What’s it take to get into Stanford, MIT, Harvard, the rest of the Ivy League, or other dream schools? It’s about pursuing the right extracurriculars
…even if you think you don’t have time and are already a senior
…even if you believe you aren’t good at anything
Table of Contents
- So You Want to Get Into the Ivy League, Huh?
- So Who is This Guide For, Exactly?
- The Most Dangerous College Myth: A Well-Rounded Student
- The Biggest Obstacles to Getting Accepted
- How Students Are Judged
- How Extracurriculars Are Judged
- How to Avoid Playing the College Admissions Lottery
- Stop Doing These: The Extracurriculars and Other Things That Aren’t Worth It
- The Greatest Foe to Superstardom: Mismanagement of Time and Priorities
- How to Identify a Passion and Attain Superstardom
- Prestigious Programs to Join
- Mentorship: The Shortcut to Excellence
- How to Build a Monument Project to Impress the Stuff Out of Colleges
- How to Optimize Your Summer for Maximum Impressiveness
- FAQs: Addressing Common Objections
- Next Steps & Work With Me
So You Want to Get Into the Ivy League, Huh?
Do you dream of waltzing through those majestic iron wrought gates at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, one of the other Ivy League schools, or any elite caliber school? (Yes, I know Stanford and MIT are not part of the Ivy League, but I’m grouping these schools together with their top-tier peers.)
That’s incredible, and I applaud your ambition. I get it. The allure is undeniable. A world-class school with prestigious Nobel Laureates and distinguished faculty, amazing programs and facilities, and of course the name brand recognition that comes from one of these elite schools.
But what does it take to get in? There’s a mountain of “advice” out there, often contradictory and often too vague or generic to be helpful. Most of all, this advice often comes from counselors who haven’t personally gained admissions into the Ivy League or another top school.
I am a relatively recent Brown University alum — young enough to have competed in today’s much more selective admissions environment, but old enough to have gained over a decade of experience from consulting hundreds of students.
I don’t say this to brag, but to point out that it’s much easier to preach something than it is to walk the talk. I’ve done the latter, so I know what’s realistic (and just how hard it is) for students. I can empathize with what students today are going through. But even then, I made many mistakes (because no one ever revealed to me what I should have been doing back then). These mistakes prevented me from achieving even higher, such as Stanford or Harvard, both of which rejected me. I wished someone had pointed these things out to me before it was too late, but now, I want to reveal those things to you throughout this guide.
Truthfully, I think you already know what elite colleges want:
- Stellar GPA filled with a rigorous curriculum of APs, Honors, and/or IB classes
- High SAT/ACT scores and SAT Subject Test scores
- Top-notch extracurriculars, prestigious awards, and incredible talent
- Memorable personal statements (i.e. college essays)
- Enthusiastic letters of recommendation
Sure, there are other factors too (with varying level of importance):
- Demonstrated interest (did you go on official college tours, attend school representative meetings, email the school with thoughtful questions?)
- Interview performance
- Legacy (did you parents, grandparents, etc. attend the same school?)
- Family background (education level, occupation, etc.)
- Financial status (many schools claim they are “need-blind” when it comes to financial aid, but money still plays a factor)
Then there are factors that may seem a little unfair and frankly out of your control:
- Mega-donor (donate $10 million+, but even this isn’t as straightforward as simply plunking down the cash)
- Prestige boosters (A-list celebrities, children of prominent political figures, etc. who can boost the reputation of the college)
- Special connections
- Race/ethnicity (not directly, but say you’re Asian and your app seems nearly indistinguishable from the other 100,000 Asians applying, then it’s going to hurt your chances)
And of course, don’t do anything stupid like criminal activity, spew hateful or racially charged messages, or be an all-around jerk. Students have literally gotten their Harvard acceptances rescinded for inappropriate behavior as recently as this year (2017).
This guide isn’t just for students shooting for the top 10 or 15 schools in the nation. It’s for ALL students and parents aiming to expand their pool of options for colleges. If you are someone who wishes to get into the best colleges you possibly can, this is the guide for you. That’s because what works to get into the top colleges also works for the mid-tier and other colleges, though you can achieve things to a lesser extent.
I’ve had many parents tell me, “Well, we’re not looking for anything crazy like Harvard or Stanford, so do we still need to do all this?”
The answer is yes. The more you can achieve, the higher your chances at any school – obvious, right? Now, you don’t need the same stratospheric level of accomplishment that the Ivy League may expect, but you still want to follow the principles I’m about to lay out.
If you don’t, you risk becoming the PRECISE OPPOSITE OF WHAT COLLEGES WANT: a well-rounded student.
Wait, what?! Colleges don’t want a well-rounded student?
Yes, you read that right. COLLEGES DO NOT WANT A WELL-ROUNDED STUDENT!
That brings me to my next section:
Again, COLLEGES DO NOT WANT A WELL-ROUNDED STUDENT!
I cannot emphasize that enough. Understanding that statement is the crux of building a successful application. Doing everything in your power to NOT become well-rounded is the unequivocal best strategy to getting into your dream school.
But what exactly is the problem with well-rounded students, and how did this myth begin?
It began as a distortion of the truth: colleges want a well-rounded class. Let’s say a school accepts 2,000 students this year. Ideally the school hopes, say, 100 of these students will be the top engineers in the world, another 100 will be the best artists, another 100 will be world-class Olympic or professional athletes (or at least Division 1, D2, or D3 recruited collegiate level athletes), another 100 to be the elite Grammy-winning musicians, and so forth.
As you can see, the entire make-up of the class is quite diverse: engineers, artists, athletes, musicians, and so on. The class is well-rounded; however, each individual student is not! Each student is a superstar in his or her respective field!
Specialization is the winning ticket!
Think about it from the colleges’ perspective. If you, as an admissions officer, are presented with two students, one who is world-class at what he does (say creative writing) — even if that student has huge weaknesses in other areas such as math — and another student who is decent at everything, but not the best at anything, who would you pick?
Being well-rounded means you are so-so at everything, a jack of all-trades, master of none. That means this student is much less likely to make the school famous in anything. To really make a difference in this world, to boost the school’s reputation, you want to be the TOP in your specific arena, pushing the frontiers, making innovative discoveries and advancements to impact society.
You want to be a king or queen of your field, NOT a jack of all trades.
If you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, or J.K. Rowling, it doesn’t matter that you are terrible at certain things. If you are specialized in something, truly dedicated yourself to your craft, and have achieved greatness in your particular passion, you will be flagged as a “Heck yes! Admit!”
A specialized superstar is much more likely to make the schools proud, which in turn, boosts their prestige, which leads to more funding and attracts other top talent, which then continues the cycle. Colleges want to influence the world in positive ways, and the best way they can do that is by attracting and mentoring specialized superstars who go on to change the world.
So the best application strategy is to figure out your personal passion, then develop it hardcore and achieve as much as you can within that field.
Combine that with top grades, stellar test scores, strong college essays and recommendations, and you’ll have yourself a winning ticket into the gilded ranks of elite colleges!
It’s hard enough to get great grades and test scores on top of a mountain of extracurricular activities, but let’s talk about what REALLY makes it so hard to gain admissions these days.
First, let’s look at the statistics.
Admit % 2016
Admit % 2004
As you can see, the acceptance percentages have plummeted! With such low numbers, it’s no wonder so many students and families give up before they’ve even tried. I don’t blame them.
But what’s causing the rates to drop like a rock tied to a giant anchor?
Three major obstacles:
- The Internet
- Cookie-cutter students
- Misconceptions about what’s important to colleges
Let’s go through them.
Yes, the Internet is a huge problem. In the past, applications were paper-based. You had to physically fill out and mail in your application, which meant applying to a large number of schools was tedious and difficult. Furthermore, there wasn’t such pressure back then to get into elite schools. And it was much easier to get accepted then too.
Today, with the Internet, we have online applications such as the Common Application or Coalition App, to name a few. These applications allow students to quickly check a few boxes and apply to a large number of schools all at once. For the University of California, all you have to do is check all the campuses to apply to them all – it’s the same universal application for all the UC schools.
Similarly, the Common App makes it exceedingly simple to apply to multiple private schools in one fell swoop. Sure, you have to write additional supplement essay questions for each school, but the bulk of the application is universal – hence the name “Common App.” The main personal statement and the main paperwork is all the same for all the colleges that use the Common App (which is the vast majority of private schools). Because it’s now so easy to apply to more schools, students do just that.
Even though students are applying to more schools than ever before, the schools can’t magically make more space available on their campuses – there are physical and budget limitations on how many students can be accepted. The number of students a college can accept stays roughly the same year after year, but the number of students applying each year increases, so the acceptance percentage goes way down.
Now that the percentages have dropped, students/families begin to panic. They see these crashing numbers, so they figure they should apply to even MORE colleges…just in case. That creates a negative feedback loop, in which every year more students apply to more colleges, which leads to lower and lower admission percentages, which in turn, causes students to apply to even more schools and lower the percentages further!
Every year, you can easily find reports of record-shattering number of applicants for nearly every single one of these top schools (and even mid-tier schools). And universities BOAST about this! It’s an indicator of pride for them because it shows how popular they are – if so many people are applying, the school MUST be excellent, right? That’s the line of thinking from them anyways.
That’s why people these days are so focused on U.S. News rankings and brand name schools. It’s a huge popularity contest, so students really lose out on finding the college that can uniquely match their specific personality and interests. Yes, I know a name brand school can make opportunities in life appear more easily, but success is what you make of it, not what a school in and of itself provides.
Okay, so getting back to the topic — we’ve identified the Internet, and specifically, universal applications such as the Common App, as one big obstacle that makes it hard to gain admissions.
What’s another obstacle?
Being a cookie cutter student is terrible, and I’m sure you know that, yet why is it so easy to become one? Knowing that this is an issue isn’t enough to avoid this deadly trap. It’s like a black hole – you recognize the danger, yet you can’t escape the intense draw. Its gravity is too powerful.
Look, you can’t ALL be the same exact kind of star…
What am I talking about? Well, it comes down to social psychology, namely, peer pressure. If you see all your peers doing something, you naturally want to do it too. You don’t want to be left out. Maybe you’re competitive and don’t want to feel your peers have an advantage over you. But the issue more likely stems from social psychology. As humans, we’re naturally drawn to things that other people like. If everyone says this thing is great, then you’re very likely to go along with it, even without doing your own research or thinking on it. It’s herd mentality; it’s social acceptance mindset; it’s a sense of belonging and community.
You see Jason joining marching band, so Julia joins too, who encourages Robert to come along. Soon, half the class is a part of the group. That’s why we see these massive clubs at high schools where 99% of the students are merely participants. This isn’t their true passion, yet because so many people are doing it, these students think they better do it too. Can you see how cookie cutter students are so easily formed?
Being a cookie cutter student is terrible when it comes to college admissions!
The golden rule is to identify what everyone else is doing, then do the opposite!
That’s how you stand out, duh! Hopefully it goes without saying, don’t stand out in a negative way. If no one is getting arrested, don’t go start drug-dealing, ya know?
I’ve worked with hundreds of students for the last decade, and I’ve seen this sea of sameness in so many different schools – public schools, private schools, even homeschools. The number one complaint I hear from my admission officer colleagues is that they can’t tell students apart.
Why is everyone doing piano? How come everyone is doing sports? Why is everyone volunteering (when it’s painfully obvious this isn’t their passion)? Some schools require a certain amount of community service hours to graduate, but I see countless students put in far beyond the minimum number for no advantage in college admissions because their volunteering is too basic.
Clones, clones, clones!
