Is There a Silver Bullet to College Admissions?
By Thomas Broderick
When the monster hunter needed to defeat the werewolf, he bought a box of silver bullets for his revolver. You see, silver bullets were the only thing that could kill the werewolf. All the silver bullets in the box looked the same, and the monster hunter was confident that shooting any one of them would save his town from the werewolf menace.
It’s easy to think that there are ‘silver bullets’ for other aspects of our life. “This pill is a silver bullet for weight loss!” “This DVD is a silver bullet for helping your toddler learn!” The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, all this silver bullet advertising can lead you to believe that there is a one-size-fits-all silver bullet that all students can use to get into their dream college.
Silver bullets in college admissions don’t exist…at least for most people. Families with millions of dollars can write a fat check to a college to accept their child. Other colleges clamor to attract children of celebrities and politicians. Colleges around the country seek out the next generation of sports stars. Those are guaranteed-to-work silver bullets.
But if you’re reading this article, I doubt you’re a sports star, or your family has a famous name/piles of spare cash ready to be used as a legal bribe.
So instead of prescribing silver bullets, let’s look at how you can dramatically increase your chances of acceptance to your dream college by reframing your application. And as a bonus, none of the points in this article have anything to do with your grades or extracurricular activities.
Since 1973, colleges and universities have been barred from setting racial quotas when they admit a new batch of students. Even without quotas, many universities actively recruit students who are part of minority groups. In recent years, this practice has extended to students of all races who are from more impoverished families. Of course, these students must meet the same academic qualifications as other students to gain acceptance.
So why do colleges and universities spend millions of dollars every year when they don’t have to. Simple: diversity improves a college’s brand. This was the case when I went to Vanderbilt University in the mid-2000s. Though a fantastic school, Vanderbilt was still trying to figure out how to shake off a legacy of segregation and continued racial tension. Besides a top-notch recruiting department, they sponsored summer programs for students from minority backgrounds.
Being part of a minority group or coming from a family without a lot of money can have many drawbacks, but when it comes time to apply to college, it’s an advantage. Again, it’s no silver bullet, especially in the last few years as more and more high school seniors apply to the best schools. However, if you come from one of these groups, make sure the college admissions counselor reading your application knows it.
Preserving Through Hardship
So let’s say you’re like me – white and from an upper-middle class family. What options do you have? Well, I hate to ask such a personal question, but did anything awful happen to you in the last four years? Preserving through extreme hardship (breakup of the family, serious illness, death of a parent/sibling, etc.) can work to your advantage in multiple ways.
The first way is obvious: sympathy points. College admission counselors are human, after all, and they will connect to the story of a teenager going through hard times. The second part of the puzzle is much more important. If you kept up your grades during this difficult time (it’s okay if there was a small downward blip), that fact alone shows you can preserve through anything school or life can throw at you. Universities and colleges WANT students like that. Those are the students that not only excel in the classroom but also become leaders and leave their mark on both the school but the wider world.
So if you have that story to tell, tell it in your personal essay.
Above All, What Makes You Unique?
Again, let’s say you’re like me – white, from an upper-middle-class family, and thankful that nothing horrible has happened to you or a family member in the last few years. Is there anything left that remotely comes close to resembling a silver bullet?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. Imagine your average college admission counselors. It’s February, meaning that she has a HUGE stack of applications to read. They’re all the same: good grades, good extracurriculars, etc. They start to blur together…until she sees something that makes her do a double take.
What can cause such a reaction?
Answer: Coming across an applicant who set herself apart from the pack
Who is this applicant?
Answer: Someone who relentlessly pursues a personal passion in their spare time
Think about it: there are things you love to do that have little to no relation to your academics or extracurriculars. Maybe you’re in a band, like to paint, or write short stories. For most people, these and other activities are just hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nice to take these passions to the next level? Even if you never book a show, sell a painting, or see your name in print, putting your creativity and passion out into the wider world shows a level of commitment, passion, and responsibility that most college applicants, even brilliant ones, sorely lack.
This kind of story, if told just the right way in your personal essay, will make any college admissions counselor do a double take.
Silver bullets in the college admissions world do exist, but most of us can’t get our hands on them. Instead of searching for silver bullets, emphasize what makes you unique when writing your personal essay. That way, college admissions counselors will get to know the real you, and just as important, what you can bring to their school.