The modern day 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score student is no longer impressive.
Back then, the Ivy Leagues had a rubric called an Academic Index that was used to rank students according to their academic profile on the basis of their GPA, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Exam scores. Stronger scores and more exams would correlate to a higher Academic Index, which would be one of the factors for admission. In addition, the extracurricular profile would get assigned a graded score (for some schools it was on a scale of 1-5, or 1-10), and that score would be assigned to the candidate as well.
But over the course of the past few years, the bar has been raised significantly and the standards for admission have evolved tremendously. The Academic Index is no longer relevant, and in its place is a rubric that requires much higher standards to demonstrate academic proficiency. Whereas a top academic index would simply mean top grades and test scores, nowadays that’s no longer the case. Too many students have 4.0’s and strong SAT scores to make those academic stats the norm, and instead you now have to do much more on top of that to get in.
The same goes for extracurricular activities. Back then, being involved in school activities and well-rounded was enough to merit a strong extracurricular score. But now, the standards are much higher and you need stronger ingredients to get in. It’s not unusual to see high school students with anywhere from 10-15 different extracurriculars on their resume (15!? How on earth do you do 15 activities, you might ask?) on their application to demonstrate the degree of their involvement.
As a consultant who has consistently placed students into the top universities every year, I understand both the level of competition and academic/extracurricular profile that is required to gain a spot at these coveted universities. While certainly I will evaluate a student’s course selection and standardized test taking schedule, what’s more important is developing a strong academic and extracurricular profile for the student so that the applicant can compete against the country’s best and brightest.
For a math and science student, it may mean qualifying for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), or entering into the prestigious Intel Science and Engineering Fair, for example. For a student in the humanities, it may mean placing a spot at the Telluride Association Summer Program, or earning a 1st place award in a competition within Model United Nations, for instance. The national competitions are what separate the boys from the men, or girls from the women – not merely grades and test scores.
The problem becomes thus two fold:
Are students and parents aware or knowledgeable of these outside academic competitions or extracurricular activities that would increase a student’s chances at acceptance?
How do you begin to prepare for these competitions or gain a leadership position in these extracurricular activities to increase your odds of success?
Sometimes, I will meet parents and students in their senior year with only strong grades and test scores and maybe 2-3 awards, and they think that their child who has a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score is going to Harvard. Well, you’re in for some tough luck because it’s too late to compete in those national competitions. At that point, it’s a matter of padding your extracurricular activities which you can still accomplish, as well as writing strong personal statements and application.
You still have a shot at getting in, of course, but at a diminished probability due to lack of awareness of taking advantage of all those opportunities outside of the standard requirements of admission in GPA and standardized test taking. In the college admissions world, if you really want the best shot at getting in, all the stars have to align.
During our consultations,I guide the student onexactly the steps and strategies needed to perform well at these regional and national academic competitions and earn a leadership positions in these targeted extracurriculars. We ensure that no stone gets left unturned, and no opportunity gets left out depending on the student’s interests and intellectual capabilities, whether in the humanities or the math/sciences.
In the college admissions world, there are certainly high impact activities and low impact activities. A seasoned admissions consultant like myself understands the difference among the opportunity set of activities, and sets expectations and priorities straight for my students so that they know exactly the path to pursue and the activities to tackle to make them competitive in the eyes of the admissions officers.
Just to give an example, let’s take the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), for instance. Many students prepare early on to qualify for this national competition, which would dramatically raise your academic profile in the eyes of the admissions officers.
So how do you go about getting a research internship?
How do you know which research project to take on?
How do you write your research paper to increase your odds of getting an award?
These are just some of the common questions that I guide my students through – and this is just for one competition. The truth of the matter is that there are literally hundreds of competitions, and understanding ho how to take advantage of these opportunities while effectively maximizing your resources in terms of time and effort to achieve these milestones plays a tremendous role in my quarterly consultations that I have with my private consulting clients.
Over the course of our time together, it’s common for some of the email correspondences with my clients to span over 100 emails per given year, including questions about how to raise their academic and extracurricular profile, essays to summer programs, as well as college applications, depending on the year the students joins. That’s how closely I work with my students to help them get into the university of their dreams.
And while I often emphasize the importance of the personal statement to get in (and still do), the weaker the grades, scores, and extracurriculars, the lower the chances – that’s without a doubt. I’ve had a much easier time getting a strong student academically and extracurricular-wise than a student who is weaker.
For weaker students, the personal statement may sometimes be enough to sway the minds of the admissions officers, and that’s where we really shine and I know I am going above and beyond to help the candidate. I’ve always said the weakest student I’ve ever helped get into an Ivy League university had a 3.3 unweighted GPA and a subpar SAT score. Like I said, it has happened before but it’s much harder to accomplish.
Parents and students who think that a 4.0 and 1600 SAT score (while it sounds great in a dinner table conversation with friends and family) are enough to get into a top university are in for a huge surprise. Because those stats are no longer considered impressive in the eyes of the admissions committee – those stats are considered very average. In fact, there were 12,000 students who applied to Stanford last year with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
In today’s digital era, the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score student 10-15 years ago means accomplishingmuch more todayand requires much higher standards to be considered truly competitive and creme of the crop. Given extremely low acceptance rates of 4-5% and a rising population with millions applying to college every year, along with the improvement in the quality of education and resources, you can imagine why that may be the case. Some students I’ve worked with have been preparing as early as 5th grade so that they are way ahead of the curve by the time they enter high school when all the marbles are on the table.
Getting into a top university is difficult enough, and they’re crapshoots for anyone given the incredibly low acceptance rates. But if you really want to maximize your chances of getting in, you need to do everything right to get that acceptance letter. And that means a stellar academic and extracurricular profile and of course, a powerful application to seal the deal.
Note: A stellar academic/extracurricular profile with a weak application can lead to rejections, and vice versa as well. No one said college admissions was easy! 🙂
Let me tell you a story. Imagine that you had a friend named John.
John was a varsity track and field athlete, volunteered at a senior citizen center, and was involved in some non-profit, but only had decent but not stellar grades and scores. In every subject that you took with this guy named John, you seemed to edge him out in different ways – from SAT scores (John only had a 1520 – nothing to blink twice at), so-so grades with a unremarkable 3.8 GPA, and average SAT Subject Test Scores – 760 on Math Level 2, 750 on US History, and 720 on English Literature.
John was your competitor that you’d never acknowledge publicly, but you knew you were smarter than John in every aspect – you crushed your SAT’s and got a perfect 1600, earned a 4.0 GPA, 800’s across the board on your SAT Subject Tests, and even scored top 500 on the prestigious USA Physics Olympiad. Everything you did seemed to be better than John, who you appreciated for his efforts but you still secretly knew you were better in almost every category. The only thing that John probably had over you was the attractive girl he asked out on his prom date while you were too busy focusing on how to get a leg up on him in college admissions.
Senior year rolls around, and you quickly learn from your best friend that John is applying to the same early school as you are! Both of you want to attend the prestigious Stanford University in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Who doesn’t these days? With the California sunshine and and the close proximity to billion dollar startups and easy access to venture capital, it’s almost a no-brainer.
Even though it’s sunny side California, you can taste the advent of winter from the colder-than-usual water bottles that your parents bring home from Costco. As both of you wait anxiously for the results, you learn on October 16th that you just placed semifinalist in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition. A flood of euphoria rocks your inner core as you let out a scream just loud enough to be inaudible and avoid laser-like stares in the middle of the library. Meanwhile, John is carrying on as usual, hanging out in the middle of campus with his varsity letterman jacket, and occasionally wrapping his arm around his newfound girl. Walking past John, you enviously flash him a smile and think secretly to yourself that there’s no way he would ever get in over you now with your prestigious award.
Flash forward a few weeks and it’s now December 15th. The day the acceptance letters come out. Ice cold runs through your veins as you brace yourself for the next 5 pivotal minutes of your life. Click.
“Unfortunately, we’re sorry to inform you that you have been deferred from Stanford…” A stone drops in your stomache. Tears flood down.
As you shut off your computer and grab your jacket, you walk outside only to hear sounds of cheers and screams outside. You see John high fiving his classmates and jumping up and down, waving his iPhone in the air. John just got into Stanford.
What the hell just happened?
Welcome to the world of college admissions.
What went wrong in this situation, and what could you do to prevent this? As a private college consultant for over 8 years, I’ve seen stories like this time and time again. More often than not, a high achieving student gets rejected from a top university, while another strong-but-not-great student gets in. Too many students are laser focused on the raw stats and numbers – a slightly higher SAT score, a slightly higher AP exam, etc. and tend to neglect the most important part of the whole process: the college applications and personal statements.
Sure, the grades, scores, and awards certainly help – but if you have all that and still write subpar personal statements that fails to reflect the voice that defines you, then you’re in for some tough luck. As emotions vacillate from acceptance to deferrals to rejections throughout high schools in the country, just remember that the most important ingredient to never overlook is the personal statement. Because at the end of the day that can mean the difference between an acceptance or deferral/rejection. And maybe even your future prom date.
I get asked questions about college admissions all the time.
Should my child play the piano or the oboe?
I just scored 790 on my SAT 2 Math subject test, should I retake it to get an 800?
