In the decade since I earned my undergraduate degree, the entire concept of college has changed dramatically. Aside from the price tag, the biggest shift has been in the expectations that schools have for their prospective students.
I came to this conclusion during an admissions presentation at Oldest Younger Brother’s alma mater, which we were touring because 17-year-old Youngest Brother is also interested in attending. Required ranges for SAT scores and GPAs flashed across the screen as the admissions representative stressed the importance of taking classes in high school that would prepare you for your chosen major in college, in addition to taking as many AP classes as possible.
As our family was exiting the presentation room and joining our group for the campus tour, I asked Oldest Younger Brother if he thought he’d still be able to get into his school today. He hesitated and then replied, “Probably not at the same the level.” He had been in the honors program, a distinction awarded to the top 10 percent of applicants.
I was somewhat less confident of what my results would be if I reapplied to my alma mater. I was certainly no slouch as a student – I graduated from high school as third in my class – but my college was extremely competitive academically, and I can only imagine how that’s escalated over the last ten years.
Our tour guide did little to boost my confidence. He chatted cheerfully about his major, his minor, his internships, and the various student activities and off-campus volunteer organizations in which he participates. Though I admire his dedication, I simply cannot fathom how an already busy student has time to be involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters. It was challenging enough for me to stay in touch with my own siblings.
Mom reminded me that campus tour guides are typically exemplary individuals, as this presents a more impressive image of the college to prospective students, but I still believe that college applicants today are expected to be more ambitious and accomplished than those of yesteryear. In addition to higher expectations for grades, test scores, class load, and extracurricular activities, there’s a greater emphasis on community service and experiences abroad.
Even typically even-keeled Youngest Brother was momentarily overwhelmed as the realities of the admission requirements hit him. “Why didn’t you guys tell me this stuff sooner?” he asked as we traipsed about the campus.
Mom and Dad gently reminded him that they had been telling him these things since at least eighth grade. It’s just that the extra GPA points you earn from taking a weighted class, for example, don’t seem that important until you realize they may be the difference between studying in the state-of-the-art engineering lab in which you are now standing and being waitlisted.
And with so many high-achieving, community-minded global citizens competing for admission, it’s harder – and more important – than ever to set yourself apart from the other applicants. When everyone has the same GPA and SAT scores and a glowing list of extracurricular achievements, your admissions essay is what can make you stand out.
I firmly believe that I got into college on the strength of my personality and sense of humor, as expressed through my admissions essay. The prompt directed me to write about difficult circumstances in my life and how I had overcome them, a classic that likely shows up on applications today.
Everyone goes through difficult circumstances in their life, whether it’s the illness of a family member, growing up in poverty, or experiencing racism. I figured the admissions staff would be reading numerous essays on such topics and grappling with the challenges of measuring one person’s difficulties against another’s, so I decided to take a different approach and interpret “difficult circumstances” a bit more loosely.
My essay focused on the differences in international bathrooms and the difficulties in adjusting to these differences as a traveler. I had been fortunate to participate in several international excursions during high school, so I had plenty of material from which to draw, such as having to remember, in spite of my jet-lag-induced brain fog, that the toilet in my Athens hotel room did not have an actual seat.
This led to an admissions interview, which quickly turned into swapping stories about cooking disasters with the admissions representative and us laughing so much that we lost track of time. A few weeks later, I received my acceptance letter.
To clarify, personality and a sense of humor did not take the place of the admissions requirements – I did have the academic and extracurricular background to be considered in the first place. These qualities and the way I expressed them, however, are what set me apart from a sea of similarly accomplished applicants.
If you or your child or your grandchild happens to be stressing over GPA points, AP class availability, and leadership roles in school activities or community organizations, allow me to share with you the same advice I gave to Youngest Brother: do the best you can in these areas and take the time to write an admissions essay that expresses who you are as a person, not just as a list of accomplishments or your life circumstances.
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed about colleges over the last decade. Even though they’re looking for people of a certain caliber, they’re still looking for people. Show them what a desirable candidate you are as a person, and you’re one step closer to admission.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published Aug. 6, 2015