This is not to say any of these activities are bad in and of themselves. But when your overall profile looks strikingly similar to the next student’s, you’ve become a cookie-cutter student.
Now the admissions committee have no special reason to pick you over your virtually identical friend. You’re just not memorable. Admissions officer spend a grand total of about 5-8 minutes scanning your entire application, so if nothing immediately grabs their eye, you have now been relegated to what I call admissions purgatory.
This is where you are just as qualified (or maybe even slightly more so) than the other students trapped in the same purgatory, so admission officers begin whimsically saying yes or no. There’s no real rhyme or reason. Maybe this student was a basketball captain, and the officer is a huge basketball fan, so that student gets a leg up. This is why you hear stories of students slightly less qualified than another student get in. To the admissions committee, all these students are generally the same, so it doesn’t matter to them which one they choose or deny. It’s the admissions lottery, the worst place to be, but I’ll show you how to avoid it in the next few pages.
But let’s move onto the third major obstacle to college admissions.
Misconceptions about what’s important to colleges.
Perhaps the biggest issue that stops your college dream right in its track is not knowing what colleges want, at least not the extent of each factor’s importance. Sure, GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and extracurriculars are critical, but how much?
Which door should you take? Hmm…
I’ve run into too many students who severely focus their energies on the wrong things. Perhaps the greatest misconception is how important AP classes are. Students often feel they need to take 10+ APs by the time they graduate, so they devote so much blood, sweat, and tears into these tough classes. Maybe they even ace them all and earn a perfect 5 on every AP test. Sounds like an amazing student, right?
WRONG! These students work themselves to the bone to achieve these amazing grades and test scores — to the detriment of other things that are at least equally important! Yes, top colleges want to see you take a rigorous curriculum, which means taking several APs and Honors classes to prove that you’re willing to challenge yourself and able to excel in tough academic environments. However, I’d encourage you to think about thresholds and the law of diminishing returns.
Say you’ve already taken 8 AP classes. Another 1 or 2 APs will make ZERO difference to colleges. That’s because at around 8 AP classes, colleges already consider you someone who likes to academically challenge himself or herself. You’ve checked off their “AP” box already, so additional APs beyond that provide little to no gain, even if you get an A in these extra classes.
Remember, admission officers are spending only about 5-8 minutes on your application. They are evaluating you holistically (that means, as a whole person). They aren’t going to debate the merits of 8 APs versus 9 APs. To them, the student who has taken 8 versus the student who has taken 9 are both stellar students, but the person who took 9 (or even 10, 11, 12+) is not considered “more stellar.” They are virtually EQUAL on the academic front.
However, the student who overloaded his or her schedule with tough APs is at a severe disadvantage on OTHER fronts. The exorbitant time and stress it takes to do well in an AP class is time you can’t spend on your extracurriculars, developing an amazing specialty and passion. For elite colleges, extracurriculars are the main differentiators between one stellar academic person and the next.
At the level of top colleges, it’s EXPECTED you have an amazing GPA with a rigorous course load, but if that’s ALL you have going for you, you are doomed. It’s almost 100% guaranteed rejection from the Ivy League, despite your perfect 4.0 unweighted GPA.
Of course, a weak GPA is pretty much instant rejection (unless you are a special case, such as a mega-talent in something, a mega-donor, the child of the President, or something). Typically, a great GPA is simply the price to play, but it’s not enough to win.
You need an amazing extracurricular profile, in combination with top academics and SAT/ACT scores and other smaller factors, to earn admission at the nation’s top schools. Not understanding this will cause you to waste all your time and effort on things that don’t matter.
Another thing students typically don’t truly understand is just how critically important the SAT/ACT is. Sure, students know the test is important, but not really JUST HOW IMPORTANT. Hint: it’s a lot more important than you think. It’s worth about two or three full years of your entire GPA!
When I instruct students for the SAT or ACT, I tell them upfront before we start that they need to spend a minimum of 7 hours of productive study time per week. This is actually a very reasonable amount (1 hour per day), yet I’d say 90% of my students don’t do it. That means they’re going to take insanely longer to reach the scores they want. What could have been accomplished in 2-3 months drags into 6 months or more.
Sure, some students are lazy and unmotivated. But the bigger issue I see are “excuses,” priorities that students THINK are more pressing and important than preparing for the SAT or ACT. Yet, did you know that the SAT/ACT accounts for around 25% of the admissions weight? Your GPA is around 25-50% of what colleges care about, which makes the SAT/ACT worth anywhere from literally HALF to ALL of your entire high school GPA.
You’re likely spending thousands of hours across all of high school to earn your GPA, yet you can’t find 100-200 hours to study for the SAT or ACT? Does. Not. Compute!
Hour for hour, there is literally NOTHING BETTER you can do to improve your college admission chances than preparing for the SAT/ACT (until you hit your dream school’s average score or higher).
In no other activity, bar none, will you find it possible to improve your admission chances so drastically and so (relatively) easily than prepping for the SAT/ACT.
When students don’t do their SAT/ACT homework, I hear all sorts of excuses about how they were slammed with school: calculus test, history paper, group projects. Or worse, I hear how they had basketball practice or a swim meet. Or how they needed to go volunteer for community service to help a friend out. All of those pale in comparison to the importance of the SAT/ACT.
Even if doing your SAT/ACT practice means not doing so well on one particular test or assignment in school, even if it means getting kicked off your basketball team permanently, it would be worth it if it allows you to improve 100 points on the SAT or 3+ points on the ACT.
Think of it this way. If you’ve already put in 2 or 3 years in sports (which generally means hundreds, even thousands of hours), another 100 hours there isn’t going to move the admissions needle one bit. You already got credit for your sports, so 100 more hours there makes precisely 0 difference to colleges. But it robs you of a very precious 100 hours you could have used to study for the SAT/ACT, which usually means 200-300 point improvement (SAT) or 5+ point improvement (ACT). Now THAT makes an incredible difference!
100 points higher on the SAT (3 points on the ACT) roughly DOUBLES your chances of admissions.
The same problem holds true for your GPA. One particular test or assignment isn’t going to change your GPA drastically, unless it’s a mid-term or final exam. Even then, it will probably only affect your GPA by 0.1 or 0.2. It’s just ONE class out of dozens of classes. I’d take a 0.1 hit to my GPA any day if it means an extra 100 points on my SAT (3 points on my ACT) because the downside of a slightly lower GPA is far less detrimental than the massive upside of a vastly improved SAT/ACT score.
Now, I get it. School is important. Sports are important. You don’t want to let your teammates or coach down. But I think the REAL reason students almost always choose to focus their time on less important things is because those other things are immediate. The calculus test is tomorrow. Sports practice is today. Volunteering is this weekend. In contrast, the SAT/ACT is weeks or months away, so it feels like you still have time.
But this is faulty thinking that KILLS so many students. There will ALWAYS be another school test, another sports practice or game, another extracurricular event. You can’t wait for that rare week when your schedule is light enough to finally study for the SAT/ACT.
It’s like knowing it takes 30 minutes to drive to school before school starts at 8am but still being in bed at 7:45am. Sure, you’re not technically late yet – you still have 15 minutes. But you are AS GOOD AS LATE. There’s no way you’re going to roll out of bed, brush your teeth, get ready, drive to school, and still arrive on time.
This is what happens with students — sure, the SAT/ACT is still weeks or months away, but if you’re not consistently studying, the test is AS GOOD AS FLUNKED. I see people trying to cram in last minute studying one week (or even mere days) before the test. At that point, seriously, forget about it. You have no chance. Plan to retake.
People severely overestimate their willpower and motivation too. They say, “Oh, now that I’m on spring break with no school work to do, I will spend 8-10 hours a day studying for the SAT.” Please, be realistic! If you aren’t the type of person who can sustain 8-10 hours of work on a normal day, there’s no way in hell you will suddenly pull out the discipline to do that for a full week leading up to your test.
That’s why consistency is key. If you really cannot spend 1 hour a day studying, then at least spend 3-4 hours on the weekend to make up. But if you keep putting test prep off in lieu of less important things like schoolwork or extracurriculars, you are hurting your admissions chances tremendously.
If you truly recognize that the SAT/ACT is worth two to three years of your GPA, why wouldn’t you put in as many hours as possible into acing the test? In two years, you’ve likely put in 2,000 or 3,000 hours into school, so why is it so hard to put in 100-200 hours into prepping for the SAT/ACT?
Bottom line: understand the big picture of what you should prioritize and don’t get bogged down by the things that matter far less.
I’ve talked a lot about WHAT students are evaluated on: GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, etc. But now I want to talk about HOW students are judged.
No doubt you’ve heard stories about this amazing student with awesome stats and activities get rejected by a college, yet another student who seems objectively weaker in all areas get accepted by the same college. Why is this?
The answer lies in HOW colleges actually evaluate students. Colleges do this by comparing students against similar peers, NOT the entire application pool. That generally means you are being compared against your friends and classmates from your same high school, or at least your local area. You are not being compared directly to students from a faraway city or state.
It may seem unfair that one student has a higher GPA, a more rigorous course load, better SAT scores, and more impressive extracurriculars than a student from another high school, yet the second student is the one who gets accepted, not the first.
Let’s analyze why this happened.
The first thing you must realize is that colleges evaluate students on their life context. This is why applications ask for information such as parents’ education level, occupation, and income level. This is why they ask where your parents and siblings attended college, if at all. This is why they ask for demographic information, such as your ethnicity, city of residence, and so forth.
All of this data forms your life’s context. In essence, this is the environment in which you were raised. Clearly, students raised in a better environment with greater resources, finances, and opportunities have an easier time to achieve more — so colleges expect greater achievement from these students. And obviously, students raised in worse environments, say a gang-ridden territory full of drug dealers and criminals, will find it much harder to do well in school and find amazing extracurriculars to excel in — so colleges expect less of these students.
So what colleges are really judging you on is how you fared in comparison to your similar peers, those who grew up with generally the same resources and in the same environment as you. By and large, that means your classmates in your specific high school (and nearby high schools). You want to be WELL ABOVE AVERAGE compared to these similar peers.
Be the tall giraffe.
If everyone in your class has strong grades and SAT scores, then you should have even higher. If tons of people in your class are participating in the same general activities – marching band, sports, volunteering, etc. – then you need to do something a level beyond that, something more impressive and unique.
If a student from a run-down, unsafe neighbor is above average among his peers, even if his achievements are objectively worse than yours, he may gain admission while you don’t (because you are just average or below average among your peers).
For top private high schools and stellar public high schools, for example, the typical SAT score may be at least 700 in each subject. So if you get a 670, it’s going to look terrible for you. Another student may only get 590 on his math section, but if that’s the top of his class, then he’s going to look amazing.
Colleges recognize how crucial a role one’s life context plays in one’s achievements, so they take that into serious consideration.
If you come from a single parent family whose mother already works two minimum wage jobs, so it turns out you have to find a part-time job to help your family, then colleges will appreciate and reward your effort. From that angle, a lower GPA and lower test scores make sense, so colleges will cut you some slack.
Even though this student may have accomplished less than you, he accomplished more relative to what he was given. Colleges love seeing students who can rise to the occasion.
Here’s another analogy. Let’s say there’s a stock trader who is given $1 million to start. By the end of the year, he has $1.2 million, a profit of $200k. Not bad! But another investor is given only $100 to start, and by the end of the year he has $1,000, which is a $900 profit. Who do you think is more impressive?
Yes, the $1M guy earned far more, but it was only a 20% gain. The $100 guy earned far less, but he managed a 900% gain! Clearly, the second guy is massively more impressive. This is the same line of thinking colleges use when evaluating students.
