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How Do You Get Into College? This is the One Question Your College Application Must Answer

The following does not constitute advice. But it strikes me that many a college applicant would be better served approaching the college application process in a more active way by framing their application around an answer to one simple question.

Each year high school students are overwhelmed by the great fall tradition of pulling together materials for their college applications. While technology has made this process easier, it’s still no small task on top of an often AP-laden senior schedule: visiting schools, connecting with faculty, filling out applications, soliciting recommendation letters, authoring essays, and completing standardized tests. And that’s for a basic application: for many specialized programs, there’s a lot more that goes into them, from the completion of portfolios to the completion of service hours to other efforts to demonstrate uniqueness and individuality. For many students, the process is made harder still by the fact they’re often not sure what they want to study, not sure which schools they’d like to attend, and not sure how to best position themselves for the best chance of admission.

This mad dash to “get in” the best schools has not been hampered substantially by increasing scorn toward higher education’s penchant toward indoctrination rather than education, lamenting of its increasing cost, fretting about the impacts of student loans, or the increasingly negative societal attitudes toward standardized tests and other “hard” admissions criteria. Despite the storm of criticism against higher education, the pressure for students to “get in” the best schools remains as high as ever, and the utility of a degree from a top school toward career earnings potential and the unlocking of doors to ever-greater opportunity remains similarly valuable.

Amid the frenzy of the admissions season, it’s not surprising many students have a tendency to get lost in what they’re doing. But it’s also striking: as competitive as admissions rates are at top schools these days, many students are still approaching the application process with blinders on, almost as though they feel their application is a “random chance” event like tossing a ball onto a roulette wheel. Newsflash: it’s not.

The mistake many students make is that they approach their application from their own point of view. How, they often wonder, can they best pack the holistic nature of their life into a few paper documents? Form the college’s point of view, however, they never intended for the application process to gather an entire snapshot of who you are as a person. And in fact, they largely don’t care. That there isn’t a line on the application to fit in every activity you did as a freshman doesn’t matter so much to the college, because what they care about is the strength of the three activities you do show, not the volume of the ones you don’t. But the result for many students trying to cram their life into an application is that like an square peg into a round hole is that the college doesn’t see everything that gets left out. What they see is only what made it in the hole, which in many students’ cases ends up being a bit of a muddled mess.

The problem with approaching the admissions process with such blinders is that it lacks a sense of direction. Rather than start with the totality of your life, start with the application itself. Examine its format, and plot a game plan for how you can use it to make the most compelling case for you. The point of the application isn’t for the college to best understand you through your folder full of materials, but for you to make the strongest case to the college about why they should admit you. In this way, your college application materials should be an active proposal, rather than a bundle of passive documentation.

For many students, the idea of the application as a proposal is a novel concept. Very little project work or writing at the high school level is really designed to do this. Most assignments you are given are designed to give you a chance to showcase your volume of knowledge about a subject. So it’s not surprising so many students treat their college applications in the same way.

You have to approach your application from the college’s perspective. They’re not so much worried about understanding you as they are about understanding your application. And doing so in the context of every other application. For a college with an admissions rate of 5 percent, this is daunting. The hallmark of a successful application isn’t how well it explains you, but how well it stacks up against every other application sitting in front of them, an in the case of a college that selective, that’s a lot of applications. Preparing your materials effectively in this regard requires you to think about things a bit differently. At the end of the day, the fundamental question you have to answer for the college isn’t about how interesting of a person you are or how deep and varied your activities are. But rather, it generally comes down to one simple thing:

Why should the college reject 19 other qualified applications of people likely just as smart and talented and interesting as you are, in order to accept yours?

This is a daunting framework form which to begin an application. But it can be done. For starters, imagine a class full of the 20 most qualified kids you can ever remember in the history of your school. It’s these kids – not the rest of your grade – that will be up against you applying to the top schools. In your head, put them in a room together. It’s doubtful you’re the smartest person there, it’s doubtful your activities are all that unique, and it’s doubtful you’ll be the best writer or have the best test scores. So if a college admissions rep were picking the most interesting person in that room, why would they pick you? Hint: all of that stuff about basic qualifications, test scores, extracurriculars, etc. becomes little more than noise in that environment. They already know you have all that stuff. So what else is it about you that makes you the most interesting and compelling person in that room. What is it about you that’s going to change the world in ways those other smart and qualified students won’t? If you don’t have an answer to this question, brainstorm it. You’ll need it if you want to submit a winning application.

This kind of proposal is a hallmark of competitive bidding proposals across industries in the private sector. I’ve done hundreds of proposals in this regard over many years. And I’ve also met a lot of college applicants. When you’re looking at applications in bunches, the ones that stand out are the ones that have super compelling, air-tight narratives shaped around a unique story, exceptional competence, and dead-set ambitions and dreamy goals for changing the world in the future. If you can’t articulate why you’re the most likely person in the room to give back the greatest value to the college on their investment in you, it’s unlikely they’ll reject the other 19 and accept yours.

Is it callous? Perhaps. But the reality of the admissions process is that most people don’t get in. Colleges say they regret that fact, but they don’t. They love being able to pick and choose from the best and the brightest. At the end of they day they are trying to assemble a network of changemakers that will go forth into the world and reflect back well on them through tremendous collective innovation that changes the world for the better. If you can find your story, you can overcome the slight numerical and statistical shortcomings of your application. Like with any great essay, compel your reader. And give them every reason to pick your book off the shelf instead of all the others.

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