Ask the grumpies: Things to help a kid get into the college of hir choice

Sandy L. asks

If a kid has his heart set on a college, what things could help them get in besides academics. For example, MIT has these science camps for kids that are expensive but could they also help with admissions later on?

We truly don’t know.  Take everything we say with a HUGE grain of salt.  I mean, we know people who got into Stanford but not Harvard and vice versa.  It really seems to be a crapshoot at a certain level, even if you’re your state’s math champion and have straight As, etc.  I don’t actually think it’s that hard to get into MIT if your grades and testscores are good and you have a true love of math and science compared to getting into Harvard (at least, I know a lot of people who got into MIT as undergrads who didn’t get into any ivies to which they applied).  It’s more difficult than getting into your state’s flagship, but there’s a lot less competition for those slots.  So I wouldn’t think that the science camps would be necessary.  Whether or not they help, I don’t know.

Back when it was called the Westinghouse science award, it helped to have won the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

It helps to have top scores and grades at a known-name school and to have come from nothing.  If you’re first gen, low income, and have fought your way to the top, that makes it easier for colleges to decide.  Particularly if you’re a scholarship kid at Eaton or at one of the state public boarding schools for GT kids.

One of my colleagues’ kids got in to our (state flagship) school (for engineering/CS) late admissions despite being low on grades and testscores because he did an after school club with a professor in the computer science department and did a very good job at said club, and the professor was able to pull strings.  I don’t know how universal that is– certainly I have never had any contact with undergraduate admissions– but some professors at some schools might have some pull.

If Caltech has the same application it had 15 years ago, you’re more likely to get in if you take it seriously.  Fill out that page that says, “put something interesting here” with something interesting!  I filled the entire thing in very tiny writing with math jokes.  My ex-boyfriend drew a comic showing the path of his life complete with adorable stick figures interacting with the line representing the timeline of his life.  I forget what my sister put in there but I’m sure it was interesting and entertaining.  We all got in.

On the application, if there’s a place for it, have an interesting story to tell that illustrates your interests and your academic path.  One of my college ex-boyfriends got in everywhere (he picked our SLAC over Stanford) partly because his admissions essay was a delightful story about how he built a trebuchet.  My sister got in everywhere she applied (including ivies) probably partly because she talked about how physics informed her dancing.  It probably also helps to be focused and to pretend you know what you’re going to do with your life and why and you have a path mapped out to get there.  Extra points if you are unusual– a young woman in an award winning Poms squad and an all-girls math team who has taken as much math and hard science as she can who really wants to design more energy efficient engines.  (Again, that was my sister.)

Many schools will make their final waitlist/admit decisions for people on that margin based on who has visited the campus/had an alumni interview.  I think this is unfair to low income kids who CAN’T just hop on a plane or spend two weeks in the summer driving up and down the East Coast from the Midwest, but it’s policy at many schools.

Applying early action, particularly the kind where you swear to go if you get in helps, though it decreases your financial aid offer many places.

Playing (and being really good at) the right instrument/sport can help.  But it is hard to predict what the school of your choice will need the year you’re applying.  (And this probably doesn’t matter at MIT, but I don’t actually know.)

Not needing financial aid can help at some schools.  I don’t know if MIT is one of them, but MIT is notoriously stingy when it comes to financial aid.  (Harvard is exceedingly generous!)

Being a member of an Olympic team or the child of a celebrity or owning your own profitable business or app or nonprofit that you started as a teen can make you more attractive.   So can having published a scholarly paper in an academic journal.  Or having a patent.  Or a parent who gives a multi-million dollar donation.

Passing the AMC 10 or 12 and doing well on the AIME can help.  Taking college classes and doing well in them doesn’t hurt (though as this becomes more common, it may no longer be as strong a signal as it once was).

We’re told that leadership experience, state and national awards, and volunteering can help, but I’m skeptical.  I don’t know if these are necessary, but they’re definitely not sufficient.  There’s just too many people each year who have these things.

Some people swear by college coaches.  I don’t know how to find a good one or what kind of value they add to someone who is already doing well.

I don’t know what we’re going to encourage our kids to do.  This is more timely for DC1 who starts high school in a year and a half.  Zie is really into math, but not competitions.  Zie like robotics, but not competitions.  Zie loves computers and games and likes programming but needs more formal training in programming.  Zie loves music but although better than I was at that age, is not at competition level either in piano or violin (the piano teacher is pretty lax and zie just started violin a year ago), and again, is not crazy about competition.  We might be able to get hir an unpaid summer internship with a professor at my school, or zie can do more work for me, possibly even something publishable.  Zie could take summer classes at the community college or the university (I still haven’t figured out how to do summer student-at-large classes, though it’s pretty easy for high school students to take college classes during the school year).  It is hard to say what’s best.  Most likely we’ll just let hir interests guide hir and focus on learning rather than on getting into a specific school.  Because for high income kids of educated parents, the specific school isn’t that important for earnings.

Anybody know more about what undergraduate admissions offices are looking for?

19 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Things to help a kid get into the college of hir choice”

  1. Omdg Says:

    When I applied to college in 1994/5, it was different from now… but it helped me that I had a unique extracurricular that I had excelled at nationally: eventing, (even though I quit midway through high school and did something else that I also turned out to be good at) and that when the admissions essay asked for something unique, I provided it. I wrote a poem for my essay. This was the university of Chicago though. I think it’s harder to get in now.

  2. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    Applied for college a decade ago, so most of my would-be advice is probably outmoded. I was also a low income, minority candidate which helped my chances but isn’t exactly replicable.