The major point I’m trying to make is this: you are judged against your local peers, especially those from your high school. So make sure you are well above average if you want a shot at the Ivy League or other elite colleges.
If the average GPA at your school is a 3.7 with 7 APs, then you want to try to get 3.9 with 8 or 9 APs. If the average SAT score at your school is 1400, then you want to get 1500 or more. That’s really all there is to it. Be so far above average compared to your local peers that you leave no question in the admission officers mind that you will excel with whatever resources you’re given. That’s the type of student they want. Colleges do their best to nurture their students, but colleges want to see explosive growth in these students. If you can’t achieve greatness in proportion to your given resources, then the student who can is going to get the acceptance letter, not you.
There’s one more thing I want discuss here: how, specifically, are extracurriculars judged?
Many students and parents ask me which activities they should pursue: basketball? Speech and debate? Starting a business? Math Olympiad? Lab research internships?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter so much which specific activities you do. What matters is HOW you do them.
Crying is what you’ll be doing if you don’t have any hobbies.
Activities are judged on three main criteria:
- Dedication – how many hours and years have you put into this activity? The more the better (until it detrimentally affects other things too much) because it shows commitment. The very BEST in a field always spend tremendous amounts of time honing their craft, so colleges want to see evidence of this dedication. So if you can be a part of a club or project for several years, that’s better than one year or just a few weeks.
- Leadership – most students are mere participants, not leaders. They join the activity, but they just do what they’re told. This is utterly useless. You want to take initiative and demonstrate leadership, even if it means stepping outside the normal responsibilities and being creative. Top colleges want the innovators, not the followers. They want people who don’t simply follow the rules but make the rules up.
- Impact – how much positive contribution does your activity make to society? Even if it’s a personal talent such as art or writing, you can use that to better the world. But if what you do is completely selfish, then there’s no point.
It’s impossible to predict whether one specific activity is more valuable than another. That’s because a college’s preferences (and indeed, a specific admission officer’s personal biases) are always changing. If the school just invested $10 million on a new sports facility, then they’re probably going to give extra benefit to top athletes for the next few years. If the school cares heavily about scientific research, then students who pursue science may have the edge.
The big mistake is trying to curate your activities towards what you think a particular college may or may not want. Don’t, just don’t. If it’s not truly your passion, you won’t be happy nor have the motivation to pursue it to the deep level of achievement necessary for these elite colleges. Rather, find your true passion and develop that. If colleges want you, great. If not, then there will be other great colleges for you — even those of equal caliber.
Just make sure whatever activity you pursue, you show dedication, leadership, and impact. Now, you may be wondering, what if the activity is simply a one-time thing, perhaps a summer internship or project for just a few weeks? There’s no way you can show 2-4 years of dedication in these activities. But that’s fine. As long as that activity matches your theme, that is, your specialty, it all goes to show you’ve put in years in that field as a whole. That’s what ultimately matters.
Ever feel like college admissions is just one big lottery? Too many strange cases in which a seemingly well-qualified student was rejected, while seemingly under-qualified students are admitted? It can seem like one massive crapshoot.
But it doesn’t have to be. Not if you know what you’re doing, which is what this whole guide is devoted to revealing to you. Now you’re in the know, so you can avoid the admission lottery game.
When people see the insanely low admit percentages, what they don’t realize is that these numbers are an ILLUSION. The REAL chances of getting into Stanford are NOT 4.49% (Class of 2021). The ACTUAL odds of getting into Harvard are NOT 5.2% (Class of 2021).
Those numbers are simply the fraction of students who got admitted out of ALL students who applied. But remember, in reality, you aren’t competing against all of them. You’re mainly just competing against your local peers, so if you’re significantly above average among them, then you have a good chance.
There are generally three types of students colleges consider:
- Hell yes, admit!
- Seems well-qualified, so maybe admit.
- Hell no, definitely deny!
The reason most students feel like admissions is a lottery is that most students fall squarely in the middle category. There are countless students who have stellar grades, test scores, and generally decent extracurriculars. But there are exceedingly few students who are truly among the BEST at what they do. Then, of course, there are some unmotivated students who hardly bring anything to the table – these are easy “no”s.
Let’s consider Stanford, which accepts around 2,000 students a year. Of those 2,000, there is a certain number of students that were automatic “yes”s. These are the true superstar students, whose applications are so impressive that it’s a no-brainer to say “yes” to them. Let’s say 3% of the 47,000ish students who applied fall into this superstar category.
Do you really think those students have only a 4.49% chance of admission? Of course not! They are superstars. They probably have a 90-95% chance of admission. (Normally, these amazing students would only get rejected if they’ve done something truly egregious, like being convicted of a felony or being an arrogant, condescending, hateful, all-around unpleasant person – that’s the 5-10% chance of rejection).
Then there’s a huge percentage of applicants who simply have no chance whatsoever. Students with subpar grades or test scores (for Stanford) or very bland extracurriculars that show absolutely nothing special. Let’s say 50% of applicants are like this.
So if 3% are in the automatic yes category and 50% are in the automatic no category, that leaves 47% of students in the “well-qualified, so maybe admit” category. This is where the lottery comes into play. It’s about 50/50 chance of admissions here.
These students have generally great GPAs and test scores (maybe even perfect GPAs and scores), and they boast solid extracurriculars and awards. But nothing truly exceptional. That’s the problem. These are cookie-cutter students.
It becomes incredibly hard to tell the difference (much less remember) student A from student B, since nothing really stands out about either of them. If something did, they would have been in the “hell yes, admit” category, not stuck in this admission purgatory.
Now, what makes the differences between accept or deny is unpredictable. It’s based on the whims of the specific admission officers reading your app. Maybe they’ve just read 50 other apps, and they are too tired to care when you stumble across yours, app #51. Since nothing stood out about you, you get a “no.”
Or maybe the officer happens to deeply care about the environment and has participated in many environmental marches and events, so when a student who is involved in such activities comes across his desk, that student gets a special boost – “admit.” That student didn’t really go above and beyond in her environmental activities, so she isn’t more impressive than a student doing something else. Yet, because her admission officer happened to be a tree hugger, that student got the golden ticket.
Students stuck in the “maybe” category are subject to the admission officer’s personal whims and moods.
In fact, some deans of admissions have actually gone on record to admit that if they were to re-decide their admitted class, the accepted students would probably be different.
That’s why college admissions can feel like a lottery — because it is for these middle-tier students. Honestly, admission officers don’t really care if they take or accept these students. They are more like fillers, since the automatic yeses have already been accepted.
Since these mid-tier students all generally look the same, taking student A over student B doesn’t make much difference to the college. That’s why you’ll often hear about a student getting accepted into one or two top schools, but that’s about it.
If he were truly a superstar, he would be getting, 6, 7, or even 10 offers from Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the entire Ivy League. Nearly ALL of the elite colleges will extend offers of admission because they are clamoring for your superstar talent, drive, and passion. You are a rare breed, so just like so many dream of the Ivy League, now the Ivy League is dreaming about you. There is no lottery here. This is as sure a bet as possible.
The goal is not to be stuck in this middle category at all. You want to elevate yourself to superstardom, so you get an automatic yes!
Superstars don’t just get one or two yeses by elite colleges.
Of course, achieving superstar status is not easy. You may not actually make it to this stratospheric level, but you should try your best. As Norman Vincent Pealthe once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” That’s the right mentality to adopt.
In the coming sections, I will be covering practical suggestions on how to become a superstar. But before that, I want to discuss what NOT to do. These are things countless students pour thousands of hours into for no real boost to their admission chances.
Remember, the overall strategy I’m advocating here is simple: develop excellence in a particular specialty. This is going to be your hook or personal theme, the identity that admission officers will remember you by.
To that end, there are common extracurricular activities I see too many students pursuing that do not serve this purpose. For Ivy League caliber schools, these activities are nearly worthless from a college admissions perspective. They act as huge time and energy sucks that prevent you from achieving superstardom.
STOP in the name of Stanford, hah!
Okay, fair warning. What I’m about to say might make you angry, like REALLY angry. That’s okay – get offended and disagree fervently. But I’m never the type of person to sugarcoat something this important. Take a moment to think about the my logic, and see if it truly doesn’t make any sense.
Remember, I’m not saying these activities have no value in your life. I’m saying they have little value from a college admissions standpoint for top colleges (but sometimes, you gotta spend some time doing things for your own enjoyment, not to get into college…but think long and hard about whether you really need to spend as much time as you’re currently spending).
I’m also not saying you definitely CAN’T do these things. If you truly enjoy them, then go for it, but take them to the next level. Do something far above and beyond what others typically do in the activity.
Furthermore, does it mean that if you do any of the following activities that you can’t get into the Ivy League or top schools? Of course not. I’m just trying to say that there are better uses of your time, such as other activities that will return more bang for the hour.
Note: the activities I mention below may not impress Ivy League caliber schools, but they become more important for less selective colleges, such as USC, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA, even Berkeley.
The biggest time-wasters include:
1. Sports. This is probably the most nefarious time waster. Students love sports because they’re fun, they’re healthy, they build community and maybe even some leadership. But to be blunt, sports are a terrible return on time investment. You can easily spend 1,000+ hours in 3 years going to sports practice and games. Just think of how many hundreds of thousands of other students are in sports, just like you. Think about how many tens of thousands of other students are Varsity players and team captains. There’s nothing inherently special about these roles.
And if you’re not even one of the leaders, then you definitely have no chance of standing out. Unless you’re going to become the next Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, or Tiger Woods, sports are just not impressive. If a college or professional recruiter is not actively knocking on your door, trying to sign up, then that’s a sure sign you should stop pursuing sports clubs. You need to be a nationally ranked player for sports to be worth it (or least the very least, a top state player). If not, go ahead and enjoy sports on your own as a healthy hobby with friends, but please don’t devote 2-4 hours a day on it! Yes, the sheer amount of time you spent shows massive dedication, so you do get some credit for that on your college apps. But you could have some dedication AND excellence in something else, so for 99% of students, what they’ve accomplished in sports is not impressive. With 1,000 hours, you could have easily mastered something truly unique or achieved something else that would have been truly impressive.
2. Music, choir, marching band, color guard, cheer or pep squad. Playing an instrument, singing in a choir, being part of orchestra, marching band, color guard, or cheer/pep squad are very similar to sports. Hundreds of thousands of students participate in these activities, and the time-commitment is absurd. I know students who spend almost every weekend every school year practicing or going to competitions. Students spend even more hours after school practicing. But for what? Even if you are the drum major (or at the very least, a section leader), there are thousands of students who hold the same rank.
This is a very generic activity, which is precisely what makes it unimpressive. And if you’re simply a participant, not one of the leaders, then it’s a complete waste of time. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth. You may enjoy the activity and the camaraderie with friends, but you should enjoy those in your spare time, not devote thousands of hours to this activity. Even if you lead your team to win regionals or nationals, it’s only moderately impressive — because the activity is not very unique.
Similar to sports, music playing and earning level 10 piano certifications or whatever is not very impressive. Too many students hold this distinction, yet it costs you soooo much time and effort to achieve. Unless you are going to become the next Hans Zimmer or Yo-Yo Ma, music is not a wise use of your time for college admissions. I know the great personal benefits of music, and for those reasons, you can pursue it, but when it comes to college apps, music is exceedingly generic.
For music to be worthwhile, you need to be putting on shows at Carnegie Hall. You need to be signed by a major recording label. You need to have been nominated for Grammys, or better yet, won some. For 99.9% of students, that’s not going to happen.
