Admissions Advice From Students Who Have Overcome the Odds

Some of the best college admissions advice you will ever get will come from students who were recently in the trenches and made it out alive. Fresh and up-to-date with current college admissions practices, their experiences are invaluable in helping you learn what to expect and what to do differently.

Although finding top students you can talk to can be tough, youtube has quite a few videos featuring students who were accepted into elite schools and now want to impart their wisdom to younger students. I scoured the site for insightful advice and while I didn't find anything too surprising given my experience, I did take quite a few notes and highlighted a few commonalities that turned out to be much more important than I had previously thought.

My notes follow each video, and my overall key takeaways from all the interviews are at the very end.

My favorite is the first one.

How To Get Into an Ivy League School | What NOBODY Is Saying (Princeton, UPenn, and more) (Greg Smith)

  • Colleges don't care how many random activities you can slap on your application. They're not looking for well-rounded students but a well rounded class (X many jazz musicians, X many painters, etc.).
  • Focusing on 1-2 passions is better than doing 7 unrelated clubs.
  • During sophomore year, he was involved in a ton of random activities until he realized that wasn't the best approach. He figured out what he was passionate about and cut out every activity that didn't relate. He quit track, stopped volunteering at the soup kitchen, and dropped Spanish.
  • Cutting away activities that you do solely to pad your application allows you to spend more time doing the things that matter to you. For him, it was starting a community service club so that student musicians could perform on the street. He also doubled-down on Chinese and ended up interning at a translation company. These types of activities are much more impressive to college admissions than the standard ones that everyone else does.
  • Anything can be a passion; you just have to be creative. For example, his sister managed to develop a large following on her instagram page and is now helping her school with social media.

How to Get Into Harvard: 7 Tips for the College Application Process (Michael)

  • You must have the basics down: good grades and test scores.
  • Have a good attitude. It will manifest itself on your application and the way you come off to admissions officers.
  • You don't have to put everything on your application. You can exclude activities that don't speak to who you are. For example, he was inducted into a school math society but didn't bother putting it on his application because it wasn't relevant to who he was.
  • Everybody has an interesting side, but finding a way to show that on paper is the hard part.
  • Apply early if you know a certain school is your first choice. Statistically, you have a better chance if you do.
  • Start thinking about your application essays early (end of junior year). What defines you?
  • The Golden Rule of College Essays—If you erased all the names in your essay and mixed your essay up with a bunch of other students' essays, it should still be obvious to your friends which one's yours.
  • Don't be afraid to share your essays with others for feedback. Even if they're very personal to you, they're not something to be embarrassed about. Get past the phase of being scared to show your essays to people. Be proud of them.
  • Share your essays with friends, teachers, and parents. Watch for their reaction. If their reaction is "Yes! This is so you!", then you know you've done a good job.

How I Got Into Stanford, Columbia, + More (Kat)

  • ACT: 35 (took 3 times), SAT: 1530, Math 2: 720, World History: 730, Literature: 740
  • AP Chemistry: 4, AP U.S. History: 4, AP World History: 4, AP Calculus AB: 5, AP English Language: 5, AP Macroeconomics: 5, AP Government: 5
  • Unweighted GPA: 3.99
  • Class Rank: 12th. You don't need to be valedictorian to get accepted.
  • Always take the most challenging courses. Don't worry if your school doesn't offer AP courses. Just do the most challenging available.
  • Try to stick with your extracurriculars all 4 years of high school.
  • Find 2-3 extracurriculars that you can stick with and get leadership positions in, rather than joining 12 clubs.
  • Her extracurriculars: Speech and Debate, Model U.N., Spanish Club, Cofounded a chapter of Interact Club (community service), VP of Student Council, National Honor Society
  • Extracurricular Advice: Show consistency + show meaningful accomplishments
  • Figure out what uniquely defines you and present it in your application. You get so used to yourself that you think everything about you is normal, but there's always something unique about you that will surprise others.

How I Chose Cornell + My Application (Anna)

Note that there is a second part to this video here

  • Her stats were relatively lackluster—far from 1st in class, a few APs, wasn't a straight-A student, weighted GPA: ~4.3
  • Do not underestimate the essay or the interview. Some of her classmates feel that the only reason they got in was the interview.
  • Advice on grades: you don't need straight A's as long as you can show an upper trend. She got A's and B's as a freshman (4.0 weighted GPA) and transitioned to straight A's later on (4.7 weighted GPA as a junior).
  • Don't compare yourself to other students.
  • Interesting piece of advice: It's better to get an A in an honors course than a B in the AP course. The reason is that AP is supposed to be representative of a college-level course, and so it looks bad to admissions officers if you only get a B in that course. An exception might be if you're planning on majoring in physics. Then you should take AP physics.
  • Do as many practice tests as possible for the SAT.
  • Don't be afraid to self-study for exams. She took the SAT biology subject test her senior year after having forgotten everything from biology class freshman year. She self-studied from a book for several months and got a 700.

