In order to get into a competitive university, you have to stand out by being a metaphorical big fish in a small pond. Here are five things I would do if I were applying to college — ones I didn’t do when I was in high school.
My academic experience was great — I worked very hard and was lucky enough for my efforts to have paid off — but I didn’t go to my dream school. I earned a Ph.D., and now I’m a college admissions consultant, and I’ve got a few lessons to pass on to students who are navigating the application process.
Here are five things I would do if I were applying to college — ones I didn’t do when I was in high school.
1. Find out what my dream schools expect of applicants from my high school.
During high school, my peers and I knew that we had to be smart and well-rounded in order to get into the most competitive colleges and universities. But what we didn’t know was that admissions officers compared us to our classmates before they compared us to students from other schools.
In order to get into a competitive university, you have to stand out by being a metaphorical big fish in a small pond. If the students from your school who got into Ivy League schools took eight Advanced Placement (AP) courses, you should know that you’ve got to match them (at least) to show admissions officers that you’re challenging yourself just as much as your peers are.
After I got into college at UC Berkeley, I realized that each high school holds students to different standards, some of which were higher than those at my high school. Of course, some were lower, too. Still, students from schools in all three of these categories were my classmates at Berkeley. This system of college admissions is inherently unfair to students who would be superstars at a different high school. But this is still the reality now, as it was back then.
2. Take the ACT (and try diagnostic tests for both the ACT and SAT).
For some reason, my friends and I never considered the ACT. We were all fixated on doing well on the SAT. It seems obvious to say, but it’s worth emphasizing: some students do better on one exam than they would do on the other.
Looking back, I would love to have tried my hand at the ACT. I worked hard to earn 1390 out of 1600 on the SAT, and remember looking at people who got 1600 with awe. In hindsight, I did the best that I could and later learned that standardized tests are only one way of measuring a student’s potential.
3. Focus more on grades than on sports.
I participated in track and field all four years of my high school career, and eventually became team captain. Within the small world of my high school, I was known as both a jock and a nerd. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that playing a sport doesn’t get you into the most competitive colleges unless you’re nationally ranked or close to it.
I spent a lot of time strength training in the gym and doing drills on the field. Looking back, I should have expended less effort on sports and clubs and spent more time on studying for difficult classes.
That said, I have mixed feelings about recommending this, especially because I think competing in sports has shaped me into the person I am today. Athletics allowed me to learn so many of the skills I teach my students, the same abilities that helped me lead clubs and work well with others.
If I were to redo high school, I would still play sports and enjoy them, but I’d have a different perspective — one that would allow me to participate without sacrificing time I should spend studying.
4. Know that academics is a marathon, not a sprint.
One of the hardest things for competitive high school students to understand is that eventual success — as defined by a high-paying or satisfying career in a prestigious line of work (research, medicine, law, engineering, banking, the arts, business consulting, politics) — is a long game. It’s hard to blame students for thinking of it as a mad dash, since competitive universities do primarily take top students, but this kind of thinking can produce bigger problems.
Students who rush headlong into every endeavor with full force can burn out easily. It’s also possible to become so accustomed to success or winning (however a particular student wants to define it) that she won’t know how to deal with setbacks. Students who are used to perfection or near-perfection can have a hard time recovering from life events that derail their academic performance, or even losing out to people who are more talented in a certain area.
What these particularly driven students have a hard time trusting is that a successful career is about long-term commitment and effort. That’s not the same as being the best at everything every time. The common characteristic of people who are successful is that they don’t quit when they lose. They might take some time to lick their wounds after a defeat, or struggle with self-doubt, but successful people are committed to pursuing their dreams. It’s also important to pair this ambition and drive with realistic expectations. When students set their sights too high, it’s easy to become disappointed and embittered.
5. Accept that not going to a top-tier school isn’t the end of the world (— not by a long shot).
My goal was to attend Harvard, but I didn’t get in. The best thing to ever happen to me was going to Berkeley. The second best thing to happen to me was being rejected from Harvard.
During high school, all I knew about higher ed were the annual rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report. I was clueless about its biases, and I had no idea that I would meet people all throughout my life who had not attended top-ranked schools but who still made a decent living doing meaningful work. While it is true that having a degree from a prestigious school opens certain doors in the professional and academic worlds, it is definitely not a magical solution to a successful career after college.