3. Volunteering, especially mission trips, Habitat for Humanity, or teaching English abroad. Community service is another one of those things that most students are not truly passionate about, but it may be required for graduation. So they just do it. I’d simply do slightly more than the bare minimum number of hours required, but that’s it. Maybe 20-50 hours more at max. That’s because most volunteering is a highly generic activity. Most volunteering consists of low-level work, such as picking up trash, conversing with patients in a elderly care facility, gathering supplies at a hospital, or serving food to the homeless. These are not world-changing contributions, so the impact level is considered low. And if you’re merely a participant, not the one who coordinated the whole volunteer event, then you show no leadership or initiative either. Most students who volunteer participate in random, unrelated events too: cleaning the beach, caring for veterans, serving soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no cohesive story, so it hardly shows any passion or focus.
My advice? If you truly enjoy volunteering, make the events all centered around a particular theme, such as social justice protests. Become the founder of the club and organize the activities yourself. Or focus on a unique volunteer experience, something that will challenge your world perspectives, such as teaching literacy at a juvenile prison.
But if you find yourself simply tagging along to pitch in, well…don’t. There are better ways you can make an impact on the world that will be much more impressive to colleges.
Many students also feel joining their church or temple for a mission trip for a week or even a month or two shows compassion, humbleness, and willingness to work. It does to some extent, but it’s not very impressive. In fact, many of these mission trips that are now seen by colleges as glorified vacations disguised as “community service.” Pay $5,000 to go to Africa to help build homes for displaced children and teach them English. Things like that are not impressive, not only because so many students are doing this, but also because it does not show any real leadership. Unless you are the one founding a non-profit organization and coordinating everything and consistently organizing these events, you are not doing much for your college apps.
If service is truly your passion, then you need to take it to the next level (many levels higher, actually). You need to be like that teen who founded a social justice foundation as a freshman, delivered a TEDx talk about activism for teens, and was invited to the White House to speak with the President of the United States about such issues. He got into Stanford – but it’s clear why. He took “service” to the umpteenth level.
4. Shadowing internships or entry-level jobs. Not all internships are equal. For many students, their internship consists of little more than shadowing someone: a doctor, a business executive, a computer programmer, whatever. But if all you’re really doing is observing, then that’s not the least bit impressive. You need to gain some actual experience and contribute something to the hospital, company, or organization.
Many of these places don’t trust teenagers enough to give them any real responsibilities. That’s why so many interns end up simply fetching coffee, ordering meals, organizing supplies, mailing and filing papers, or photocopying. These are menial tasks that do not impress colleges and understandably so. Anyone could have done these things. The same idea goes to entry-level jobs, such as a cashier, stock boy, or fast food worker.
Thus, doing these activities hold very little water. Yet, they suck up incredible amounts of time. Now if your family situation calls for this, that’s a different story. If your family literally cannot survive without your financial contribution, then doing a job like this is admirable, and colleges will actually cut you some slack for not achieving greater things. However, if you are part of a middle or upper class family, entry-level jobs are generally not meaningful for college apps. If you are going to take one of these positions, then you have to get creative and ask for greater responsibilities. You need to take initiative and propose ways you can help, to expand your current role. If you are only doing grunt work, you might as well quit and find a better use for your time.
Jobs and internships that really matter are ones in which you actually contribute something substantial. For example, one student who got into Stanford was coding for Intel. Another student who got into Columbia was helping code for a video game developer. And another who got into UC Berkeley was working directly with algorithms for actual client marketing campaigns. I don’t mean to say your job must be in the tech field, but I am trying to illustrate that these job responsibilities are far more impressive than merely grunt work.
5. Summer classes or programs. There are really only a few reasons you should consider summer class/programs. One, you flunked a class and need to retake it. In that case, you absolutely NEED to do that. Two, you want to pursue an advanced or specific topic that isn’t offered at your school. Most high schools only offer the generic subjects: English, math, science, history, etc. If you’re interested in something more obscure, such as archaeology, then you can pursue it at a local community college or through a 4-year university. This shows curiosity and willingness to challenge yourself academically, since it’s a college class. Three, you want to take a more advanced class the next year at school, and taking a prerequisite class over the summer allows you to enroll in that advanced class during the normal school year.
The problem with most summer classes, however, is that they are nothing special. If it’s a standard class that doesn’t allow you to advance to a higher level during the school year, then there’s no real point in taking it. It’s just a time-filler without any actual benefit.
Similarly, students love signing up for summer programs at various universities over the summer: art, photography, entrepreneurship, computer science. Here’s the problem: the barrier of entry is low. Anyone with the money can typically join these programs by filling out a simple application. Even if the program is selective, they often aren’t THAT selective. There are only a handful of truly prestigious summer programs, such as Research Summer Institute or Young Engineering and Science Scholars, usually with extremely low admission percentages (around 5-10%), that can be worth it.
But if it’s easy to get into the program, then you’re simply becoming another follower, another participant. It shows little initiative on your part because all you really do is whatever they tell you. Anytime you find yourself simply doing what you’re told, that’s a good signal that what you’re doing probably isn’t worthwhile. You want to be different than others, so joining the same types of programs that thousands of students do isn’t doing you any favors.
There’s also a great misconception that going to pre-college summer programs at selective universities like Stanford, Harvard, or wherever will give you a better shot at admissions into their actual undergraduate program. But it does not, at least not necessarily! Going to Cornell for a summer program doesn’t make it easier to get into Cornell, unless you happen to meet a professor or influencer there who will vouch for you come admissions time. But going to Cornell CAN hurt your chances at other similar universities who may feel that you aren’t as interested in them. Why did you go to Cornell, not Brown, for summer, for instance? Brown may then feel you aren’t that serious about Brown because you’ve demonstrated more interest in Cornell, so Brown may not want to accept you as enthusiastically.
Sure, you demonstrated interest in Cornell, so Cornell may be happy about that (and I guess it helps your chances in that sense), but actually boosting your application’s merit just because you went to a Cornell summer program? Not really.
Better to spend your time and money pursuing more creative, unique, and meaningful projects and passions.
6. AP classes you know you can’t handle, especially ones that don’t support your specialty. Many students enroll in an AP class because they see all their friends doing it. They join because they feel that taking less than their friends is bad. Sure, taking less than average does hurt you, but you have to consider the trade-offs.
If taking this extra AP class in a subject that truly doesn’t excite you means you will find yourself struggling tremendously and spending extra time preparing for the class, then it may not be worth it. Think of all the dozens, if not hundreds, of hours you could save by taking the regular class or a different class altogether. That extra time can be funneled towards your true passion, becoming an expert in it, achieving greatness there. The benefit and impressiveness of that FAR outweighs the disadvantage of not taking that AP class.
While you should aim for a decent number of APs (as many as your school offers, up to 8-10 max for the Ivy League), anything more gives you diminishing returns. If you’ve taken no AP classes, then your first AP class gives you a huge boost to your admission chances. But if you’ve already taken 8, then taking a ninth doesn’t help you much at all. That’s because admission officers consider the rigor of your curriculum holistically. If they see yourself generally challenging yourself with AP classes, which you’ve proven by taking 8, then additionally challenging yourself doesn’t really change their impression.
It’s like someone telling you they are the #7 nationally ranked tennis player in the world versus someone telling you they are #6. Both them are at the top of their game, but #6 isn’t any more impressive. Sure, #6 is higher than #7, but at such a high level, you are simply impressed. Period. You can’t comprehend the slight difference between #6 and #7, so psychologically, you are equally impressed.
So taking an extra AP class or two when you’ve already taken many is a waste of time and energy. In fact, it’s HURTING your admission chances by stealing time away from what you need to be doing to stand out — building a stronger extracurricular profile. Challenge your extra time into achieving greatness in one of your activities instead.
7. ASB/student government. If you’re the class president (or better yet, the ASB president for the entire school), that might be worth something. It shows a bit of leadership. But think about how many thousands of ASB presidents there are applying to college every year. It’s a little special but not that special. If you have a lower position, then it gets even less special.
The problem with ASB is that it sucks up so much time to provide relatively low impact. Yeah, you’re helping plan the school rallies, school spirit week, prom, the school fundraiser, or whatever. You spend dozens of hours attending meetings or helping out at the float building days for Homecoming. You’re out there selling cookies and t-shirts to raise some money. All of this is great for building community and relationships with your friends and classmates. It may even help you develop a relationship with your school principal, who may write you a recommendation letter later (infinitely better than a rec letter from a school counselor).
But ultimately, you could have easily spent all those hours to achieve something far more meaningful. The goal is to achieve depth, not breadth. It doesn’t take much talent to organize a school rally, or man the bake sale booth, or help build a float. Almost anyone could do it, and that’s precisely the problem. The barrier of entry is low, so your contributions are bigger in title (ASB president) than in actuality (building a float, etc.).
Now, if you truly want to make this activity work, you would need to take initiative and make some real change in the school. See some injustice going on? Propose and implement an initiative against bullying. See that students are overwhelmed and depressed by academics — implement a new policy in school (by working with school administrators) for a de-stress day full of fun activities and dogs to pet or something. Recognize that the school isn’t offering enough to support budding entrepreneurs? Organize an assembly and invite some top entrepreneurs to put on workshops or talks to the student body.
Notice that none of these things require you to be ASB president to do. Any student could step up and do this. Leadership is not about a title; it’s about action. If you find yourself doing routine things — attending meetings where it’s more talk than action, performing grunt work like posting on social media, or generally doing a task that any friend or peer could easily take over without much training or skill — then it’s a clear signal you’re wasting time.
If you enjoy ASB because it models real government, then why not actually pursue a real political internship? Actually work with Congressmen or political leaders. Help research reasons to change a policy, help draft up a proposal, help organize a march or protest. Don’t simply file papers or fetch coffee — ask for greater responsibilities or just do them on your own.
8. Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts. This was a hard one for me to put down because I myself was a Boy Scout. I’ll speak about Boy Scouts, but the same holds true for Girls Scouts and Venturer Scouts. I was in scouting from first grade (Cub Scouts) to twelfth grade, and I loved it. I achieved virtually everything possible in scouting, except for the highest honor – Eagle Scout (because I didn’t do an Eagle Project, but that’s another story). I do regret not becoming an Eagle, but not because it lowered my admission chances. It didn’t really.
Growing up, I heard many parents and friends repeat the idea that earning the rank of Eagle Scout would be amazing for your resume. But there are far too many Eagle Scouts, and too many troops make it far too easy to obtain the rank. I’ve met dozens of freshmen and sophomores, or even younger, who are already Eagles. Seriously? Do you really think you’ve become a great leader at 13 or 14 years old? Colleges know this, which is why becoming Eagle Scout isn’t all that special anymore. Sure, it helps a little — but not enough to be worth the thousands of hours you’ve devoted to achieving it.
Think of all the patrol and troop meetings you’ve attended, all the campouts, jamborees, camporees, and other events you’ve participated in. All the community service events, all the board of reviews, and all the court of honors. This activity adds up to an exorbitant amount of hours that ultimately isn’t that impressive to colleges. Why? Because it’s a pretty predictable path to become Eagle. You just follow the path, do the work, earn the merit badges, and whatnot — voila, Eagle Scout! There’s no unique or deep impact on society. Mostly, this is a more-or-less guaranteed honor as long as you do the work; it’s not particularly competitive at the top levels. Eagle is more helpful for mid-tier schools.
