The belief is that exceptional grades, high test scores and an assortment of extracurricular activities will give you a fighting chance anywhere. If you throw in the fact that a parent attended the college, that the student is an athlete, or that the student does not need financial aid, the scales will most certainly tip in favor of admission.
The fact is that only some of this is true. Guidance counselors, the media, and even some colleges themselves will tell you that being a well-rounded student is the ticket to college. But think for a second. Don’t you think most of the applicants to a selective college are well-rounded? And many of the selective colleges you are considering only accept 1 in every 10 students who apply. How do they decide to admit one student over another if they are all strong students with an array of activities? Better still, what about the case of the student with average grades and test scores who is admitted over the valedictorian?
The truth is that the selective colleges are not looking for the most well-rounded students but rather the most well-rounded class. Once the admissions committee is satisfied that a prospective student can handle the academic work at their college (which 95% of the applicants can), they choose whom they wish to admit based on other factors. They look for that special talent, skill or experience that a student will bring to their college that other candidates do not possess.
You know admissions operates in this manner in the case of the highly-touted high school quarterback or the very talented captain of the swim team. What you may not be aware of is that this very same principle is in operation with the student who can compellingly convey their commitment to volunteerism or who can write lucidly about the profound affect a trip to Europe had on their perceptions of the world and other people. They are looking for students who have committed to something in the external world or mastered some understanding of the interior world. This leads to an entering class of students that is interesting and vibrant.
Somehow you already sensed this. That is why you urge your son or daughter to work so hard on standing out in their personal essay. But there is a wrinkle in this equation that you might not be aware of. In most cases, the talent, skill or experience that will most influence an admissions committee — and how to communicate it — is not necessarily obvious to a family, or even to a guidance counselor. For this reason alone, a family with high aspirations for their son or daughter should consider hiring a consultant, preferably one who has an Admissions Office. Why this type of consultant with this type of experience? Because a person who has been in this position understands how institutional need and goals (which include the need for a diverse class), external constituencies desires (which include alumni and donors), and community interests (which include an emphasis on accessibility) must all be balanced in the formation of the entering class. This knowledge can inform the decisions about which traits to highlight in the application.
The best admissions consultants offer an array of services that can ease much of the pressure and anxiety that comes with this all-important process. The most important steps you can take if you want the best possible college for your child is to find someone that can provide insight into the twists and turns of the admissions process and offer you assistance in identifying what is profoundly unique about your child and guidance as to the most effective methods of communicating that to the colleges in which you have an interest.