What on earth are they looking for?


Every year, after getting rejected by their “dream schools”, some frustrated students and their parents would ask this question:”What on earth are they looking for?”

The student has a perfect GPA, perfect standard test scores, and by the way, the student is the president of some school club, participates in certain sports, and won state-level academic awards too. However, the student is rejected by his/her dream-school.

There are two reasons.

One is pure bad luck: the student is qualified, is admissible, but the college simply runs out of the room, so you are admissible, but not admitted! In this case, there is nothing you can do. But what you can be assured is, you would be able to get admitted by some other schools at a similar level.

The second reason is: you lack the last mile.

What is that last mile? When applying for most selective schools, ask yourself:

  1. Do you have some extraordinary talents and accomplishments? Extraordinary talent is not ” I play piano and I have some certificate”, it is you won some international piano contest. or You are an Olympic medalist.
  2. Have you overcome life’s adversity? Through this adversity, you show your extraordinary characters.
  3. Do you have unique life experiences and cultural backgrounds that would contribute to the diversity of the class?
  4. Do you have demonstrated leadership and creativity?
  5. Have you shown a genuine passion for things you do? Not for seeking trophies and medals.

When Harvard was sued by Students for Fair Admissions for its race-conscious admission process, I received an email from Harvard to its alumni. In that letter, it indicates every year, Harvard received many qualified applicants, the admission committee looks for those who have extraordinary talents and accomplishments, who overcome life’s adversity and who have unique life experience and cultural backgrounds.

When I spoke with admission officers from highly selective colleges, the general feedback I got for some students they rejected is:” Unfortunately, this student lacks the last mile. He/She has a laundry list of activities, but we can not remember him/her. We don’t know why they do things they do. They are all the same, straight-A GPA, perfect SAT, 10 APs, this award, that award. But they are just faceless. They packed their schedule with activities and competitions, but we just can not see the passion, zeal, and character.”

This happens way too often to some students who do not really reflect on their own values, motives and pursue their true passions, but over-focused on prestige and name-brand schools. In order to get in those schools, they do things that they thought will help them in college applications instead of things they really enjoy doing. They participate in way too many academic competitions but could not get real far. They try too hard to impress the admission officers in their essays, that their essays showed a fake smile.

I’ve never advocate for setting you goal as ” Ivy schools”. Those who did get into Ivy schools are those who showed the last mile in their application.

I would also say, I don’t know who is more fortunate, those who did get into their dream schools or those who didn’t.

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