    One thing that might be useful though– if you have the fortitude for it– is to check out the College Confidential forums. They have a What Are My Chances section in addition to actual result threads with a lot of different data points for student acceptances/rejections and their relevant stats.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wow, that’s a bit of depressing (specifically looking at the thread for graduated seniors’ accepted/rejected info). Does emphasize how random it all is at a certain level.

    • Leah Says:

      If your student has access to Naviance (a system many schools use for managing applications, recommendation letters, etc), it has a huge wealth of data about who makes it into various schools. My school uses Naviance, and it has historical data on all of our students (tho will only show specific data points if we have more than a set number — maybe 10?). So, for any school we’ve had a student go to, you can see the average test scores if there’s more than 2 or 3 students, and you can see specific details per student if there’s a larger number. As in, literally you can see a scatterplot of, say, every single student we’ve had who ended up at the University of Minnesota — so each students’ GPA, SAT/ACT graphed out. Only at schools with just one student will they refuse to show you the numbers for identity purposes. It’s a super cool tool. You also get stats for what grades, test scores, etc their general entering classes has.

  3. EB Says:

    The most important thing: do whatever it takes to help your child broaden her/his outlook. Rather than having her/his heart set on one college, move towards preferring a certain type of college — so that there are at least several in the mix. And better still, start realizing that educational goals can even be accomplished at more than one type of college. If, for example, the goal is to study science in a small-class setting, that could be accomplished at a small liberal arts college, or alternatively, at an honors college at a flagship.

    That said, there are many advice books on how to make yourself look appealing to college admissions officers, often divided up into sections like public, private, arts-oriented, tech oriented, etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That dovetails nicely with another of Sandy L’s ask the grumpies questions coming up in a month or so– about what is the value of different types of colleges. We do a poor job of answering it, too!

  4. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    MIT, Caltech, Harvey Mudd, and the other superselective schools are basically a lottery. You can tilt the odds by being in an underrepresented pool (Harvey Mudd admits about the same number of men and women, despite having many more male applicants, for example). I’ve seen no convincing evidence that unusual talents or achievements help. In my son’s case, despite having many years of acting experience and having started his own tech company, as well as having excellent test scores and half an undergrad education in computer engineering, he did not get into any of the super-selective schools he applied to. He is doing well and going to graduate from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB this quarter in computer science.

  5. First Gen American Says:

    My son at 12 was surprisingly mature about colleges the last time we had a talk. He’s like: “I’m going to Go to The place that gives me the best deal,” but I am not sure that is the right answer either.

    Timing of what a school needs seems to add a fair amount of chance to the whole acceptance process.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If you look at that college confidential forum thread that EB recommended, it’s full of people who got into better schools than they were rejected from. Definitely a lot of chance.

    • Leah Says:

      Affordable is important! The benefits of graduating with no debt can’t be overstated. Certainly, there are different tiers of schools where one might have different experiences. But it’s not a bad place to balance affordability with experience.

  6. Leah Says:

    A bit late to the game here, but here’s my two cents from being at a prep school + my own experience:

    1. they like personal stuff. Like N&M says, an essay that clearly reflects you and isn’t one they see all the time. I wrote one of my college essays for Mt. Holyoke about how excited I was for their “cookies and milk” social time. I wrote another one (my general one) about a summer living in rural Honduras and how disheartened I was to see that they were consumerist driven too, even there living in abject poverty. I actually had an admissions officer email and thank me for the refreshingly different take on the “I spent a summer helping poor people” essay.

    2. Great letters of recommendation might help. I write really personal ones for my students — it takes me at least an hour to write each one, which my colleagues tell me is overkill. But I did get an email, a few years ago, thanking me for the nuanced and detailed letter. Apparently, it swayed the committee into admitting the student despite some concerns. I wrote honestly about some of her issues, what she’d done to work on them, and what I think the college needed to know and be able to handle in accepting her.

    3. Having deep experience is good. Not four million activities, but having a few things the student truly enjoys and does because they like and not just to look good. I was deeply involved in service (and organizing service opportunities). I did a wide array of service, but all of it could fall under that umbrella. Encourage your student to be themselves.

    Finally, work hard and apply but let go of the idea that you have to go to just one school (or to just a brand name school). I am fairly sure (tho don’t have citations) that what is far more important than the exact college you go to is taking advantage of opportunities once you get there. True, there are some unique programs that are only at some schools. But you can get a solid education, even in tech stuff, even if you don’t attend MIT. So be willing to look for schools with names you might not know. That’s where a college consultant might come in handy. My school has two college counselors with a graduating class of only about 100ish students, and they specifically work to recommend a variety of schools for students to consider.

  7. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Also late to the party but ….

    There were some things that parents decided on early on to virtually guarantee their kids a full ride to Stanford (and it worked) like putting them in expensive less popular in high school sports. My track and field experience, for example, was worthless insofar as college admissions but I also didn’t bother to shoot for the stars, application money being limited and all.

    Honestly I’m very torn between putting a lot of effort into encouraging JB to take up a couple of activities that will beef up zir college admissions and not putting in much effort at all and letting zir drive that boat like my parents did. I myself wasn’t smart enough, or financially comfortable enough, to even try for the higher level schools like UCs that would have required me to live off campus and I was dimly aware of that, but I think I also shied away from making big moves fresh out of high school. I was only 17 and not all that confident.

    But JB is a whole other scenario so I am trying to prepare for that. I’d like to teach zir piano for the sake of enjoying the music but an Asian playing piano or violin for college admissions is such a stereotypical joke it would work against zir out here.

    The only thing I’m pretty sure about is that high test scores and GPA are just the very basic requirements to apply unless you do what I did and just go to a state school. I should ask my cousins who are maybe 7 years out of school, they both got into great schools but they were also academically brilliant and poor. Good combination for some admissions offices.


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