Now, would I have given it up if I had to redo high school? Absolutely not. As I said, I loved the scouting experience. Some of my fondest memories came from scouting, but it didn’t do that much for my college app. What I would have done differently is attend fewer meetings and fewer campouts. Yes, your scoutmaster will probably be upset and chide you for your lack of commitment, but so what? Maybe it means you won’t achieve Eagle. But the real value of scouting is not the Eagle rank, but the experience itself. I’d do it for for fun, for friendship, and for the personal challenges, but NOT for college.
The litmus test for whether something is worthwhile for super selective colleges is this:
- Are you a leader, or will be soon, in this? If not, don’t do it.
- Is the barrier of entry to doing this low? If so, don’t do it.
- Will spending an extra 50-100 hours in this activity help me achieve something significantly more (such as becoming team captain or drum major, becoming nationally ranked, or getting published in a reputable science journal, etc.)? If not, stop doing it.
- Is it easy for others to understand how you achieved it? If so, don’t do it.
I totally get why people refuse to give up the sorts of activities I’ve mentioned above. They are incredibly fun and allow you to build strong friendships. However, to the top colleges, you’re largely just doing grunt work that doesn’t require any truly specialized talent. Colleges can easily understand what it takes to be on the volleyball team for 4 years – you go to practice and compete in games. Sure, you’ve dedicated thousands of hours (shows commitment), but it’s basically the same motions over and over, which makes it unimpressive. Unless you’re going to be nationally ranked, it’s not worth it.
But people find it harder to understand how someone became a TEDx speaker, or got their novel published by a major publishing house, or hit the top 100 in the Apple app store with their program, or gained 100k subscribers on their YouTube channel. If most people would not be able to understand how you achieved your accomplishment, then that activity is valuable for admissions.
We’ve talked about the time-wasters in the previous section, but what about the things that ARE worth pursuing hard?
I see far too many students devoting so much time to things that don’t matter and barely any time in things that matter tremendously. Part of this can be chalked up to human nature.
It’s always easier to do things that are more fun, such as attending sports practice, especially when it FEELS productive (but it’s not), than real work.
But part of this is also because most people don’t have a strong sense of exactly how important various factors are in college admissions.
Here’s how top colleges typically weigh each factor:
- GPA and the rigor of your curriculum: 25-50%
- SAT/ACT: 25-50%
- Extracurriculars: 20-30%
- College Essays: 10-30%
- All other factors (rec letters, interview, legacy, demonstrated interest, etc.): 5-15%
Recognize where to spend your time for maximum impact.
You need a top GPA and test scores to even be in the running for elite colleges. But they alone are not enough. That’s when extracurriculars and college essays become distinguishing factors.
So of course, you want your GPA to be superb, but it doesn’t need to be perfect, not even for Harvard or Stanford. Remember the law of diminishing returns. A 3.9 isn’t really less impressive than a 4.0, but it takes 10x or even 100x more effort to get that 4.0. Admissions works according to THRESHOLDS. Once you pass a certain bar, colleges aren’t going to consider someone with a slightly better GPA more qualified than you. You’re both strong students, so colleges move onto evaluating applicants on other fronts, such as extracurriculars.
The same thing goes for the SAT or ACT. A perfect 1600 or 36 isn’t really more impressive than a 1530 or 34, for example. At that point, you’ve already passed the threshold. So if you don’t get in, it’s not because of your SAT/ACT score. Yet I see some students who already have a 1550 study for another 50-100 hours to get that elusive perfect 1600. It’s not worth it, other than for your own ego and bragging rights! To the colleges, it’s all the same.
But speaking of test prep, the vast majority of students are actually SEVERELY UNDER-STUDYING. It’s incredibly hard to get a student to spend more than 50 hours prepping for these tests, which is the bare minimum I’d recommend.
Students come up with all sorts of excuses:
- Oh, I had a Calculus test to study for.
- Oh, my teacher assigned us three projects this week.
- Sorry, I had a lot of work preparing for the upcoming school rally as ASB president.
- I had to go to a golf tournament (or marching band competition or volleyball game).
Yet, NONE of those things are remotely as important as the SAT/ACT. Spending time on those other things is a huge mis-prioritization of time. Failing a single assignment or test at school may drop your overall GPA 0.1 (or not at all if you get your grade up by the end of the semester or quarter). But not spending enough time studying for the SAT/ACT means a drastically lower score, which KILLS your chances at admission.
The SAT/ACT is at least 2 full years of your GPA (sometimes, equally as important as your ENTIRE high school GPA), so if you can’t find at least 50-100 hours to study for these standardized tests, you are shooting yourself in the foot.
I said this in another section, but it bears repeating: Hour for hour, there is literally NOTHING BETTER you can do with your time than study for the SAT/ACT.
And these tests are highly susceptible to proper studying. Just 10 hours of targeted practice can improve your score 100 points, if you have the proper mentality and guidance. Human nature is a devilish thing. It drags us down because we’re programmed to enjoy PRETENDING to be productive. However, actually being productive is a whole different story.
Students hate studying for this test; I get that. The test is long, tedious, and boring. And it’s hard! So they resort to churning through practice questions or practice tests. Yet, there hardly see any improvement. That’s because they aren’t managing their study time properly. They aren’t organizing their studying by focusing on a few targeted concepts and mastering those. Instead, they do a little of this, a little of that, which means they never get good at any concept. Little wonder they see no improvement.
Furthermore, they don’t spend the time diving deep into WHY they got questions wrong. They don’t redo the same problem over and over until they can do it in their sleep. They feel that new problems are the way to go (hint: they aren’t; old ones you missed are the key). They don’t try to figure out variations of the same concept that stumped them. In short, most students don’t do the hard work to properly study — not just in terms of time, but also in terms of technique.
They prioritize new practice tests over understanding previously missed questions, but this is the BIGGEST mis-prioritization when it comes to acing these tests. You need to focus your study efforts much more on what you got WRONG and understanding why and how to prevent it from happening again, not on doing new practice questions.
Ace the test or you’ll regret it. Period.
If you analyze all the recent students who were accepted at elite schools, you may not notice any specific similarities. They all seem so different: the aspiring writer, the intelligent mathematician, the enigmatic artist, the passionate environmentalist. Some are extroverts, while others are introverts. But I hope it’s clear by now that the number one thing that appeals to selective colleges is EXCELLENCE in a specific PASSION.
Being passionate about something is not enough. You have to be good at it too. But luckily, if you are truly passionate, then it’s much easier to become good at it because you can’t help but pursue it. You thrive while doing it, and it doesn’t feel like work. And of course that passion should somehow benefit the world, otherwise it’s not going to seen favorable.
But to be honest, most high school students have no passion. The extent of their “passion” seems to be Netflix and hanging out with friends. Part of that may be that the whole college system is flawed, which pushes communities to emphasize grades above all. We hear so much noise about “study hard, go to a good school, get a good job, and you’ll live a great life.”
I don’t think there’s a bigger lie than that. Worse, even when people logically recognize it as a lie, they can’t help but still act as if they believed it. They continue to prioritize academics and test scores to the detriment of truly passionate extracurriculars. To be clear, GPAs and SAT/ACT scores are hyper important, but they are not enough.
By focusing so much on your numbers and taking AP classes that bore and frustrate you, you rob yourself of time and mental energy to pursue other important activities. This is why students seem so passionless these days. It’s not that they actually have no passion; it’s that they are pressured to live a lifestyle that does not allow them to find, pursue, and develop their true passions. How can you when you’re staying up to 3am studying for three tests the next day? How can you when everyone around you is telling you to do well in school? You may even be actively discouraged from pursuing things you enjoy.
So, What Is An Appropriate Passion to Pursue?
First, I want you to rethink what’s acceptable to pursue as a passion. Many people believe that certain activities, such as video games, are inappropriate for college. Sure, recreational video gaming is nothing special, but what if you took it to the next level and became a competitive, nationally ranked player? What if you won international gaming competitions? If that’s not realistic, then what about taking that video game passion and putting it to good use by exploring video game design? What if you wrote your own video game app and popularized it? What if your work got you noticed by a game design firm that hires you for a couple years, allowing you to flex your programming skills and imagination?
Too technical? What if you got involved in the marketing side or did extensive research into the psychology of gaming – why is it so addictive, how does it become viral, does it build community, and what are the consequences (negative and positive) of gaming? Maybe you could partner with a psychologist and get published in a legitimate scientific journal.
Or maybe you enjoy working on cars in your garage. You could partner with a local autoshop and start a program teaching people to fix or upgrade their cars. You could organize speaker series by bringing in some local experts to discuss car design (it doesn’t need to be someone who is a top executive at BMW or something, just someone in the industry – for example, I have a friend who works designing motorcycle helmets. He and his colleagues may make perfect speakers. Reach out to your parents’ networks and see if there are any connections).
Or maybe you love to sew, make handmade crafts, or creating designs. Start your own Etsy store and sell these. Scale it to 1,000 or even 10,000+ sales or more. Selling a handful is not impressive. Selling a few hundred is okay, a thousand is better, and even more is starting to become impressive. I know someone who dropped out of her high-powered law job to sell beautifully designed calendar and journal templates on Etsy, which now brings her over $100,000 a year. You don’t need to get to that level, but the point is, even simple ideas can work if you’re passionate. There was once a teenage girl who sold bottle cap jewelry and is now a millionaire. That’s impressive. Again, even if you don’t reach six or seven figures, that’s fine – but reach a level that it can be seen as more than a fun hobby.
Maybe you love watches? One of my students started his own premium watch companies, sourcing manufacturers in China and coordinating with contacts in various countries. He promoted his product on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media outlets. He was even offered a spot to sell his watches in Bloomingdales. His company brought him about $50,000 a year – while he was still in high school. That’s impressive!
Do you love to shop? Love fashion or makeup? Start a YouTube channel or Instagram account, get creative, and make engaging videos/photos. Scale it up to 100,000 subscribers. Have a few videos go viral — consistency is key, not luck alone. Get your channel featured in a few media outlets — Huffington Post, Business Insider, or a magazine like Vogue or Claire Marie.
Love computer programming, web design, Photoshop, or social media? First, get competent – really, really competent. There are tons of free coding/programming courses out there, in addition to a thousand summer coding bootcamps, either through universities, community colleges, private institutions, and more. Some are free; some are expensive. But the point is to start learning the craft. Start building your own apps and websites. Get them as high as possible in the app store. Start your own a digital marketing agency, designing websites that not only look stunning but also help convert visitors into customers for clients. There are so many small businesses who need help with this, and if you help them with their digital needs (website design, social media management, Facebook advertising, etc.), you can create a legitimate small business for yourself that truly impresses colleges.
Do you love baking? Don’t just bake at home. Take it to the next level. See if you can create a signature dish and start selling it. Ever heard of those stories in which teens hit upon a unique recipe of their own, their neighbors and friends love it, and suddenly, so many people want to eat it that the teen has to start a business behind it? Start a bakery, perhaps.
Love fashion? Find an internship that allows you to do more than grunt work. Take initiative to pitch ideas of responsibilities you can take — such as submitting your own fashion designs to the creative director to see if he likes anything. Even if he doesn’t, he may be impressed that you went above and beyond, which could lead to gaining additional responsibilities. Heck, go out out and start your own small fashion line. Sell it on Etsy. Scale up as big as you can. Even if you can’t start a new fashion brand, that’s okay – the goal is to make this as serious a pursuit as possible beyond mere “hobby status.”
As parents, you should encourage your children to explore as many avenues as possible (before high school begins, ideally). This helps your children recognize what they enjoy and don’t enjoy. The time for well-roundedness is BEFORE high school. I have so many memories from elementary and middle school when I was just exploring anything and everything: sports, music, art, gymnastics, calligraphy, woodworking, programming, engineering, chess, archery, leadership, scuba diving, and much more. I’m lucky that my parents filled my days with all sorts of activities. Some were fun for a week or month, but others stuck much longer.
