Top Ten Lessons Learned from This Year’s Admissions Cycle

Now that the dust has settled from the Varsity Blues Scandal and admissions decisions, I went back to see what we could apply going forward from this year’s cycle.  Below are the top ten lessons learned.

Go Deep in Things You Love

One of our clients this year was an avid sports fan. While many students love sports, he revolved his studying, activities, and life around watching, analyzing, and writing about sports.  He carried this out in his deep interest in journalism and communications by serving as the sports editor for his high school paper and even producing a sports podcast where he and a friend analyzed games and players. He was a stellar student and had excellent time management skills, but more importantly he genuinely loved everything he did. As a result, he got into top communications programs because he had compelling and specific examples of how he would contribute to the journalism community.

Be Realistic

It’s often difficult for parents, and in some instances kids, to accept the reality of the current admissions cycle. I often hear, “but I/they worked so hard in high school; they deserve to get into Duke or Princeton” or any other highly select college.  However, there are hundreds of thousands of kids who have worked equally hard and may have other qualities or circumstances that make them compelling to admissions at a given school. But students who understand themselves and where they will fit in and thrive do much better in the admissions process.  For example Emmy was a top student from a top public high school in Minneapolis and had the goods for the Ivies or the other most selective colleges. She visited several highly selective colleges and felt most comfortable in either large state schools or Jesuit colleges that aligned with her commitment to serving her community. She ended up getting into all of the colleges to which she applied including University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and Boston College.  

Understand and Play to Your Strengths

Students who understand and play to their strengths have a much easier time communicating their stories. Samantha, a future nursing student, had difficulty learning in a traditional classroom setting.  But she discovered that once she got in a hands-on learning environment, her ability to learn increased tenfold and her natural empathy and compassion made her great with patients. She also discovered that she had an undiagnosed learning difference.  As soon as she understood, not only how she learned, but also how to apply her learning style to every situation, she soared inside and outside of the classroom. Her self-insight made a compelling case to demonstrate how she would excel in a nursing program.

Let Your Talent Shine

We had several students this year with exceptional talent in music, creative writing, or art.  While one of them was interested in pursuing architecture, which required a portfolio, the others, who were pre-med or interested in studying math, submitted arts supplements to complement their outstanding academic achievement.  Not only did they showcase their creative art or music, they also each wrote with enthusiasm and depth about how their special talent helped them be leaders, see science differently, or make sense of the world. It was also clear to colleges how they would continue to contribute their talents over the next four years.

Find Solutions to Problems

Colleges want to see students who take action and are part of the solution. This shows them that these students will be leaders on campus and continue to make a difference. Anya saw how screen time was impacting her parents’ relationship with her two much younger siblings. She got tired of hearing her family argue and saw how her parents were unequipped to manage the situation on their own. So she took the matter into her own hands, did research on the negative impact of screen time and how families were dealing with it. She found that most of the solutions were ineffective because they were designed by adults and not teens. She ended up writing a book and creating a website and blog to help families manage screen time effectively. Cornell and Carnegie Mellon, among others, appreciated her resourcefulness and ability to identify a problem and come up with a solution; these are the precise skills that will make her an excellent engineer.  

Listen with An Open Mind

A common theme on college campuses is diversity, access, and inclusion. How does faculty create a welcoming learning environment? How do students of all backgrounds feel included?  How do students with diverse backgrounds come together and learn from each other? Listening with an open mind demonstrates how you are ready to integrate. Josh was a leader in student government and soccer in his high school, the proverbial “big man on campus.” But he decided to join his high school’s Women’s Alliance club as the only male member. At first he was intimidated and remained quiet, listening to his peers express their experiences of being female.  Through active listening he understood a new perspective in a deeper way. He grew as a person and started seeing the world through a different lens. This made him a more effective leader in all aspects of his life. Josh is exactly the sort of leader the University of Pennsylvania wants on its campus: someone who seek to understand varying perspectives and grow from the experience.

Be Honest

After last month’s Varsity Blues Scandal, do I need to elaborate?

Captain Your Own Ship

As we work with families each year, it becomes clear who is steering the ship in the process.  It’s typical for parents to captain the ship early on, during freshman and sophomore year, however by junior year those students who take the helm early on do much better in the process. I started working with Jin the summer before her senior year. She had already done a tremendous amount of research on her schools of interest and a national scholarship program to which she was applying. She had a clear sense of who she was and what type of college she would thrive in. I could truly serve as her mentor rather than her taskmaster. At each step of the process from writing her essays to developing her list to making a final decision, she captained her ship. Her independence and self-confidence came through, and I know she will thrive next year at Princeton.

There Are No Guarantees

While every student we worked with had at least one excellent choice, there are no guarantees because the process has become more unpredictable. Colleges not only want to create a community of learners, they also want to manage their enrollment. They have more sophisticated ways to analyze data and predict yields. Just because a student is in the range academically, does not guarantee an acceptance. Many of the most selective schools fill upwards of 50% of their class through Early Decision. For schools that care about demonstrated interest, if a student has not visited or interviewed, they will likely be waitlisted or denied. If a student is applying to a “safety” school regular decision, the colleges can now predict the likelihood that a student with this particular academic profile will matriculate.  

Be Open to The Outcome

Students who accept the reality of the process going in and are open to the outcome generally have the best admissions experience. One of my Ivy League hopefuls was deciding between Rice and Emory. He was excited about each of them even though they were not his first choice.  I asked him if he would have done anything differently, and he smiled and said: “No, I’m happy with my options and how it turned out.”

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