It's all about packaging
In high school, I went for a meeting with my mom and my college counselor to talk about my future plans. “So,” she began,” have you begun thinking about where you want to apply for college?”
The truth was that I had been thinking about it a lot, and I knew that I wanted to go to Columbia. (Ha! How times change…) “Yes,” I said. “I want to go to Columbia.”
My counselor’s face visibly tensed up. “Well…” she began, clearly going in a direction I wasn't going to like. “You might not get into Columbia, so let’s think about some backup options.” And she typed into her computer “colleges similar to Columbia.”
And what results did Google give her? Shockingly, it told her that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and UPenn were all “colleges similar to Columbia”… all schools that I also was unlikely to get into, according to her.
Of course, I ended up having the last laugh — I’m now in my fourth year at Princeton. But the point she made stuck with me: she didn’t think I’d get in. And in a way, my college counselor was right: in high school, I was an excellent student with many accomplishments — but this does not admission make. The chances of getting into any of these top schools — be they Columbia and Princeton or MIT and Stanford — is so low that students at the top of their classes, like the high school version of me, have low chances of admissions.
So how do they get in? Or, in other words: how did I prove to my college counselor that she was wrong?
I packaged myself properly. Like I said before, any high-achieving high school student is impressive — but there are thousands of them across the country (and, really, the world) competing for a small set number of spots. But the key to admissions success is having your accomplishments, grades, letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars culminate in telling a story about you, i.e. what you excel at, what you hope to pursue, and how you can contribute these things to your new campus community.
For example, my favorite hobby — to this day — is learning foreign languages. I’ve been doing it for fun since seventh grade. My application, then, revolved, to a degree, around learning languages: I took the AP exams of the languages that I had self-studied, participated in regional Japanese competitions, and got some of the highest marks in school on the National Latin Exam every year. I helped to found the German Club at my school, and took college-level classes in Biblical Greek and Somali while in high school. I started my own online translation business in high school, so I was able to earn money using the languages I had learned. My Common App essay was about how much I enjoyed learning languages and what doing so had taught me about the world.
Not everything on my application was about languages, though: I took voice lessons and participated in Model UN. It was perfectly normal for me — as it is for others — to have passions and interests outside of the one or two that they want to frame their college applications around. In fact, it showed that I have other ways to contribute to campus besides languages!
But figuring out the crux of your application is crucial. Imagine that you are an admissions officer — you are looking at hundreds of these applications, and the ones that tell a story — the ones that stand out! — are the ones that you are likely to pick. My college counselor in high school also worked with dozens of top students who didn’t get in, likely, in large part, because they weren’t “packaging” themselves correctly: they hadn’t chosen a story to tell in their application.