Many of the world-class students applying to these top schools found their passion before high school, often times even before middle school. I was recently watching Shark Tank and was thoroughly impressed by a 16-year old girl who started computer programming when she was 10. She delivered three TED talks already and created her own anti-bullying app that T-Mobile actually wanted to roll out. Thousands of schools were ready to take her app to the next level too. These applicants tend to be the standout students.
PRO TIP: What to learn how to get accepted to deliver a TEDx talk?
Check out this excellent course by my friend Ryan Hildebrandt, a TEDx organizer, on how to land your first TEDx talk: https://getyourfirsttedtalk.com/do-a-tedx-talk/
Lots of free tips on that on his homepage too if you don’t want to buy his course.
If you are already in high school and haven’t yet found your passion, then you have a difficult task in front of you. You need to decide quickly what passion you are going to pursue and go hard. Otherwise there’s not much time left to achieve superstardom level. You’ll have to ruthlessly cut away activities that aren’t productive, such as sports, music, and hanging out with friends.
The catch-22 is that you need to explore various things to know what you’re passionate about, but yet you don’t have the time. And if you decided to go deep in one area that turns out you’re not that passionate about, it will be exponentially harder for you to put in the commitment to actually excel here (since the activity will feel like a drag, not an enjoyable passion).
There’s really no magic solution here. I recommend getting involved in things quickly but also dropping them quickly if you can’t envision yourself truly devoting hundreds, if not thousands of hours into it. Try a lot, drop a lot, and hopefully one will stick.
Is One Particular Passion Better Than Another?
No specific passion is better than another. Some people, mistakenly, try to game the system. They try to figure out whether Stanford likes engineers more than musicians or if Harvard likes social activists more than entrepreneurs. Many families I work with even come to me with concerns about minutiae, such as whether Cornell Architecture, Cornell Art, or Cornell Design is easier to get into. If you’ve developed your passions deeply, you don’t need to WORRY about these small issues because you will come across as so attractive a candidate that these details don’t matter one bit.
The truth is, we can’t accurately predict whether a school will like a particular passion more than another. Even if the school has historically seemed to accept more students who are good in X, what if the dean of admission retires or transfers? What if the school embarks on a change in priorities the year you’re applying? Then all that hard work you did trying to groom yourself for that school is wasted.
Follow yourself, not what you think a school wants specifically. Schools want ANY appropriate passion. Period.
How to Find Your Specific Passion?
A lot of students tell me they aren’t especially passionate about anything. That’s because they haven’t ever been exposed to something that truly sparked their interest. That’s because they are caught in the same everyday routine — school, mundane activities, homework, more school. Rinse and repeat.
To find your passion, you need to start with exposure and mentorship. Don’t discount something just because you feel you won’t like it. Never in my life did I ever dream I would enjoy entrepreneurship and running a business. All my friends, teachers, and family members pegged me as the creative type. My high school even voted me “Most Likely to Become the Next New York Times Bestseller.” Even I myself firmly believed I would become a novelist, screenwriter, or movie director.
Get some variety; try different things.
But what I ignored was my highly logical side. I’ve actually always been highly logical. My love for chess and strategies games such as the Magic: The Gathering or Yugioh card games proved that. But I always struggled in math class, so I felt anything logical wasn’t the field for me. Yet I got a perfect SAT math score, both on the regular SAT and the SAT Subject Test: Math Level 2. I also got a 5 on my AP Calculus AB test and a 4 on my Calculus BC subscore.
Today, that logical side has me loving learning about business development strategies, marketing, and entrepreneurship in general, all things that were never on my radar throughout high school or college.
The takeaway is this: passion comes from exposure. You should talk to your network or your parents’ networks to see if there are any interesting things you can join. You don’t have to be good at something to begin. Your goal is simply to see if you’ll enjoy it and determine if it’s something you can become passionate about.
Do NOT join things if your main reason is your friends are in it.
If they are in it, that means you will stand out even LESS. Now that doesn’t mean go find something that absolutely no one is doing. It means find your own unique version of it. For example, if your friend is researching at a university, don’t try to join the exact same project under the same professor. Go find your own professor and project. If your friends are part of volunteering club, don’t just join their club. Instead, found your own activist foundation around a particular cause, such as promoting girl’s education across the world. (The problem with most volunteer clubs is that they are too broad, putting on unrelated activities such as helping out a nursing home to cleaning up the beach to soup kitchens to running donation drives to breast cancer walks.)
Think creatively: Google opportunities, ask your teachers if they know of anything you can join or compete in, and find mentors who can introduce you to lesser known activities. You can’t rely on your school providing you the activities to join. I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of school clubs are worthless — because they don’t allow you to do something truly unique or impactful. Most of time are grunt work or grind activities, which aren’t impressive.
Meetup.com is an excellent way to find local organizations to join. The fact that many of these organizations or groups are made up of adults is actually a good thing because that means they can help direct you towards opportunities the typical highschooler won’t have heard of.
Find clubs, events, opportunities, and mentors outside of school.
Linkedin.com is a great way to find potential mentors in a field you may be interested in. Send a cold email out to them, seeing if they are willing to chat for 10 or 15 minutes about their experiences in the industry. Express genuine interest and ask thoughtful questions. Don’t ask for an internship or opportunity at first. Build a relationship, then in time, they may offer you something — or you can directly ask after you’ve established a mentorship.
Also, look for competitions, awards, and selective programs you can join related to your passion. There’s no better way to demonstrate excellence than winning highly regarded awards. For example, one highly accomplished girl who was accepted into every Ivy League school, Stanford, and more was a student reporter for the L.A. Times, won all sorts of literary awards, won a Young Screenwriters’ Playwrights Competition that actually professional produced her play, and even wrangled her way in as a regular student reporter for all the big movie premieres, interviewing A-list Hollywood celebrities, producers, and directors. These are all unique and selective pursuits, all themed around a particular passion. She was focused in her interests rather than spreading herself too thin. That doesn’t mean she did nothing else outside this area (she did), but it’s clear that this was her passion.
If you’re really into science or math, compete at the highest levels on the Science or Math Olympiad (nationally or even internationally). If you’re into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), then look into joining some of these:
- Research Summer Institute (RSI)
- Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES @ MIT)
- Summer Science Program (SSP)
- Young Engineering and Science Scholars (YESS @ Caltech) programs.
- California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) — this one can actually give you an edge for the University of California schools (e.g. Berkeley, UCLA) and is available at four campuses; COSMOS isn’t quite at RSI’s level of prestige, but it’s still good
Google these — they are hyper competitive, sometimes with less than 10% acceptance rates. These programs look incredible on your college application because they are highly selective nationally or statewide programs.
Some more STEM programs here (some are repeats of the one’s above): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ishan-puri/college-admissions-the-to_b_9840808.html
If you’re into the humanities, then programs like Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP).
And if you love leadership, check out Boys State or Girls State (run by The American Legion), which sends student delegates to the annual Boys/Girls Nation leadership forum in Washington D.C. This program is not your run-of-the-mill leadership program, most of which tend to have little merit.
Speech and Debate, Model U.N., Government/Constitution Team are also good programs, provided you compete and win at a high level.
Now the programs I’ve listed are merely suggestions. Do NOT take this to mean these are the ONLY things you should shoot for. My list includes some highly prestigious programs, but you should conduct your own search to discover potential activities for you. Remember, don’t simply join something because your friends are — if a top school is your priority, then your goal to stand out, not fit in.
Whenever I talk to students or families about the need to achieve excellence, they get it…but the issue quickly turns to “how?” or “there’s not enough time.”
How is it possible to human THAT much, especially with such limited time and as just a high schooler?
First, prioritize your time properly. The biggest obstacle to achieving superstardom is not enough time. But actually, there are so many activities you should be ruthlessly cutting time from, which will directly afford you more time to pursue the proper passion.
I’ve already spoken at length about that above:
- Stop the useless AP classes you aren’t truly interested in, as long as you already have a decent amount of APs
- Stop the grunt work or participant level activities: volunteering, sports, blind research, music, color guard, marching band, etc.
- Audit what you’re truly doing with your free time – are you wasting too much time on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, video games, shopping, hanging out with friends? Cut that down.
Those three steps alone should save you over 1,000 hours a year. That’s plenty of time to get extremely good at something. Be strategic about what you spend your time on because the opportunity costs (often hard to notice) are extremely costly.
Second, beyond gaining more time, you’ll want to get connected with a mentor. A mentor will open doors for you, things that the typical high schooler will not have access to or even know about. With infinite opportunities out there, you’ve likely only heard about the activities that nearly everyone seems to be doing or the extremely famous/prestigious ones.
Take initiative to find a mentor and ask for guidance and opportunities.
But remember, if everyone is doing it, then you doing it too will not stand out unless you are one of the top leaders of that activity. A mentor will know about various programs, venues, and other people to contact that will allow you to plug into unique competitions or opportunities.
The obvious mentors are your high school teachers and counselors. Go to them with a particular field in mind (say, writing) and ask if they know of any competitions, programs in the community or at colleges, or opportunities for that. You’ll quickly learn about organizations to join.
To go a step further, head over to Meetup.com and Linkedin.com and search for groups and people in your field of interest. These will usually be catered towards adults, which is actually perfect because adults in an industry will know of far more opportunities than the typical high schooler or parent. Attend these Meetup events or cold email these people. Ask thoughtful questions, see if they are willing to meet you for coffee or a quick Skype chat to discuss their experiences in the field. Don’t straight up ask for opportunities because that feels slimy before you’ve built genuine rapport. Tell them what kinds of skills you have or would love to gain, and pitch some ideas of things you think you may be able to contribute to them or the field in general.
For example, if I were reaching out to a writing mentor, I would search on Linkedin for some published authors, literary agents, or publishing people and tell them that I would love to join a creative writing workshop to give and receive feedback. That may prompt them to tell me about a group they know of that does something similar. Sure, some people may never reply or simply not know how to help you. That’s okay. Keep reaching out. It doesn’t matter if you get rejected 99 times out of 100. You only need one mentor that can connect you to amazing possibilities. Take initiative.
Too often, I hear students complain during college app season, “If I only knew of organization, I would have joined. Now there’s no more time.” Well, opportunities don’t generally fall out of the sky into your lap. You have to ACTIVELY find them early on by seeking mentors. Your parents’ networks may be chock full of potential mentors as well – ask around! You can do it!
Be judicious about what activities, competitions, or events you actually do though. Even if a mentor suggests you to do something, you have to think carefully about whether it is impactful enough.
Keep these considerations in mind:
- How selective or competitive is this? The more selective or competitive the better (and it goes without saying that you have to win.) National things are generally best – for example, 12 young playwrights chosen from all of the United States.
- Does this allow me to show deep leadership? If you’re merely participating, not organizing or leading, then the activity may not be worth it.
- Is the activity beneficial to society? The bigger the impact, the better.
- Is the activity unique or hard to achieve? They should be if you want to impress. You probably know in your gut if doing this thing is actually impressive or if it’s just another run-of-the-mill filler activity. Delivering a TED talk is amazing; giving a talk to your class at school…not so much.
When I work with students during the summer, I always suggest they pursue what I call a “monument project.” Usually after I audit a student’s activities, it becomes clear that there’s nothing incredibly special, nothing that required true initiative, ambition, and grit. Sure, I may see activities that required tremendous amounts of time (e.g. sports, volunteering, music) but usually nothing that screams, “OMG! How did you accomplish that? That’s incredible!”
