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The Biggest Misconception About College Admissions

Sidewalk of Nassau Street in town of Princeton, New Jersey

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.

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