How to Get into Good College
Allan Zhao | 2013
When I visited Brooklyn Technical High School, students repeatedly asked for my SAT score and wanted to know about the admission standards of top-tier universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I explained that academic credentials form a sizable part of the application because academic excellence in high school is correlated to college success. In fact, strong SAT scores provide evidence of sound test-taking skills, while difficult coursework and stellar GPAs reflect strong work ethics. However, I also stressed that annually there are thousands of students who best 2300 on the SAT and have high GPAs. It would be unrealistic for highly competitive universities to accept students solely based on academic credentials. Thus, admission officers must look beyond just scores and grades to determine whether you are a good match for the school.
Admission officers consider your application as a whole, dissecting each part to understand the applicant—you—better. Your essay and free response writing, for example, should not only accurately reflect your personality and interests, but, more importantly, what truly matters to you. It is thus vital to use your own voice without worrying about what admission officers would like to read. To develop the clearest voice possible and to eliminate careless errors in your writing, it’s strongly advised to start your applications early, so you have ample time to craft your application and a few people to correct obvious grammatical errors. However, you should not ask others to make substantial change in content because doing so would not reflect your worldview. Lastly, check whether you followed the instructions: never submit extra materials unless you believe these materials will help you tremendously. Likewise, never leave items blank. Submitting an errorless application shows your sincerity, which increases your chances of admission.
Additionally, your teachers’ recommendations have significant weight in your application, because they provide an accurate third-party perspective of you. You should seek personalized recommendations from teachers who truly know you – not necessarily from teachers who gave you good grades. Therefore, you should maintain a good relationship with at least two teachers. For example, during my high school sophomore year, I volunteered as a pre-calculus tutor for my English teacher’s student during my lunch period. After one semester, my student’s math grade skyrocketed by two full letter grades. My decision to sacrifice my lunch period not only helped my student achieve a higher grade in mathematics, but also secured me a glorious recommendation letter from my English teacher a few years later. Moreover, teachers are reluctant to write poor recommendation letters, as a generic recommendation letter can only diminish the candidate’s chances. This is something strong candidates have to be wary of.
Colleges also consider how you spent your high school years. Strength in your high school curriculum, which includes multiple advanced placement classes, greatly attests to your willingness to challenge yourself. Your extracurricular activities also hold much weight because colleges want to see that you engaged with your school and community’s resources while coping with stressful high school coursework. Colleges don’t blindly admit one-dimensional students who only study; they accept balanced students who can provide value to their institutions. Most importantly, colleges are attracted to candidates who devote a lot of time to make a tremendous impact in one area, not the ones who contribute a little in multiple areas. Therefore, it is much preferred to obtain a leadership position in a club than to spend time on multiple useless resume-padding activities, as many students sadly tend to do.
Being gifted in some way – musically, artistically, academically, athletically– can single-handedly affect your admission decision. However, for your special talent to sway an officer’s decision, it must satisfy the institution’s needs such that the university can overlook your application’s weaknesses. Personally, I was a highly successful math competitor in high school. I was a USAMO qualifier multiple times, led the NYC A team to a first place victory at the 2008 ARML, and captained the A team during my senior year. Ultimately, my NYC A teammates and I were accepted to top-tier colleges, such as Harvard and MIT. Our strength in mathematics satisfied these institution’s needs, causing them to ignore some of our shortcomings on the SATs. Being gifted is a long-term work-in-progress, because demanding coursework in high school is a huge limiting factor.
Finally, there are factors that few people have control over. Some colleges, especially Ivies, give special considerations to legacy students – applicants who have familial relationship to an alumnus or reputable staff of that institution. For instance, Harvard accepts 30% of its legacy applicants while accepting merely 7% of other applicants. Furthermore, many colleges have lowered admission standards for under-represented minorities to create diversity.
The college admissions process is a marathon. Ultimately, whether you are admitted into a college or university is based on chance. Every advantageous factor increases your chances of getting into your dream school. However, there is no certainty in life – success is often 90% luck and 10% skill. People often ask why certain colleges don’t accept them. Oftentimes, it’s not because they lacked the credentials—it’s because they lacked a compelling reason for these schools to accept them.