With acceptance rates dipping below 6% of applicants at some of the most competitive colleges in the country, anxious applicants understandably wonder what separates the lucky admits from the also-rans.
The truth is, highly selective colleges attract far more highly qualified applicants than they can possibly accommodate. Given this zero sum scenario, one applicant must necessarily win at the expense of another. The resulting process begins to resemble a 3-Round Boxing Match, which raises the stakes and the level of competition at each level. The purpose of each round is different:
ROUND 1: COULD YOU EVEN GRADUATE FROM HERE?
At this level, the college seeks to quickly reduce the number of applicants by weeding out those who simply don’t have the intellectual chops to succeed, based on their submitted grades and test scores. You could call this the quantitative round. Students with mediocre grades and test scores might lower the school’s overall graduation rate, making the school look bad, while costing lost tuition revenue. They don’t want to risk this, so you’re out.
This round is actually not overly ruthless; it is possible to make it through with “meh” grades and test scores IF you have some other appealing quality that is highly valued in Round 2.
Round 1 is the only level most college applicants consider when crafting their applications, however. They overlook what I call the Immutable Law of College Admissions: the more selective, the more subjective. In other words, the more elite the school, the more fickle and arbitrary their admissions decisions can be. In the first round, they are simply looking for an obvious, easy reason to reject a sizeable number of applicants quickly, so they can buckle down and take a much closer look at the personal qualities of those who remain.
In Round 1, your goal is not to give them a reason to reject you. A few, rare genius-types will make it through this round and go straight to the “Admit” pile; these are probably students who are so bookish, scholarly, and gifted that they already have won a national or international academic prize, been published nationally or in a peer-reviewed journal, maxed out on their standardized test scores, or perhaps received a patent or something equivalent. If that’s not you, you’re going to have to keep fighting in Round 2.
ROUND 2: WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR US?
OK, in Round 1 you’ve demonstrated that you’re smart enough to admit, but that isn’t nearly enough. Now you need to convince the school why they should let YOU in…as opposed to all the other equally capable applicants they’ve got. It is a seller’s market in selective college admissions, after all.
Look around you. You’re not the only applicant with decent grades and test scores. To make it through this round, you’re going to need to provide something distinctive, noticeable and impressive in addition to that. In Round 2, believe it or not, the school wants to know what you can do to make THEM look good.
Can you help them win football games? Win intercollegiate debates? Fill their endowment with cash? Help them gain access to powerful and influential people who make higher education policy decisions? What oh what, pray tell, can you do for them? That’s what they really want to know.
Round 2 is the qualitative, subjective round. There’s no exact formula for victory, but some things are predictable, in that there will always be a football team, a marching band and an a capella singing group to fill with able participants.
Round 2 is about punching them in the gut with a powerful blow that makes them double over and go…WOW!!! Here are some things that make a real impact: membership in an underrepresented ethnic group; coming from a powerful, connected family; being a child or grandchild of an alumnus of the institution; national or international recognition in some activity that the school values; being from an underrepresented place; or, having an unusual backstory that might enable the school to gain some positive and noteworthy media attention if they accept you.
Each of these special qualities is referred to as a “hook.” At some top schools, only 40% of the open spots are unhooked; the rest are awarded to students who can check off one of these predictable boxes.
In Round 2, you need to give the school a compelling reason to accept you. A good number of applicants will make it straight to the Admit pile after this round, while a huge number will be rejected. The small remainder will go on to Round Three.
ROUND 3: ELIMINATION ROUND!
Still standing? Good, because now it’s time for the Wild Card Elimination Round, where anything can happen!
This is where everyone is a winner, but not everyone can go home with a prize. Contenders get knocked out in Round 3 for no other reason than someone else did something that caught a particular judge’s fancy. There really are no rules in this round: it’s pretty much an improvised free-for-all.
In Round 3, scrappy scragglers must compete for the last remaining spaces in a rather brutal “Hunger Games” brawl, so now is the time to wind up to deliver your knockout punch, if you’ve got one. In Round 3, it’s no holds barred! Wait…that’s a wrestling analogy. I mean, anything goes!
Applicants go head-to-head to make their case for why they should be admitted instead of their opponent. (Actually, it is your local admissions rep that fights on your behalf, so you’d better have done a very clear job of explaining what you have going for you in your admissions packet.)
This is where it helps to have something “unusual” to offer that no other applicant will have. They only need so many cellists, tuba players, quarterbacks or synchronized swimmers each year, so you’d better hope this is the year that your particular talent is in short supply. This round is always an unpredictable crapshoot, depending on who else happens to be in the applicant pool this time around, and where they hail from.
What exactly are they looking for? They’re looking for balance in the class, they’re looking for “interest,” they’re looking for…well, they’re not really sure but they’ll know it when they see it. Ultimately, what they’re really looking for is something unique they haven’t seen before. Now, if you can just figure out what that is, you’ve got it made.
That’s basically how selective admissions decisions unfold, in three increasingly challenging rounds. Understanding this ought to help you to see why it’s so important to craft a coherent “theme” and build surprise and interest into your application. It’s the rare student, indeed, who gets into an elite college on grades and test scores, alone. So…go to your corners, take a deep breath, and when they ring the bell, come out fighting!
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