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.
A strong academic and extracurricular score would mean a candidate has strong standards for consideration of admission. A well put together application and strong personal statement, along with recommendation letters and the interview, would essentially seal the deal for a spot at one of these coveted institutions.
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 used, 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.
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. However, sometimes the personal statement can carry significant weight 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, but do keep in mind the student was also rejected from numerous other places as well.
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 today and 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 do 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, 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 package your application, in particular writing thought provoking, compelling personal statements. This is the biggest misconception about college admissions – that you need the best scores, the best grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurricular activities to get in.
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 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.
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.”
But 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.
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.