Hello College Confidential,
This entire college decisions season has been incredibly stressful to me. Of the seventeen schools I applied to, I have only been accepted by two. This is NOT a brag thread, nor to complain; I am sharing what I have learned from my personal failures, and how others in future years can learn from them as well.
My stats are as follows: 2350 SAT, 35 ACT, 800s on SAT Math II, Biology E, Physics, Chemistry, 5s on all AP tests I have taken (Calculus BC, Statistics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, English Literature and Composition, European History), a 4.4 GPA. I have over 600 hours of volunteer service through high school, am the Executive Vice President of a non-profit, have made AIME all 4 years of high school, and have a USAPhO semifinalist since the 9th grade. I self-taught myself coding in Java, Scala, Python, HTML/CSS, and SQL, and interned at a cloud-computing company. I received two silver keys in the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition. I play the viola, the drums, and the piano. I programmed a GCode generator for 3-D printing alone.
I was rejected from: MIT, Stanford, Caltech, USC, UC Davis, Duke, Dartmouth, Harvard, UChicago, and UPenn.
I was waitlisted from: UCLA, UIUC, CMU, Cornell, Columbia
I was accepted to: UCB (with Regents'), UCSD
After speaking with multiple people and some former admissions counselors, they said my raw statistics and profile should have gotten me into at least one of the top schools I was rejected from. So what was wrong? Down below, I have compiled a list of every mistake I personally made and how that detracted from my raw statistics.
1. I was not passionate enough in my essays. I had a private, paid college counselor who looked over all of my essays. However, she had way too many clients, yet I simply took every word she said as if it were the truth. In the end, I ended up writing essays that looked good to her, but that I did not truly accept in my heart. When writing essays, there needs to be a passion and a fire that is obvious to admissions. That can only come from you, not from a college counselor. For those hiring people to help draft and write essays, keep this in your mind; though you are trying to wow admissions, what wows them is not just the content; it's the passion that you display. This is a college that you want to go to; as such, show who you are.
2. I did not improve throughout high school. Though I worked extremely hard in high school and achieved respectable results, I was never able to make it to the next level. I never made it to USAMO or camp for USAPhO. I never reached and got the gold key in writing. I never went out and took my knowledge and initiative to start my own company. In retrospect, I could have done all these things. I could have shown that I am able to use this knowledge to create. But I didn't, and I suffered for that.
3. Going into a STEM field, I did not do research. Colleges have statistics, such as "50% of undergraduates have done research in high school." Many people like focusing on the 50% that haven't, including myself. However, remember that STEM fields like research more than other fields. That 50% is overwhelmingly composed of those who are majoring in those STEM fields. If you are not going into one, then it is fine not to research, but if you are, begin applying for programs, emailing professors, and finding those opportunities that you need. If you are unable to apply your knowledge to either a practical application or research, then colleges will dismiss you as just another applicant.
4. I did not build enough connections. I mean being best friends with teachers. Do you know two teachers, one in humanities and one in STEM, who you can go to and talk about everything? Are you able to tell them about that concert you went to, the trouble with your best friend, your rejection from the guy or girl you like? If you cannot, then make sure to work for that. Find a teacher or two that you can really relate to and begin talking. Try to build those interpersonal connections. This is the only way that you can ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation that is sincere. I did not get into any of the schools that my english teacher had written a letter of recommendation for, yet the one school for which I only submitted one letter of recommendation (from my math teacher), I ended up receiving the Regents' and Chancellor's Scholarship award. I noticed that this was because I had built up a very strong bond with my math teacher, but not so much with my english teacher, and those were reflected in my recommendation letters and thus my admissions.
5. I was not active in the communities. If you really want to go to a school, follow them on social media. Email its admissions office for help, questions, etc. If you show that you actively want to participate in a community of a school, people in admissions are going to notice. There is a story on Quora of somebody who simply dropped into some Harvard classes while he was in high school, asked intelligent questions, and built up a network in the school of students and professors. By the time application season was around, a few of the professors were willing to write letters of recommendation for him, and he was already known at Harvard. He ended up getting accepted, despite his average scores. Show that you have interest, and the school will have interest in you.
For those of you considering college, please keep these points in mind. Even if you have something that looks great on paper, you need to be able to turn that into a show of passion and interest in what you do. Otherwise, colleges will simply not be able to see it, and you will be another average applicant.