College admissions isn’t perfect. There are a lot of flaws when it comes to college admissions, in particular the somewhat vague and mystical standards of admission at the Ivy League and other comparable universities. As a high school student, you’re placed into a system where you have to go above and beyond what is considered the standard requirements for admissions to gain acceptance.
At Oxford, Cambridge, and top universities in Asia, this is less so. You take a national exam (or series of exams), and if you fall within a certain score, then you will more or less get into a particular school based on a sliding scale. Admissions is clear cut, highly objective, and standardized. But in the US, that’s not the case – in fact, far from it.
Getting top SAT scores, GPA, and AP exams by no means guarantees or promises anything – and in fact, sometimes you’re expected to go above and beyond to have a shot at the very top universities. This includes extracurricular activities, national competitions, summer programs, and the list goes on.
But how do you expect a high school student who’s approaching this for the first time to be aware of all these opportunities if they’re not stated explicitly as requirements or standards of admission? Granted, the lucky few who are aware of these outside opportunities (such as math/science Olympiads, competitive research programs, extracurricular activities, etc.) start preparing as early as middle school.
But those from a less fortunate and lower socioeconomic background aren’t aware of these opportunities, but they’re still (more or less) held to similar standards for admission. So what the US needs to do is standardize the requirements for admission so that everyone has an equal opportunity.
The SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Exams more or less accomplish this, but not if so many students are getting perfect scores to such extent where the value of these exams become almost meaningless when it comes to admission to the top universities like HYPSM. Perhaps we should have a second battery of exams for the very top students and make those standardized or required so that the standards for admission more objective.
What we end up with, however, is a system where assuming you have the top test scores, grades, and extracurriculars, your ultimate admission depends on the application and personal statement you package together. So admissions to the Ivy League becomes a borderline essay writing contest where the top students are accepted based on the quality of their personal experiences expressed through the essays.
And on the flipside, there are students who have weaker scores and grades who get in every year. At any top 10 or so school, roughly 50% of the class has 4.0’s or higher, 30% with 3.7-3.99, and 20% with GPA’s significantly lower than 3.7. So how do the students with GPA’s lower than 3.7 get in? Certainly, athletes, URM’s, and legacies definitely play a factor, but 20% is still a significant portion of the student body. Again, it comes down to the personal “unique” experiences and qualities expressed through the essays.
It’s not a perfect process, and certainly not a fair one. It’s as if the admissions committee were to judge your character and personality through a 650 word typed personal statement and supplemental essays – a far from a perfect process – without truly getting to know who you are. But ultimately, you have to play the hand you’re dealt.
In the admissions ball game, you are only as good as you are on paper. Although you may have spent hours on a particular activity in high school, if you do not capture that in the application in a meaningful manner, then you have done nothing in the admission officer’s eyes. And that means writing stellar application essays.
Of course, getting tip top grades, strong SAT, SAT Subject, and AP test scores, and strong leadership and extracurricular activities help significantly with the process. In this day and age, getting those is almost required and a minimum threshold to get in. Pursue activities that demonstrate your well roundedness and that you’re passionate about – we’ve all heard that over and over again. But you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?
So why do these amazing, well-qualified people still get rejected every year? Because they didn’t know how to write their personal statement. Let me tell you, getting into an Ivy League college depends on how well you carve together that college application and demonstrate those personal qualities through the personal statement. The personal statement includes the supplemental essays for each university as well as the 650 word main common app essay. Ensuring that those essays form a powerful picture that represents the applicants personal qualities is the holy grail of college admissions.
The personal statement is the one differentiating factor that separates the 1600 SAT, 4.0 GPA student from the one who has a 1580 SAT and 3.9 GPA at the same high school. These stats are no longer “good enough” to differentiate one candidate from another – rather, they are typical scores and grades that the Ivy Leagues expect you to get. Most of the time I can tell right away if a student will get accepted or rejected based on the essays alone.
In fact, I will bet that a student with a lower score, say 1300 SAT and 3.8 GPA with a stellar application and well written personal statement has a better shot than the 1600 SAT student with a poorly written personal statement at getting into the Ivy League. Princeton, my alma mater, states every year that if they could fill their entire class with valedictorians or 1600 SAT score students, they could do so easily.
So how can you get into the Ivy League? Carve together a well thought out college application and personal statement that reflects the qualities that define you.