To my friends at Caesar Rodney High School who are applying to an elite university:
You are probably a high achieving student in high school. You have consistently earned straight A’s since ninth grade and always strived for perfection. In your free time, you participate in a variety of extracurricular activities across a wide set of disciplines: marching band, Boys/Girls State, National Honor Society, Science Olympiad, model congress, art studio, conservation society, quizbowl, Spanish club, and much more. You probably stay awake until the early hours of the morning doing homework. You spend all of this time to become a “well rounded student.” Because of all of this, you think that you are a world class student and will apply to the Ivy League, believing that you will surely receive an acceptance letter.
To put it simply, you are not a top-tier student. I know that I probably just dropped a bombshell on you, but if you go into the college application process with this mentality, then you will almost assuredly not be accepted by any Ivy League university. This does not mean that you cannot get in; instead you have to change the reasons as to why you think you should be selected to study at one of these esteemed institutions.
From the applicant’s perspective, the college application process seems random, chaotic, and like a lottery because of the increasingly low admissions rates. From university’s perspective, it is not random. As a student on “the other side,” all of the puzzle pieces are beginning to fit together. Colleges want to create a dynamic class with a diverse set of perspectives. They are looking for a well rounded class, not well rounded individuals. Everyone here is an expert in something. No one is an expert in everything.
I will start by addressing my introductory comments. No matter how good your grades and test scores are, how many awards you have won, or how many hours you have studied, there is always someone better. From my experiences thus far, a surprisingly large proportion of the University’s students come from academically strong upper-middle class high schools. Princeton may tout that 60% of students come from public schools, but that does not necessarily mean that they come from public schools like CR. Many of them are like Princeton High School (20/~400 students go to Princeton each year), Thomas Jefferson School of Math and Science (#1 ranked high school in the country), or Cupertino High School (Silicon Valley resources). These schools are often well funded and offer myriad opportunities that simply are not available to students at your average cup o’ joe high school. The Daily Princetonian found in a survey that on average 8 students go to an Ivy League school from each freshman’s high school class. That isn’t CR. I don’t hold any grudges against students who went to these elite high schools. They are great people and some are my friends. I am merely trying to display the facts or, in the words of Chris Christie, “tell it like it is.”
In a nutshell, I am saying that you cannot compete with these students on an equal playing field solely in terms of your academic résumé. You will always be beaten by them. If you have taken 14 AP classes, someone has taken 15. If you were elected the governor of Boys State, someone was elected the president of Boys Nation.
Strive to do your best on tests; after all, the SAT is an initial number used to sort through applicants. Don’t misinterpret my advice, you need a strong application with good grades and high achievements, however, to really shine, you need to focus on YOU for the application process. Anyone can be a top-tier student. You must convince the admissions officers that you are the most passionate high school senior in the world for a particular subject. The key to this is the essay portion.
What are you passionate about? Why? What wakes you up in the morning? Why? What have you learned? Why? “Why” should be at the core of all of your college application essays. Why do you do what you do? Watch this Ted Talk. It is perhaps the single greatest resource for writing your essays. Don’t focus on what you did or what you will study. Write about why you did these things and why you want to study them. Go deep. Expose yourself. Show the admissions officers your soul. If you feel as though your essay is not good enough, keep asking “why” in respect to what you are writing about. Show. Don’t tell. This requires much personal reflection.
Second, shape your perspective in the essays. Your perspective is a product of your environment. For some, it is their family. For others, it is their school. In my essays, I discussed Delaware’s natural environment to explain how it shaped my perspective. Capitalize on the fact that you come from a small town. Maybe mention how Delaware lies along the divide in northern and southern culture. Does going to Rehoboth Beach impact you?
Third, be very specific about what you want to study and your career plans. Try to avoid general or very popular majors that people pick when applying to a certain school, like the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton or business for the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, pick a program that people usually do not associate with that particular elite school. For example, I applied as a geosciences major to Princeton.
Very few people associate geosciences with Princeton and only 8-12 people major in it per class. Princeton needs students who are interested in geosciences to perpetuate its program, but few ever apply because Stanford University or the University of Oklahoma are at the top of some arbitrary ranking. Princeton’s geosciences program is strong, having contributed a co-discoverer of plate tectonics and the lead author for the fourth IPCC report. By applying as a geosciences major, I increased my worth in the eyes of the University because I would fill a slot for which few apply.
Woodrow Wilson, finance, and computer science majors are a dime a dozen at Princeton. Geosciences, classics, history, and French majors are rare. Additionally, if you apply for one of a university’s world-renowned programs, you will be competing against the top students in that field. Are you really competitive against them?
Selecting a rare major for your application alone will not increase your chances of admission. Anyone can check a box on a form. You have to prove your passion for it. Sell yourself.
Should you choose a popular major because nothing else interests you, refer to the first sentence of the third point. The same goes for your career plans. Be specific. Extrapolate (but don’t outright lie). Why are you passionate about this very narrow field? The college cannot penalize you after admissions for changing your career plans. Explain how your passion makes you the most qualified for that spot.
Once you have written the essay, send it to as many family members as possible for editing. Listen to their opinions. Make corrections. See if it makes sense to them. Ask a teacher to read it. The most important advice that I have for this is to not lose your own voice in the editing process, otherwise the admissions officers will think that your parents wrote the essay. Take the editor’s advice, but say something if it does not sound right. Use as much time as needed. It is better to submit a strong application for Regular Decision than it is to submit a mediocre application for Early Action. You will not receive any preferential treatment for submitting your essays early. I didn’t submit my Princeton application until 6:00 pm on December 31.
This is my best advice. By writing my applications in this manner, I was accepted to Princeton and waitlisted by Harvard, Cornell, and Duke. I suspect that I was waitlisted by them because my SAT score was at the extreme low end of their ranges; I opted to work on my Hornaday projects instead of studying for the SAT (I despised College Board’s standardized tests). No regrets. Another reason why I may have been waitlisted is that I did not “fit” into their vision for the class of 2020. Perhaps there were more qualified prospective Earth science majors who had “beaten” me in the process.
Do not feel bad if you are not accepted to an Ivy League school. You were rejected along with 85-95% of other applicants. It is nothing personal. Do not become emotionally attached to these schools. If you still want to go to the Ivy League, apply to it for graduate school. I can think of many ways in which a doctoral, business, or law degree from Harvard University is more impressive and prestigious than an undergraduate degree from it. You can be successful at any institution that you go to as long as you take the initiative to utilize all of its resources.
I leave you now with a challenge. Look at the admissions statistics for Princeton’s Class of 2020 below. Only three students were accepted from Delaware for the Class of 2020. Only three students were accepted from Delaware for the Class of 2019. There is no quota, but assume that Princeton will take only three students from Delaware each year. Invariably, at least one, if not two or all three, of these students will come from the academically strong high schools in the northern portion of the state. This year it was Archmere Academy and Tower Hill School. As a result, it is likely that only one student from southern Delaware is admitted to Princeton each year. Every high school in southern Delaware probably has at least one student or applying to Princeton. What makes you the best student in southern Delaware? Why? Be one of them. Now prove it.
I came to Princeton because an adult leader in Boy Scouts encouraged me to apply and continuously told me, to my own disbelief, that I would be accepted. He was right. You can be admitted to one of these elite schools too. Work hard and never give up during these final few months of high school. I believe in you.