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Want to Impress Colleges? Be Yourself!

How much do colleges weight sports? Does it help if I quit tennis and pursue a more unique sport? Can I get into a top school if I am Captain of Speech and Debate? Do I really have to do research? Is 1600 the score I need to get into any college? What if I try to skip ahead in Math and do Calculus in my Junior year, is that better than if I do it in my Senior Year?

These are the types of questions I often get from parents of older students as it relates to their high school students. But these were the questions that a very eager and precocious seventh grader asked me the other day. As a thirteen-year old, she is already wrapped up in the college admissions race going so far as to know what is her dream school. While I was not shocked to hear from such a young girl her plans for the future because so many students are thinking about college earlier and earlier in their lives, I was a little saddened to think about her pursuing only those interests and activities she deemed would “look good on her college application.”

Middle school students, all students for that matter, should use their time pursuing activities that truly appeal to their sense of curiosity, their sense of adventure, and their sense of fun.

Colleges, yes, want to see accomplishments, strong academics, and a complete list of activities, all of which should stem from a student’s interests and not from some preconceived notion of what is expected. Admissions officers do not match applications against a set list of criteria. And when colleges tout the use of a holistic admissions process they are not just trying to calm the applying masses.

So rather than planning the next year or few years trying to be the perfect college applicant, use that time being the best you that you can be. Get involved in the activities that really speak to you. Those are the ones where you are likely to gain some of recognition anyways. And in whatever you pursue reach for the stars, knowing that failure can be just as valuable as success. If the opportunities you want are not in front of you, find ways to make them happen. Start a club if you want but because you are passionate about a cause not because staring a club shows leadership. Think beyond the bounds of your high school. Perhaps you would love to or need to get a job. Working in a fast food restaurant can teach you some very valuable skills about working with customers and working in an office can teach you about a potential career. Both are valuable.

When it comes to academics and test scores, balance is the key. You should push yourself to your limits. But you also have to be deeply aware of what those limits are. Don’t sign up for the hardest courses because that is what you think you need to do. Take the classes that excite you and also ones that show colleges your academic potential. And work for your test scores but don’t obsess about them – admissions officers certainly don’t.

The reality is that almost anything you do is valuable to an admission’s officer because it gives a glimpse into who you are. In the several pages that make up your college application, admissions officers want to learn as much about you as possible – about what you will contribute to the campus, what you will gain from the experience of being a student, and what you will represent as an alumnus of the school. In trying to build a well-rounded class, admissions officers want students that will contribute in different ways. Admitting students that fit any checklist will only bring together a boring, uni-dimensional group of students that will not inspire one another. It is important to think about the future. It is important to have goals. But it is also essential to live in the moment.

As I tell my students, this is your life. Live it to the best of your ability and admissions officers will be more than impressed.

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