Should I perform 100 hours of community service, or 500 hours of community service?
What are my chances to Stanford with a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score?
Should I take AP US History or double up on an AP science my junior year?
While these are all fair questions to ask and I guide my students through every step of the way in my private consulting program, I can tell you that even if you get a 4.0 GPA, 1600 SAT score, perform 500 hours of community service, and play the oboe, you won’t get into Stanford or any other Ivy League if you don’t know how to present yourself in the application, in particular writing thought provoking, compelling personal statements. This is the biggest misconception about college admissions – that with the top scores, grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurricular activities that you will ultimately get admitted into the university you’ve worked so hard for.
And if you’re one of the people who do believe that’s what it takes to get in, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Because getting in isn’t just about having a patent under your name or finding some groundbreaking innovation as a high school student. Even if you have the top scores, grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurriculars, you can still get rejected from every Ivy League school. I’ve seen this time and time again.
On the contrary, however, I’m not saying you should get low grades and scores, either. But after a certain point and threshold, your chances of getting into a top university highly depends on how well you write the personal statement and package the rest of your application – not on your raw academic and/or extracurricular achievements.
Every family and student I’ve spoken to who approached the college admissions process for the first time is surprised by the amount of sweat and tears that is goes into application season. And those who aren’t prepared early on for this whirlwind are quickly left in the dust and a state of panic, wondering how to approach this most crucial part of the college admissions process that will determine where the student will matriculate for the next four years.
What adds to this level of misconception are all the stories that parents, families, and students hear through the grapevine from their inner social circles. Soon enough, as you can imagine, rumors spread like wildfire and everyone has their own conception of what it really takes to get into a top university. “I heard Eric was accepted to Princeton because he was a semifinalist in the Chemistry Olympiad and Siemens Competition. Mark was accepted to Stanford because he won a gold medal in Tae Kwon Do. Dave got into Harvard because both his parents went there.”
Don’t get me wrong, getting those awards help. If you’re you’ve placed in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair or became state champion in the national debate competition, those awards will help get your application noticed. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get in. In fact, far from it – I’ve had high achieving, high octane prospective clients who reach out to me for help on their transfer application who literally got rejected to all the top schools they applied because they didn’t spend enough time on their application.
I feel for those students – and it’s definitely unfortunate given how hard they worked. I mean, you just spend four years of your life working your tail off and you got dinged everywhere. We can certainly blame the ultra low acceptance rates as a culprit, but the question is did your application or personal statement give you a chance at getting admitted in the first place? How strong of an application did you really put together? If you put together a strong application and it still didn’t work, certainly you can rest in peace that you tried your best and gave it your all. But if you didn’t, then you just shot yourself in the leg.
Personally, I’ve edited and read thousands of essays, in every shape or form. Most of the time I can tell right away when a personal statement has gone awry – that there is a very evident flaw in the essay that would diminish an applicant’s chances of admission. Or other times, the essay was just really mediocre and didn’t really put the student’s strongest foot forward.
While I certainly can’t guarantee everyone into a top university, I can tell you that my students are extremely pleased with the essays that they write. Not only are they satisfied with their personal statements and their completed application, but they are content that they performed to the best of their ability and did everything in their power to get admitted to these highly selective schools. After my students go through my program, there is no regret – we’ve put their best foot forward.
Just browse through College Confidential, a popular college admissions forum, and you’ll see students posting their stats – many with very strong academic and extracurricular profiles, but still getting knocked down in the process. Sure, it’s competitive. Acceptance rates are at all time lows and it will continue to be more competitive every year given the significant increase in applicants and the limited number of spots. The biggest misconception when it comes to college admissions is that you can get in with simply a strong academic and extracurricular profile alone.
What I don’t hear often enough are what are the steps and approaches that one took in their application. What did Eric, Mark or Dave write about in their personal statement? How did they construct a compelling story that demonstrated to the admissions officers their personal qualities that ultimately got them that acceptance letter? And while these are definitely more private and personal information that admitted students often don’t share, these are ultimately the factors that got the student in and separated them from the thousands of other applicants out there.
And I can guarantee you that’s something parents and students who have gotten into these top universities won’t tell you. Because what’s the point – why would they? They simply aren’t incentivized to and prefer to boast about how great their child is rather than sharing about what a great application they put together, perhaps with the help through a private college consultant like myself. Don’t make that mistake and neglect the application.
I highly suggest reading the essays and personal statements of successful candidates that did get accepted to top universities and understand on a more granular level why a particular student was admitted. It’s because the admissions officers can identify with the voice of the essay and understand the student on a much deeper and personal level. And once you get to that point and package together a compelling application, you know you have a strong shot at one of these top universities.