A student a class or two above you had a 4.0 average, great SAT scores, and a wealth of impressive extracurriculars. By all accounts, they were poised to be accepted into a top-tier university; conventional wisdom tells us that being in the top percentiles for GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and extracurricular involvement is a ticket to an Ivy League or other prestigious school. Yet when admissions decisions were mailed out, they received surprising rejections from nearly all their target and reach schools.

 

Have you ever heard a story like this?

 

It’s not uncommon for students who supposedly have done everything right to be passed over for admission by the nation’s top universities. Increasingly, situations like this feed into the idea that admissions at top colleges are becoming impossibly competitive. If even the highest scoring students with the best grade averages are being turned away, how is anyone meant to get accepted?

 

Applicants Need to Distinguish Themselves

 

The mistake many students make is believing that high grades or leadership positions in conventional extracurricular activities like student government will guarantee them admission to top universities. Certainly, a great GPA and leadership positions in school clubs are important – in fact, basically every student at a top US university has near-perfect grades, high test scores, and impressive leadership positions in clubs like Mock Trial or Key Club. And therein lies the problem: everyone has them!

 

Good grades, test scores, and extracurriculars are now standard fare for every applicant to competitive colleges. For this reason, students with little else to their application apart from these qualifications fails to stand out among thousands of similar applicants. In order to make an impression on admissions committees, students need to set themselves apart through a completely unique essay or remarkable extracurricular pursuit that pushes past the boundaries of a pre-existing school club and demonstrates initiative, passion, and skill in a particular area.

 

Holistic Admissions Care About More Than Grades

 

While there’s no doubt that admissions are getting more competitive, the more significant shift in college admissions in recent decades has been that from an admissions system based on statistics like standardized test scores and GPA to a “holistic” system that attempts to evaluate applicants on factors like their passion and commitment to serving others. A holistic admissions system looks at much more than GPA and test scores, and weaknesses in these areas can be compensated for by strong personal essays or exceptional adversity in life.

 

Under a holistic admissions system, common assumptions, like the notion that the student with the higher SAT score will always be accepted over the student with the lower SAT score, no longer hold water.

 

However, a student who has demonstrated commitment to an underprivileged group or dedicated their academic career to mastering a certain subject may be more likely to be admitted to top colleges because they have made themselves unique through highlighting a particular passion/talent on their application.

 

Alternately, a student who may have struggled in school due to adverse personal circumstances but is able to channel those experiences into a unique drive and an exceptional personal essay has demonstrated a strength of character that admissions committees value in applicants.

 

When colleges make admissions decisions, it is not necessarily upon the basis of who is the most impressive applicant at that moment in time, but rather which applicant, in their view, has the potential to ultimately accomplish great things. While one could argue that no admissions committee can predict the future, personal character is increasingly being perceived by leaders in higher education as a better metric than grades in predicting a student’s future success.

 

Of course, this isn’t to say that the two are mutually exclusive; a student can have both exemplary character and outstanding grades. However, if a student with outstanding grades in no way demonstrates this exemplary character in their college application, and focuses solely on academic accomplishments, they are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

 

Well-Rounded vs. Specialized Applicants

 

Another trend in admissions that has challenged the idea of what a qualified applicant should look like is the growing prevalence of a specialized, or “sharp point” student. Until recently, it was widely believed that the key to getting into top colleges was being a “well-rounded” student who has demonstrated proficiency in a wide range of disparate areas.

 

However, in recent years, well-rounded students have in some cases come to be perceived less as jacks of all trades and more as masters of none. As we mentioned earlier, colleges are looking for students who are capable of contributing in a meaningful way to their desired field. By failing to commit to one distinct area, well-rounded students may be disadvantaged in the admissions process, even if their application looks ostensibly impressive. Students who have done well in athletics, the arts, and STEM-related extracurriculars may seem like the perfect applicant, but a lack of clear commitment or passion in one particular area can actually be a weakness.

 

Students today are encouraged to “specialize” by concentrating a majority of their extracurricular and academic pursuits in a single area. In this way, they can demonstrate to colleges that they have the expertise and passion in that area to find success in college and in their career. A student who has taken a science-heavy courseload, conducted research in a lab over the summer, and earned top honors in Science Olympiad is perceived as more likely to achieve excellence in science than a student who split his or her time between science-related extracurriculars, theatre, and athletics, without ever fully committing themselves to one.

 

In summary, colleges no longer seek well-rounded students, but rather a well-rounded class: a group of highly specialized students with unique experiences and talents that when considered as a whole, excel in nearly every conceivable area. In this way, colleges seek to maximize the potential for excellence in various areas in their student body.

 

As the number of applicants to top colleges has grown and admissions have become increasingly competitive, colleges have had to shift their standards to accommodate. What worked for admissions 15, 10, or even 5 years ago is not necessarily an effective strategy in the present day. In order to set themselves apart from tens of thousands of other applicants, students must highlight their unique personal qualities in their college applications to an equal or greater degree as their academic accomplishments. Oftentimes, all it takes is a truly exceptional extracurricular pursuit or particularly moving essay to differentiate an applicant from their peers.

 

If you are interested in learning how to stand out in the process, check out our unique peer-to-peer mentorship and essay editing programs — designed by students for students looking to do just that.

 

Want your application to stand out to admissions officers?

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Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez