10 Jan 2017

What Makes a Successful College Applicant?

College admissions is a tricky topic. A lot of students and parents in Thailand seem to have some misconceptions about what is required in order to get into a top tier school. For example, I had a student who recently got a 1460 on the SAT but the parent was worried it was not enough. He wanted his son to break 1500 so he requested that his son studies and takes the SAT until that happens. Granted, the son should take the SAT again (since this was only his first time taking it and I do think he can get higher). However, breaking 1500 is not going to significantly increase his chances of getting into a top tier school.

Let’s break down what makes for a successful candidate. First, I’ll use myself as an example. I hope this doesn’t come across as bragging, but I get asked often what schools I got into and what my background entails. Thus, I want to answer the question here and use it to further this discussion. With that said, most YPrep students know that I attended Yale for college (part of the reason for the Y in YPrep). Aside from Yale, I also applied to the following schools:

U. of Chicago
UC Berkeley
UCSB (Santa Barbara)

In total, there were 11 schools. I got into all of them except Princeton and Columbia. At the time, I was not too confident I was going to get into most of them and my main safety school was UCSB. In fact, I would not have applied to most of these schools if not for my friends and guidance counselor. My family didn’t know much about colleges and I was never pressured to apply to this many schools.

So what about my profile? Long after college was over, I did think about what made me more successful as an applicant than others. First, I did have the grades and extracurricular activities. I never had a B in high school until my last semester (which did not count towards college admissions). I played football in the fall season, wrestling in the winter, and baseball in the spring. For those three sports, I eventually became Captain in football and wrestling. I was president of Key Club, a volunteer organization in high school. And I also had a job at the mall working at Wetzel’s Pretzels.

As for my standardized test, I took the SAT three times. The first time I got a lowly 1160. The second time was a 1330. And finally, I got a 1510. The last score was nice, but my subject tests were terrible. I believe they were in the mid 600s, but my memory on them is hazy nowadays. I believe 3 was recommended at the time and I took Math Level 2, Writing (not then part of the regular SAT), and Physics.

Then there are these things called “intangibles” that I believe helped me. First, I was the son of an immigrant who will be the first in his family to go to college. I did not grow up with a lot of money so I worked throughout most of high school. A typical day would be morning workouts for sports at 7am, school until 2:10pm, fooball practice until 5:30pm, work until 8 or 9pm, and then home for food and homework. I outlined a lot of this in my application and I believe it was a major contributing factor.

While we’re on the topic of outlining your life, I also want to point out that it’s important to tell the correct story. Many students are quick to just throw in achievements and scores and never think about what type of overarching story to give. I didn’t have a lot of help with my essays because partly I was a procrastinator and partly because I didn’t have the resources. So I just wrote from the heart. I don’t recommend writing without having someone edit your essay, but I do believe you should write from the heart. Since I have rambled long enough, I won’t be getting into my essays today. That will have to be the topic of another article. For now, let’s summarize what we know.

To get into a top tier school, you’re going to need good grades. That’s a given. And if you don’t have superb grades, you’ll need a very high SAT score. However, admissions officers give slightly more weight towards better grades than a high SAT score. Furthermore, you need to have passion in something. You do not need a litany of ECs. I loved playing football and I wrote about it quite a bit in my essays. When you have a passion for something, it usually shines through. That leads to another factor – the admissions essay. When students are so similar to one another, the admissions essay could be a differentiating factor.

I want to end with the discussion on the parent mentioned in the opening paragraph. It’s not wrong to want the student to get above 1500. However, it is not as big a factor. Go look at the 25th-75th percentile range for SAT scores of your dream schools. If you’re within that range, you are now part of “the dance.” After that, it depends on other factors, among which is luck. There’s a reason Harvard doesn’t admit only those with perfect SAT scores and GPAs. They can easily fill their class with only those students. But they don’t. It can be said that there is a minimum threshold to reach “the dance” but once you’re a part of the party, it will be your other factors that determines the final outcome.

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