how to get into college

In my former life as an admissions officer, I was often cornered at the end of my information sessions by a student or parent who wanted to know the “secret” formula, the undisclosed algorithm, for getting into MIT or Caltech:

    “How many APs should I take?”
    “Should I raise that 770 math score to an 800?”
    “I play violin, run track, compete on the Science Olympiad team, and volunteer several hours a week. How many other activities do I need?”

Never mind that I had just given a presentation where I unambiguously divulged to prospective student audiences what I thought were key traits for successful applicants at the schools I represented:  “MIT wants creative students who are going to use their minds and hands to make the world a better place,” or “Caltech wants students who aim to shed scientific light upon the dark unknown.”

Still, I’d get the inevitable question:  “So how many APs should I take, again?”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not dismissing the importance of grades, challenging classes, and a decent set of test scores.  But the truth of the matter is they’re just gravy.  And while turkey might taste a whole lot better with gravy, most people don’t eat gravy by itself.  Come again?  Well, grades, scores, and activities often need an overarching passion or dream to steer their course.  The most successful combination of academics and extra-curricular activities, more often than not, come as a consequence of great dreams and passions in the same way good tasting gravy is often a consequential result of cooking an awesome-tasting turkey.  But it’s the turkey that retains the starring role in a meal, not the gravy.

So what’s your “turkey”?  What dreams do you have cooking?  And do those dreams mesh with your prospective school’s dreams, its stated purpose or goals?  More importantly, how are you bringing your dreams to reality?

Depending upon their respective school’s mission, admission officers don’t just admit, they predict:

    Who is going to make the next great scientific discovery? Who is going to lead his or her community? Who is going to start a company? Who is going to create policy? Who is going to write the next great piece of literature? Who is going to save lives? Who is going to pass on knowledge to the next generation? Who is going to combat poverty? Who is going to be a stellar athlete, actress, or musician? Who is going to advocate for justice?

They’re looking for people who are going to serve key roles, not only within their schools, but more importantly, within society.  And they base those predictions upon the evidence before them:  what is the applicant currently doing within his or her given context to turn lofty dreams into reality?  And just what is that dream?

Some schools might call it a “distinguishing excellence,” other schools might call it “star” quality.  Whatever the name, a principled track record of realizing one’s dreams and goals is often one of the most important considerations in some of the nation’s most selective universities’ admissions processes.

I just like to think of it as an awesome-tasting turkey.

For more information about establishing a distinguishing excellence, listen to the Getting In: A College Coach Conversation episode on this topic: Ivy League Admissions: How to Stand Out.



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Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.