April 2, 2017

How to Make Your College Applications Stand Out

Are you applying to top schools but worried you're not going to get in?

The very best schools can choose from a large pool of students with straight A's and high test scores. For example, U.C. Berkeley's 75th percentile GPA is 4.30, and its 75th percentile ACT score is 34. Berkeley only admits 17.5% of the people who apply.

What could possibly set you apart?

Top schools aren't looking for just anyone. They want students who will become famous: future entrepreneurs, Nobel Prize winners, and world leaders. If you become an amazing success, your fame splashes back to your alma mater and makes it even more desirable.

These values show up on the front page of Stanford's Web site:

Stanford Live Turns Five: Performances are just the beginning of world-class visiting artists' involvement with students and faculty.

They're also at University of Chicago, which would be my dream school if I could start over:

Rajan returns to UChicago: Chicago Booth economist looks ahead after leading India's central bank.
As a student/graduate/staff scientist/professor/visiting artist, are you going to enhance your school's reputation?

Your application essays need to show that you're a caterpillar who could turn into an rich, famous, Nobel-Prize-winning butterfly. You can write like a future Steve Jobs if you have the potential to be one.

Read this John Hopkins essay about Venus flytraps. You can see the attributes of a great scientist in the applicant's writing: curiosity, creativity, resourcefulness, tenacity, and eloquence.

That could be you, but you need to have something to write about first. An unfocused set of extracurriculars isn't going to provide life experiences that make good essay material. It's much better to find one or two things you really enjoy and spend hundreds of hours exploring those fields.

Dig a small hole, but make it deep.

That means you're going to have to get weird. It's abnormal to be obsessed about Venus flytraps, but it'll get you noticed. Not all of the attention will be positive, but what do you care? You want to go to college with people who are passionate about the things you love. That's way better than getting stuck with a bunch of classmates who forced themselves to do random stuff they hated.

A group of Lafayette high school students recently started a business called Local Helpers. They intend to use the money to pay for college, but they can also use Local Helpers to showcase their creativity and entrepreneurial drive.

Is starting a business in high school weird? Kind of. Is it impressive? You bet.

You have to take risks to stand out. Do you love math? Start a tutoring business. Write a blog. Enter a math competition. You might fail, but even that would provide a good growth experience to write your essays about. It sure beats writing about the time you spent volunteering at soup kitchens when you'd rather have been doing multivariable calculus.

I gave this advice to my seventh-grade computer programming class in 2011. One of my students started a blog, Zach's Art of Architecture. He's continued writing articles on it for the past six years and is now an architecture major in college.

Like Zach, you have to do something unusual to get noticed. Take risks. Become the unique, edgy person your dream school wants you to be!


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