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ucy was feeling confident as she was hitting “submit.” Her SAT score was in the top quarter for applicants accepted last year. Her GPA was above the median. She was a four-year varsity gymnast on a team that had won the state championship last year. And she’d attended a summer program at her first-choice college. Then she got her ding letter. What happened? If you looked inside Lucy’s file, you would find this summary from the admissions officer who read her application and denied her: Lucy has great test scores but not similarly great grades. That puts her in the “mushy middle.” Outside of school, Lucy devotes herself to gymnastics. She is team captain and was part of a state championship team last year. In the summers, she has worked in her father’s office. She used her essays to talk about these experiences, but she didn’t offer anything more than what I could get from her activities list. I’m left with no real impression of who Lucy is, or what she would bring to our community, or why she is so interested in us, especially since we don’t have a women’s gymnastics program. There’s nothing here that compels me to admit.
It turns out that test scores and athletic trophies aren’t enough to warrant admission, and so Lucy had been relegated to the realm of the LMO (“like many others”). As you already understand (but she didn’t), her credentials weren’t enough. She needed to consider her application as a whole and use it to tell a coherent and compelling story about herself, but she didn’t. Here’s the rub: Lucy did in fact have a good story to tell, and if she had told it, she probably would have been admitted.
YOUR APPLICATION SHOULD TELL YOUR STORY
Why didn’t Lucy tell a coherent and compelling story in her application? Because she didn’t know she was supposed to. It’s not as if the standard college application says, “Please tell us your story.” No, the standard college application looks like a collection of to-do items—lists, essays, transcripts, and recommendations prominent among them. As an applicant, Lucy took the checklist approach, working her way through the various components of the application one by one. She filled out the activities and honors lists. She had her transcript and test scores submitted. She wrote an essay that had been proofread by her English teacher and her mom. They both told her that it was well written (and it was). In other words, she did everything that was explicitly required, but she didn’t understand that she was also supposed to do what is implicitly required, namely, to tell a coherent and compelling story about herself. If that is what college admissions officers want, why don’t they just say so? Most colleges believe they do. They point to their repeated statements (in their presentations, in their materials, and on their websites) that they take a “holistic approach” to the admissions process. And they are right. That is exactly what those colleges say and do. Unfortunately, unless you’ve been an admissions officer yourself or are getting advice from someone who has been, you probably have no idea what these statements really mean. You think that the “holistic approach” means that activities and essays matter and not just the numbers. That is indeed true, but it never dawns on you that by saying they take a holistic approach, they are directing you to tell a coherent and compelling story about yourself.
And that brings us to two more Ivey Strategies: Ivey Strategy #2: Think like an admissions officer. and Ivey Strategy #3: Tell your story. Why the focus on how admissions officers think? Because at the top US colleges, admissions officers, not faculty (or a computer formula), make the decisions: they are the people who decide your fate. Whether the admissions officers act independently or through a committee, they have the power. Obviously, then, you want to understand how admissions officers think. If you actually use Ivey Strategy #2 and develop an ability to think like an admissions officer, you have a competitive edge. (We are using admissions officers as a generic term here to refer to all the people in the admissions office who have decision-making authority, even if they have different titles such as admissions director or enrollment manager.) How do admissions officers think when it comes to evaluating an application? At top colleges in the United States, admissions officers are evaluating your application (and you) on three dimensions: (1) academic achievements, (2) extracurricular accomplishments (also known as activities), and (3) personal qualities and character. This 3-D evaluation can vary a bit in how it is implemented from college to college, but all three dimensions are always considered in a holistic review, and each relates to an essential aspect of your qualifications and your potential for contribution to the college. The academic rating is an assessment of your academic (and intellectual) abilities and potential. It is a prediction of how you will fare in the classroom and what you will contribute to the academic life at that college. The extracurricular rating is an assessment of what you would accomplish and contribute to the college community beyond the classroom. The personal rating is an assessment of your personal qualities and character. That’s obviously highly subjective, but you’d be surprised how often admissions officers see eye-to-eye across various applicants even on the personal dimension. Admissions officers believe that strong personal characteristics are intangible but significant attributes that will contribute to your ultimate success at college.
How to Prepare a Standout College Application
DISCOVERING YOUR STORY
What we’re calling your story distills what you want the admissions officer to know about you in relation to each of these dimensions. It isn’t a classic biography or a résumé in prose form; instead, it is a structured and succinct statement of who you are that will persuade an admissions officer to admit you. It highlights your best credentials and characteristics in terms of what matters to the admissions officer. Are you intimidated by the idea of trying to write your story? Don’t be. We’re going to give you a template for your story that is only five sentences long. The story you come up with using the template will not actually be included word for word in your application; it is not a personal statement or an essay or a piece that you will be submitting as part of the application. Rather, it is a tool that you will use to guide you as you complete all of the application components going forward. It will help you decide what information to include, what to leave out, how to order the items on your lists, what to write about in your essays, whom to choose as recommenders, how to present your activities, how to guide your recommenders, and how to present yourself in your interviews. Whew! Your five-sentence story is going to do some heavy lifting. Here’s the template: My Story 1. A few important things to know about me before you read my application are __________________________________, __________________, and ___________________________. 2. As a student, I ___________________________________. 3. Outside the classroom, I ___________________________. 4. Close friends and family describe me as _______________, ______________, and _____________________. 5. Right now, I imagine that I will pursue a career in or as ___ ________________________________. That’s it. By writing your five-sentence story, you’re taking the first step toward an application that presents you in your best light. Discover and tell your story, and you’re on your way to an application that will make you stand out; skip this exercise and you’ll be another Lucy—denied when you could have been admitted, another LMO wondering why she didn’t get in.
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