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The Personal Statement: The Holy Grail of College Admissions

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Getting into an Ivy League university is tough.

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.

Remember the admissions officers never visit nor see you. All they get is the electronic pdf or 12 page printout that is your college application. Sure, you might argue there is the interview – but that accounts for a small amount of the admissions process and is typically done by alumni of the school – not the admissions officers themselves.

Whether you get accepted or not really depends on how you present yourself in the application. All the blood, sweat, and tears that you put into your extracurricular and leadership activities are meaningless if you don’t know how to capture how your experiences shaped you in the personal statement, or the college application, in a meaningful manner.

Getting into an Ivy League college depends on how well you craft 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.

I’ve seen students with perfect 1600 (or 2400) SAT scores and 4.0 GPA’s get turned down by the the Ivies. I’ve also helped and worked with lower achieving students with 1800 (out of 2400) SAT scores and 3.3 GPA get accepted into an Ivy League. In fact, I’ve always said the weakest student I’ve ever helped get into an Ivy League had a 3.3 unweighted GPA and ~1180 on the SAT’s. Yes, you heard me right – and he was Asian American too – no hooks, no legacies, no NCAA athlete, nor URM.

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 you’re passionate about and demonstrate your well-roundedness and focus – 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. At least, not a compelling one that would give them a real shot at getting in.

Keep in mind that there are literally tens of thousands of students with perfect 4.0 GPA’s, 1550+ SAT scores, National Merit Semifinalists, National AP Scholars, and the list goes on. These exams are no longer “enough” to differentiate one student from another given so many students boast these stats. 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.

What it all comes down to is how you demonstrate your personal qualities, leadership, and contribution to your community through the application. This takes the form of personal statements, extracurricular activities, and recommendation letters that help the admissions officers determine whether to accept or reject you. Most of the time I can tell right away if a student will get accepted or rejected based on the essays alone.

The biggest mistake that students make is not taking their application seriously enough. This tends to happen with overachievers, who believe that their grades, test scores, and even national academic awards are enough to get them in. So yes, do pursue your passions and your interests, and work as hard as you can during your four years of high school. Just remember to capture and express all of your personal qualities in the college application itself, and write a genuine, palpable personal statement that helps the admissions officers understand the qualities that define you.

I can’t tell you how many students every year tend to neglect the importance of these essays. If I were to give it a true weighting, I’d assign 50% of the admissions decision to the common app essay and recommendation letters, 25% to academics, 25% to extracurriculars. But this number can change drastically when the admissions committee is making decisions where nearly every strong applicant has perfect 4.0’s and top of the line 1550-1600 SAT scores.

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.

At the end of the day, a strong student with high academic and extracurricular stats is only just that – another profile on paper to the admissions committee. That paper ultimately comes to life through the common app essays – who this candidate is, the applicant’s level of introspection and critical thinking, and the values and experiences that shape the applicant’s perspective. And sometimes, the admissions committee is even willing to overlook a student with low GPA/test scores if they can understand how that applicant thinks on a deeper level.

So how can you get into the Ivy League? Craft together a well thought out college application and personal statement that reflects the qualities that define you. Because at the end of the day, the bitter truth is that admissions to Ivy League schools is highly dependent on how well you present yourself on paper and draft your personal statement.

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