If I can easily envision what you had to do to achieve something, then it’s probably not impressive. Team captain of the soccer team, which you’ve been on for four years? I know what that entails, so it’s nothing unique.
But if I have to wonder how in the world you became a nationally ranked soccer player, or how you were published by a prestigious science journal, newspaper, or literary publisher, or how you started an incredibly successful business or social media channel, then what you’ve done is impressive. The more the typical person is unable to connect the dots of how you achieved your accomplishment, the better. You WANT people to wonder how you got connected to so-and-so influential person or how you got featured or hired by so-and-so impressive organization/company. You WANT people to wonder how you rose to the top of your game and landed interviews on TV, magazines, and popular websites.
Remember, it’s not the number of hours that is impressive. It’s the quality of the achievement that’ll make you stand out.
The best way to achieve a QUALITY achievement is to pursue a monument project. This is a massive undertaking that allows a student to really show off leadership skills, impact on society, and true passion.
El Capitan National Monument in Yosemite Park. Can you be as impressive as that?
First, figure out what specialty you want to emphasize further. If you’ve already done several activities that support a particular interest, then your monument project should continue to go deeper in that field.
Then brainstorm something you can organize, produce, found, or create around this topic. You can organize a large scale community event. You can produce a feature film or documentary (or write a novel or full-length play). You can found a business or non-profit and make it truly successful (ideally with reach far beyond your local community). You can create a successful YouTube channel with tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Here are some examples:
1. Archaeology documentary and event. Say you’re into archaeology, so you decide to research the history of the bow and arrow and how it’s played a role in various cultures. You film a documentary about it, going as far as reaching out to professors and experts around the world to set up in-person or Skype interviews that you record. You get together with a friend who’s good at making snazzy videos and produce a 30-minute documentary that looks far better than the typical student project or amateur video. You really make your project into something special. Then you coordinate with a local archery range to put on a workshop where kids can come learn to build their own bow and arrow (you source the materials and organize instructors to lead these workshops). Afterwards, the kids can have some fun on the range, shooting their newly constructed bow and arrows. At the same time, you’ve invited some speakers, such as a notable professor, to give a keynote speech about the importance of archaeology to really excite these young kids about pursuing a career in the field one day. You even screen your documentary there, have a live concert, and make the whole event into a charity event where people hang out, donate, and have some fun around archaeology. Maybe you even go as far as promoting your documentary on YouTube and get a sizable view count of at least 100k. You can also see if there are any history competitions you can join with your documentary.
2. Ethnic rights. Say you are proud to be Asian, but you’ve noticed there has been a lot of issues cropping up in the Asian community — from racism, to stigmas, to cultural clashes (especially for Asian-Americans), to unequal pay, and more. You could go out and report on these issues, interviewing local community members about their opinions. You can do some deep research into these topics and write stories or film short news feature segments that highlight various Asian topics. Then you design a magazine that features all of these various issues, from mental health in the Asian community, to LGBTQ issues, to racist encounters, and more. Of course, you print and distribute as many of these issues as you can in relevant places. You can even create a whole website to showcase your articles, video interviews, and such.
3. Smartphone app programming. If you’ve become highly skilled in programming, you can code your own app. I’m talking about something significant and that actually helps solve a real problem. If you think too small, then making an app is no big deal. Ideally, your app should take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to make and debug. Hopefully, it will reach some sort of decent status on the app store, with a sizable number of downloads.
4. Creative work. Do you like writing or composing? Then literally write your own novel, full-length script, or play. Or compose a whole symphony. Again, the project must be weighty to be impressive. If all you do is write a poem or a couple songs, that’s not going to cut it. If you can, go out and get your work professionally published or produced.
5. Business. Enjoy entrepreneurship? Then start your own business and scale it into something respectably profitable ($40,000+ per year). Get some media mentions of your company – TV, radio, popular websites, magazines, etc. Posting your own Facebook or Instagram posts to promote your business doesn’t count. The business could be anything! You could be selling physical goods or digital ones. It could be a product or service based business. Maybe you’re good at web design – then start a digital design agency. Maybe you love dogs – start a dog-walking and sitting company (I know people who make multiple six-figures a year doing this, no lie). Good at school? Start a tutoring company. But make whatever business you found legitimate – go through the legal paperwork, open up a business bank account, have a presentable website, and such. But be careful about wasting time “playing business” (i.e. doing things that make you feel like you’re running a business, such as making business cards and designing logos, as opposed to focusing on your core offering).
There are infinite more monument projects you can pursue. They can range from putting on community events to personal projects. You’ll need to think creatively, yet realistically. The best gauge of whether your idea is impressive is to pretend if one of your classmates came up to you and said he has accomplished exactly whatever your idea was. Would you be impressed? If so, then do it. If not, then think bigger — then go do it.
If you want to get into a top school, you can’t afford to waste your summer lounging by the pool or playing video games all day long. This is the perfect time to dive deep into your passion and truly accomplish something incredible.
Summer is awesome, but do something productive beyond beach days.
Summer is a perfect time to do your monument project.
Other popular summer activities include:
- Summer classes
- Pre-college programs or academic summer programs
- Continuing school year activities/clubs
- Sports practice
- SAT/ACT prep courses
- Mission trips/volunteering
- Interning or part-time jobs
- Family vacations
- College visits
- Sports practice
Let’s discuss whether these are worthwhile summer endeavors.
1. Summer classes/pre-college programs. Summer classes at a local high school are generally not worth it unless it’s to replace a failing grade, you’re trying to place into a more advanced class next year, you need to get a specific class requirement out of the way to make more room for your class schedule during the normal school year, or you’re pursuing a special interest topic not available at your high school. But if you’re just filling your summer with a typical summer class, say biology, that in itself is not impressive. It just looks like any normal class on your transcript and doesn’t take any special effort on your part. The barrier of entry to typical summer classes is low, so admission officers aren’t impressed. If summer classes are ALL you planned to do during summer, you need to do much more. Summer classes are more of a supplement to your summer activities, not the main event.
2. Academic summer programs (COSMOS, Research Science Institute, etc.) If these are highly selective and nationally (or at least state) known, then they are worthwhile. However, if it’s just a typical summer program at a local community college, university, or organization, it’s still okay to do, but don’t let this be the only thing you do all summer. Normal academic summer programs are easy to get into, so countless students enroll in these programs simply because they have nothing better to do. Don’t let that be you. There are PLENTY of better things to do. Taking these programs shows colleges you are intellectually curious (tip: choose topics that you would not normally get a chance to study at school), but because the barrier of entry is so low for non-prestigious academic programs, you’ll need to do additional things over summer to stand out. A standard academic program is simply not competitive enough for the Ivy League because studying is pretty standard stuff. You don’t get to show any particular talent beyond others in similar programs, so you should look into pursuing your passions with a personal monument project.
3. Continuing regular school year activities/clubs. This really comes down to what you do in your normal school year activities/clubs. If you’re just a member who participates, just like virtually everyone else in the club, then doing this during summer is just as much a misuse of time as it is during the normal school year. I would recommend stopping and finding a different pursuit, so you can shine. But if you are a leader in the club — not just in title, but in actually doing something significant — then yes, continuing during is not a bad idea. What’s most important is not simply adding hours to these activities for the sake of doing so. You want to have specific projects or events you are planning or implementing for the club. For example, if you started a book club at school, perhaps you can pursue a specific project over the summer, such as implementing a program to read/teach kids in juvenile detention. Or if you lead a business club at school that brings in professional speakers each week, then think about actually starting a business during summer.
4. Sports practice. Just like doing sports during the regular school year is typically not worth it, continuing sports in the summer is also not worth it. Unless you are ranking highly (hopefully nationally), competing in the Olympics, being actively recruited by a college coach, or at the very least, serving as the Varsity team captain, I would advise doing something else. Sports sucks up tremendous time for little gain when it comes to college admissions. I know that might be hard to hear, especially if you love sports and your team, but sports typically don’t help you stand out.
5. SAT/ACT prep. Yes, summer is a great time to prep. Again, I cannot emphasize how important test scores are. However, if ALL you’re doing is test prep during the summer, it’s not even close to enough to stand out. SAT/ACT should be treated more as a minimum requirement, rather than seen as something outstanding. Even if you achieve a perfect score, studying for the test is nowhere close to an impressive summer activity. Do the prep because you may have more time during the summer, but you need to actually find another summer activity to demonstrate your excellence in your passion.
6. Mission trips/volunteering. Going abroad, or even staying relatively local, for a mission trip or volunteering is generally not impressive. Building homes, teaching English, or serving the underprivileged are good things to do as a human being, but they aren’t particularly impressive to colleges. Why? Because they don’t require any special talent. In fact, going on these trips is often seen as a glorified vacation, costing thousands of dollars to “appear” like you’re giving back to the world. And maybe you really are benefiting society, but unless the project you’re a part of requires something more advanced of you, this is not a good summer activity. If you know what you’ll be doing is basic grunt work, then you should funnel your time elsewhere. These mission trips often take weeks, if not months, precious time that you could have better spent on pursuing something more aligned with your passion. I advise doing something that not any average high schooler can do.
7. Interning or part-time jobs. Well, the level of impressiveness for these depends on the exact role you take. If you’re simply shadowing (i.e. observing and not really doing anything) or only performing menial tasks, such as cashiering, cleaning bathrooms, filing papers, getting coffee, folding clothes, or greeting customers, then it’s not going to impress colleges much. Restaurant or retail jobs are hardly noticed by top colleges.
However, if you get to take on some real responsibilities, such as researching for a science lab or political campaign, programming for a tech startup, or devising a marketing campaign, then it starts to become more impressive. The less likely any random high school student could be able to perform your job, the better. You want to show colleges that you have specialized skill and have taken initiative to gain this opportunity. Now, sometimes the first summer you do the job, you won’t be allowed to do anything beyond basic work. But then go back the next summer, after you’ve proven yourself, and show some initiative by asking for greater responsibilities. Don’t just ask lazy questions, such as “What greater responsibilities can I have?” Propose specific things you’d like to do there, things that you’ve thought about and believe will add value to the company or organization.
8. Family vacations. Generally, these do nothing to impress colleges. Some families believe that travelling the world will impress colleges because the student gets exposed to more cultures and global perspectives. But seriously? Are you really being a sophisticated renaissance person, or are you more enjoying the tourist attractions, good food, fun boutique shops, and whatnot? Even if you visit some art museums, go on an official city tour, or speak with locals, what you’re truly doing is vacationing. Don’t try to pass this off as something that it’s not — few things irritate admissions officers more than reading about some student who had a blast abroad, pretending the experience was some enlightening cultural affair, especially when the officers themselves are stuck reading through hundreds of apps. Now if you do something notable during vacation, that’s a different thing. But achieving such things typically makes the trip no longer a vacation. You’d be doing actual work, even if it’s fun.
And by family vacation, I don’t necessarily mean the family needs to come along. In high school, my parents sent my brother to Taiwan for a program affectionately known as “Love Boat” (because so many participants started dating through the program). Ostensibly, it was a cultural immersion into Taiwanese culture, and students got to check out historical sites and go on cultural excursions. But truthfully, it was just a bunch of kids having fun exploring the country. There wasn’t a whole lot of work, and any regular student could have done what these kids did. Thus, these sorts of “adventure programs” aren’t impressive.
Compare that to one of my students who participated in a marine biology program. He actually researched the creatures of the area, gathering info for the supervising scientists. Sure, my student had a blast as he scuba dived, hiked, and enjoyed the beautiful island. But he was there for a purpose beyond having fun. That’s what you want your summer activity to achieve.
