There are 3 big reasons why you’re on the waitlist at an Ivy League school. They are:
1. You’re well-rounded, but no clear spikes
Do you have a high SAT score, are president of 2 clubs at school, and play on the varsity soccer team? You’re a well-rounded student, don’t get me wrong.
But let’s drop the false pretense that well-rounded students get into Ivy League schools. It simply isn’t true.
Colleges want well-rounded student bodies. But not every accepted student has to be a scholar-scientist-athlete-leader.
I briefly touch upon this point in my post on international students going to college as well.
What does this mean? It means that if you have a clear spike – you’ve always loved biology, started taking molecular biology classes at the local university in 10th grade, won national Science Olympiad medals in chemistry and international competitions in various things like Science Bowl, Oceanography Bowl, and the like, then you’ll get accepted over the well-rounded person described above.
2. You come from an unknown high school
Sad to say, colleges have feeder high schools. This happens because admissions committees know the high school well, they’re familiar with its academic standards, they know how tough it is, the strength of extracurricular programs and athletic teams, and so on. It’s easier for application readers to judge exactly how strong a student you are.
But if you go to Humble High School in Podunk, Illinois – where no student has ever attended an Ivy League school and only 50% of students go to 4-year colleges, then your chances are lower. It’s tougher to stand out. Even if you win nationally recognized prizes, your academic record and transcript will still be suspect. Your leadership positions in school clubs will be at a discount. Admissions committees are unsure about the quality of your achievements. It’s a fact.
3. Your essays don’t highlight your accomplishments
Essay topics are worth a whole series of posts, but let me say this: no one gets into top schools by writing about their cat, Woodrow Wilson, or when they got their first car.
Why? Because none of these topics, unless expertly written, refer back to your accomplishments. Personal stories are great, and discussing how your cat made you a more mature person is fine, but unless the story is shocking, it won’t leave an impression on the readers’ mind. In addition, it won’t help you advertise your strengths – on the basis of which your admissions decisions are made.
Always focus on personal stories that highlight your strongest accomplishments, and tell these stories in a way that puts your achievements – whether it’s sports, arts, or math – into context. How Woodrow Wilson made you love politics and want to change the world is okay, but how Woodrow Wilson made you love politics so much that you attended Boys Nation and started the first ever high school political magazine is much, much better.
You have to advertise yourself if you want to attend the best colleges. Now is not the time to be modest.