How I Got Accepted to Stanford University (Katherine)

  • Stats: 32 ACT (30 first time, 32 second time, 34 superscore), 1490 SAT
  • She recommends the SAT since it's a more relaxed test.
  • Unweighted GPA: 4.0, Weighted GPA: 4.69, 6 AP Classes junior year, 5 AP Classes senior year
  • Did so poorly on the Math 2 and Biology subject tests that she didn't send them in.
  • Extracurriculars: Worked at a pizza restaurant for 2 years, 4 years of Varsity Lacrosse (captain), National Honor Society, National Spanish Honor Society, Model U.N.
  • It really helps to have one "big whammy" extracurricular. In her case, she started a business called "Seniors Get Social", which teaches the elderly how to use smart phones. She filed the business paperwork with the state of Ohio and even built the website.
  • Don't be afraid of trying an activity out for a year and dropping it if you don't like it. In fact, be open and honest about it. She tried art club for 1 year, didn't like it, and didn't stay committed to it. She was straightforward about this on her application.
  • It's better to excel in one category than to dabble in many. Find your niche.
  • Start your essays early. Tell the truth and be authentic. That can singlehandedly set you apart in a sea of applicants trying to fake it.
  • Use the interview as a way to stand out (she gives specific interview advice in a separate video). Practice the interview 1-on-1 with someone before the real thing.

How I got into Berkeley with a 3.42 GPA (Chris Turing)

  • Have a theme to your application. He wanted to study electrical engineering so he ensured that his application could reflect that. He doubled up on math/science courses, captained the robotics team, and started a volunteer car repair service with his dad, who is a mechanic.
  • Have a life outside of school. Colleges know that you can't accomplish much of anything by being in 8 clubs, so focus only on a few and be the best in those fields.
  • Have an upward trend in your GPA if your grades aren't consistently high.

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before College Applications (Yale Student Josh Beasley)

  • Start your essays early in the summer of junior year. Once you get into the chaos of a full senior year schedule, you'll regret not having started them. Don't worry about what the prompts will be. They're all essentially the same.
  • Learn how to be short and concise on your application. There isn't enough room for you to explain all the details. Make every word count.
  • Get 5-10 people to read your application, especially people who don't know you that well (friends of friends). Why? Because admissions officers know nothing about you when they first sit down to read your application, so you want honest feedback from that perspective.
  • Test scores don't matter as much as you think.
  • Take the time to apply for as many scholarships as you can, even when you're burnt out from college applications.

University of Chicago (Twins Emily & Alex)

  • Took two science classes sophomore year, which stood out and aligned with the prospective biology major.
  • Don't be one-dimensional: be interested in multiple things.
  • For the SAT/ACT, take a lot of practice tests. They prepped for at least 6-7 months.
  • Dropped ice skating to focus on debate and lacrosse.
  • Debate was the predominant extracurricular and the focus of their application. Choose something that you'll have a lot to talk about rather than spreading your application across many shallow interests.
  • Interviews go much better when you can talk a lot about a few things instead of running down a laundry list of activities you have less involvement with.
  • Start early. They had to deal with a stressful situation in which a teacher's recommendation wasn't ready until the day before applications had to be sent out.
  • Try not to reuse college essays, especially ones from UChicago because their topics are so quirky and unique. Other schools easily recognize them.
  • Have other people read your college essays.

What UCLA Won't Tell You About Admissions: How I Got In! (Aaron Yih)

  • He suggests being well-rounded (I actually disagree with this advice but it's not like being well-rounded will disqualify you. It's just that doubling down on 1-2 passions is a better strategy for the top schools).
  • He was much more suited to the ACT than the SAT. He took the SAT multiple times (the pre-2015 version) but failed to get his target score. He took the ACT once and got a 32.
  • Show concrete results from your extracurriculars. For a nonprofit he started, he talked about how much money he raised and what goals were hit. These types of stats add legitimacy to an application.
  • Demonstrate your love of learning to teachers. Your teachers will be writing recommendations for you. Chat with them after class so that they get to know you.

Overall Key Points

  • Consider both the SATs and the ACTs. Some of the students above took both and decided which one to submit. In most cases, the scores end up being similar, but every so often, a student finds that he or she is much better suited to one of the exams and it makes a huge difference.
  • Take lots of practice tests.
  • Take the most challenging courses available. All of the students featured above took the AP classes accessible to them. While Anna (Cornell) suggested that an A in an honors class is better than a B in an AP class, this is good only in theory. When you're actually selecting classes, you probably won't know what grades you'll end up getting in an AP class vs. honors class. Don't make decisions out of fear.
  • Don't be afraid to drop extracurriculars during freshman year. Use freshman year to figure out what extracurriculars you like and want to devote your time to. Many of the students above dropped some activities to focus their time on others they were more passionate about. Greg (Princeton) dropped track to focus on Chinese and starting a community service club. Katherine (Stanford) dropped art club to free up time for her eventual "Seniors Get Social" business. Emily and Alex dropped ice skating to focus on debate and lacrosse. Top colleges are looking for a focused application in which your activities outside of school line up with your passions.
  • Align your classes and activities with a passion. This builds off of the previous point. Don't join 20 different activities for the sake of college applications. Load up on classes relevant to your interests. All the students above had a primary focus that they were able to build a portfolio around. For example, Chris (UC Berkeley) participated in activities that all related to engineering/robotics.
  • Anything can be a passion. Don't box yourself into the activities that everyone else is doing. If something doesn't exist, start it yourself!
  • Get to know your teachers, who will be writing recommendations for you.
  • Show your application and college essays to other people. This is something that I didn't do because the essays were so personal to me. Big mistake! You don't have to accept every critique and suggestion, but you definitely need to get feedback.
  • Be authentic and different. Colleges are looking for what you can bring to their campus. Emphasize the unique things about you. Being honest will help you stand out in a sea of people trying to tell colleges what they think they want to hear.
  • Scores and grades aren't everything. You can compensate for lower-than-average scores with the other parts of your application. You can compensate for a lower GPA by showing an "upper trend".
  • Start your essays earlier. Nearly every student above wished that they had.
  • Your interview can make all the difference. If you get the chance, practice for it and make the most of it.