engaged with several subjects and interests and have pursued each of them to some degree. In our work with students, we found that the most successful applicants all had one thing in common: a hook. This hook, simply put, is an authentic interest or a passion that a student has pursued and developed for a significant period of time. This does not mean joining Model United Nations for a semester, but rather, joining it in freshman year, excelling in it and securing leadership positions later on in high school, and then even starting your own civic engagement or political side project outside of school.
A hook is what makes an applicant stand out and convinces colleges that they would be a unique, valuable addition to their campus. Regardless of what specific hook you choose to develop, it must be something that you’re authentically passionate about or have a track record of being involved with. Hooks are strongest when students develop an interest that continually grows throughout high school into leadership roles and extracurricular involvement. We recommend that students take some time considering their passions, skills, and existing interests to brainstorm potential passion projects that can serve as a strong indicator of their hooks.
The college admissions process is not a perfect nor entirely meerut-based process, whoever there are definite steps that students can take to maximize their chances of standing out to admissions committees across the nation.