9. College visits. Summer is often a convenient time for many families to check out some colleges. Make sure to have the STUDENT, not the parent, sign up for an OFFICIAL school tour with the student’s email address. Also make sure this email address is the one the student plans to use when actually applying to colleges because many colleges do track (by specific email) how much interest you’ve shown in them. Demonstrated interest can be a determining factor in whether you get in or not. I’ve written an in-depth article on that here: www.youngprodigy.com/demonstrated-interest/
However, a college visit itself does not impress colleges. Again, it doesn’t take any special skill on the student’s part, so it’s not doing anything to show colleges that you are one of the best in your chosen specialty. You want to pursue summer activities that demonstrate your passion but also your skill.
Yes, go on college visits because it’s important to understand whether the school will be a good fit for you. Yes, it’s important to demonstrate interest to certain colleges. However, college visits are more for your own knowledge than for impressing admission officers.
Summer activities are really not all that different from regular school year activities. Simply ask yourself whether your activity requires a degree of extra skill. The higher the skill required, the better. The more selective or competitive the program, the better. Ideally, pick activities that you can quantify (5% of students accepted out of 3,000 applicants, or #6 nationally).
Q: I’m not trying to get into the Ivy League or other top-tier schools. Many students get into the schools I’d be interested in without achieving anything remotely close to what you’ve described. In fact, they are quite well-rounded, so do I really need to specialize and gain such high excellence?
A: No worries. You don’t need to apply to the Ivy League and such. They don’t have a monopoly on success and high-flying jobs. If anything, I am a living testament of that. Once, early in my career, one of my colleagues asked me where I graduated from college. After I answered, he replied, “Brown? Is that a film school?” Lol. The name brand didn’t help me at all at that job.
But my advice still stands. If you achieve what I’ve described, which will get you into the Ivies, then it will surely get you into a less selective school too. However, it’s also important to note that doing things for the sole purpose of college is counterproductive. That’s why I’ve tried to emphasize PASSION as much as I could. If you’re forcing yourself (or your parents are) to do something you aren’t truly into, it’s going to be exponentially harder to actually excel at it. Your discipline and drive will run dry. But true passion will not die so easily, which is what you need to reach those upper echelons of achievement.
For less competitive schools, it’s okay if you don’t reach such great heights though, but I’d still try to shoot for it. Even if you miss, at least you came closer than you would have otherwise, thereby raising your admission chances at whatever school you’re interested in.
For lower or mid-tier schools, there’s still a good chance you’ll be admitted despite being well-rounded because much of your competition is students who didn’t do squat in high school (or barely). Obviously, doing a bunch of mundane activities without deep achievement in any of them is still light years better than doing nothing.
Still, why not put yourself in a better position? High achievement (or as high as you can make it) in a particular area will still outshine the well-rounded student, so even less selective schools will pick the superstar every time. It’s just that there will be a lot more room for well-rounded students, so there’s still a decent chance you’ll get accepted.
Q: I’m a rising senior, and I totally did not do what you’ve described above. Is it too late for me? What can I do now?
A: Hopefully you still have a good chunk of summer left then. The more you can do this summer, the better. If you have 1-3 months, you can definitely execute a monument project like I talked about. It may not be as elaborate or impressive as it would have been had you had more time, but it’s still something notable and impressive.
Here’s the most important part: cut out ALL the low return-on-investment activities (e.g. sports, basic summer classes, hanging out with friends too much, etc.). Also, don’t overload your senior year schedule with too many APs – spend that time further pursuing your passion and developing it as deeply as you can in the time left.
Of course there’s a limit on what you can do with limited time, but do your best. Often, a SINGLE achievement that is actually impressive is worth more than 5 or 10 other activities. Remember, it’s not the number of hours you’ve spent so much as it is the QUALITY of your achievement. You’ll need to be time-efficient and laser-focused now.
It’s not too late to start, but temper your expectations. Maybe the Ivy League is realistically too hard at this point, but don’t give up all hope and not even try. The worst thing you can do is continue doing what you’ve always been doing. Now that I’ve revealed to you what colleges are looking for, not acting on that insight is as good as not knowing it at all.
Also, find a mentor to help guide you and shortcut your way to success as much as possible. I talked about finding a mentor in one of the above sections. Check that part out again. Good luck!
Q: I seriously have no clue what my passion is, and there’s not enough time to discover it or become good at something.
A: Finding a passion is not easy, but I talked about exposing yourself to as many things as possible and quickly quitting the things you don’t find yourself instantly in love with. You have to love it, or you won’t have the drive to sustain this activity to the level of excellence top colleges colleges want. Check out the section above on “How to Find Your Specific Passion.”
Not enough time is a common issue. But the truth is, everyone has time, but not everyone has the same priorities. If you prioritize the right things, you’ll stop wasting time on things that don’t matter. I’ve discussed which endeavors are more worthwhile and which ones are not all throughout this guide, so hopefully that gives you a clue on where to put your time and effort. Especially when time is limited, you have to ruthlessly say no to certain things in order to say yes to what matters.
Q: I have too many passions and can’t just stick to one.
A: That’s amazing that you have so many interests. That means you’re curious, eager, and excited. I dig your passion. But I want you to ask yourself this: are all of these “passions” truly DEEP passions, or are they simply interests you really enjoy?
You may enjoy many things, but it’s rare that someone actually enjoys them all equally. You may have to make some difficult decisions by cutting off an activity you may enjoy for one you actually love. In fact, many of the best college essays I’ve read talk about precisely that: the hard choice of letting one activity go.
Or maybe you decide that giving up certain activities isn’t worth it if the upside is getting into an elite college. I respect that decision. College isn’t everything, so if your priority is to enjoy your life, build bonds with your various communities, and explore multiple pursuits, that’s completely fine.
I’m just saying that if you want the best chance at admissions, you will need to specialize. This isn’t necessarily the best decision for your LIFE, only the best decision for getting into a top college. However, these two choices aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If you truly love something, then you’d be doing it for yourself, which just so happens to help you with getting into college.
But the reality is, if you spread yourself too thin, you won’t be able to be as good as you could be had you focused on just one thing. Good luck!
Q: How can we be expected to specialize so early? Many people don’t even truly know what they want to do with their lives after graduating COLLEGE.
A: I get your concern. 9 out of 10 people are doing NOTHING related to their college majors within 5 years of graduation. And most people change their majors at least once in college. I sure did. And I definitely am doing nothing related to my concentration at Brown (Modern Culture and Media). Did you also notice I switched from creative writing to modern culture and media? So even my passion in high school changed halfway through college. As an adult now, I actually haven’t written anything creatively in years. Most of my writing is about college topics or helping students with their writing.
But yes, top colleges do want you to specialize in high school. They want their superstars to have taken a particular field to an unusual degree of achievement. Even the current dean of admission at UCLA has stated that he is looking for a “perfectly lopsided” student, NOT a well-rounded one.
I do want to make one thing explictly clear though. Whatever you specialize in now doesn’t have to be what you continue to specialize in throughout college, much less the rest of your life. One of my students recently confessed her greatest fear about college was pursuing the wrong path and not setting herself up properly for the future. I told her that’s an illusion. Colleges know people will change and EXPECT it to happen, even to their hyper specialized superstars that they’ve admitted.
The reason colleges want specialists so badly is simple: if you’ve demonstrated the discipline, drive, and grit to excel in one area, then you have the rare combination of quality traits to succeed deeply in another area. Even if you switch passions, you will still likely have the same determination to excel, so no matter what you do, you’re going to be excellent. That’s why colleges bet on these students and admit them. It’s not so much that they need to force students to stick with the specialty they were admitted for.
Of course, finding your specialize in high school is tough. I was lucky to have found mine by 8th grade, only because of a particularly encouraging comment my literature teacher made to me. Before he said what he did, I never seriously considered writing. But he saw something in me, which spurred me to go deeper.
Yes, I know it’s hard to compete with students who have been in love with something since they were 10. They have a leg up because they’ve had many more years to develop their passion, since they discovered it early.
But your goal should be to quickly expose yourself to as much as you can and quickly identify what you want to pursue, then go hard at it. Immediately stop doing the activities that you can’t see yourself enjoying and pursuing at a deep level throughout high school. And if you truly don’t have a passion for something, well, then that’s likely why you’re not admitted to your dream school.
Choosing a passion early on doesn’t mean forgoing the exploration of many things. In fact, finding your passion REQUIRES exploring a number of things first, so you get a sense of what you like and don’t like. The problem is, students end up spending far too much time (years, sometimes) in activities they are not truly passionate about. That’s the true killer of passion — because now there’s no time left to explore other interests that may have turned into a passion.
With limited time, you need to be extremely organized and assertive in finding events, clubs, mentors, and opportunities that will expose yourself to anything remotely interesting to you. Try it for a week, and if it doesn’t fit, drop it like a hot potato.
Eventually, you will find something you enjoy and can envision dedicating yourself to it for the rest of high school (and maybe beyond).
The worst is hiding behind an excuse or limiting belief that specialization is bad, so you end up doing nothing or joining activities haphazardly. You may not know what your passion is yet, which is why you need to ramp up your efforts to expose yourself broadly before you dive in deep in one area.
Q: Our family cannot afford the opportunities to achieve the level of achievement you’re describing. Or our family has special circumstances, such as disabilities or sickness, that make it impossible to achieve such greatness. What can we do?
A: Keep this in mind: colleges evaluate you in CONTEXT. They aren’t judging you as an objective piece of data. Ew. These are real, living humans with emotions reading your app. They consider socioeconomic status. They consider family hardships. They understand how tough single-parent households are. They get how much harder life is if you struggle to meet basic living needs or live in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
You simply need to achieve the most you can with what you’re given. If it doesn’t reach the high achievement that more resourced students achieve, that’s fine. You may be given a leg up over him BECAUSE of your circumstances. But it is your job to let colleges know about these situations without whining. You can often use the “additional comments” section to write something that reveals your life’s situation more to the colleges. You can ask your teachers or whoever is writing your letters of recommendation to mention these family situations.
Again, you just need to achieve greatness relative to YOUR situation. If that means being a B student with a 1300 SAT and a part-time job at the hardware store (when half your peers don’t even graduate high school), then you have a shot at the Ivies.
Q: Are top grades, lots of APs, strong SAT/ACT scores, and great achievement in extracurriculars really all I need for top schools? What about other factors like my college essays, letters of recommendation, financial situation, demonstrated interest, college interviews, etc.?
A: There are so many factors that go into an accept or deny decision. But GPA, rigor of curriculum, SAT/ACT scores, and extracurriculars make up the lion’s share. The rest of the factors COMBINED don’t even come close. I mean, if one of your recommenders say you are a terrible person who bullies others, is arrogant beyond belief, and has been convicted of multiple crimes…yeah, you aren’t getting in no matter how great your accomplishments. If your college essays are wildly inappropriate or reveal an absolute lack of coherent thought, then you’re not getting in. But as long as these secondary factors don’t raise any red flags, you are good to go. They may BOOST your chances more, but if you’ve achieved greatness in your particular passion, you are going to get in DESPITE mediocre college essays, letters of rec, interview performance, etc.
I tell my students not to focus on that tactical minutaue. Look at the big picture and focus on what truly matters. The other stuff can help (or hurt), but they are not the meat of your application. Show some solid fundamentals first, then worry about the little side garnishes.
So that’s it, guys! I sincerely hope that was insightful and actionable for you.
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Go get ’em! The world is your oyster.
Peter Peng | Brown University
SAT/ACT & College Admissions Consultant
Young Prodigy Inc.