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What They Don't Tell You About College Acceptance (but Really, Really Should)

So, you're the parent of an 11th grader (or hey, a sixth grader) and you're worried about The Stats. Everyone knows you won't get into University of Awesome without a 4.5 GPA, near perfect SATs and a bunch of bells and whistles in the "I have done all of the things" section of the application. Right?

And how can your teen possibly measure up to THAT? Your neighbor's kid is an Eagle Scout and judo blackbelt who's taken Mandarin since preschool and took the extra three A.P. classes your student decided were a bridge too far! How, how, how can he compete?

What if I told you it isn't about that?

What if I told you that lots of high-end, highly selective universities look at Mr./ Ms. / Mx. Perfecto-on-Paper... and stifle a yawn?

What if I told you that your college-bound student is chowing alternating doses of Ativan and Adderal, freaking out about A-minuses, playing Schedule Tetris to accommodate their three sports, two musical instruments and five academic tutors, and doing activities they don't give a poot about for no good reason?

OK: it's not quite that simple: grades and test scores matter. Extracurriculars are not irrelevant. Stanford and MIT are not likely to accept an engineering student with a 2.5 GPA and underwhelming test scores. This is true. And you cannot discount the presence of the Unfortunately Random in college admissions. Every school discards qualified applicants every year, and most take a few who appear under-qualified, and we'll never know why.

But the reality is, college admissions committees can smell it when a student has been dutifully frogmarched through All of the Things and sacrificed developing a personality in service to ticking the boxes.

Yes, I said it: personality! It counts so much more than most of us admit. And in terms of demonstrating their personality to a college, applicants basically have one chance (two if they manage to get into an interview situation). For most students, it comes down to their essays.

Sometimes I hear from students (or parents) who are low-key seething because their top choice school punted them from Early Decision and accepted their buddy whose GPA is lower than theirs. Again, sometimes there is no clear-cut "why" to this, and sure, that's hard to accept when the stakes feel so high. Sometimes, though—the person who got the Big Yes had an essay that grabbed someone by the guts, the heartstrings, or the soul. (Yep, I said "soul.")

Writing a knock-it-out-of-the-park essay can get you into higher ranked schools even if your quant credentials are under the college's stated "cutoff" or average. It can. I swear.

Not everyone needs a full-fledged College Application Nanny—however, everyone benefits from a good editor, including (and sometimes especially) those who see themselves as budding writers. Aside from the reality that all writers go blind to their own typos, their own repetitive sentences, their own underworked or overworked ideas, there are some specific hindrances and bummers being faced by today's high schoolers:

1) Yep, Social Media. People currently in high school have grown up in a social media saturated landscape, and part of what that means is that they've seen people lose jobs, relationships, careers and reputations for that one problematic thing they said on Instagram. Why are we surprised that they are petrified of being authentic?

2) Short Attention Span Thinking. I'm not talking about clinical disorders like ADHD—tons of people with ADHD conquer the world. Perhaps you've heard of some of them: Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Mozart would fit the diagnosis. What I'm talking about is that this generation has been trained to ingest infographics and memes over novels, Vines over full length movies, text messages over what we adorably used to call "letters."

True story: One of my very intelligent students used to baffle me with his utter inability to punctuate sentences. When I finally asked what was up with that, he politely explained that he didn't like end-punctuating sentences because he didn't want to seem "passive aggressive." He told me that in the text messaging landscape, everyone knew that a period at the end of the sentence means you're pissed off but not planning to explain why. "Um, I don't think the person reading your essay is going to see it that way," I said. "My generation totally punctuates text messages." "I know!" he said. "My mom does it, and every single time, I wonder what I'm in trouble for now." (sigh.)

3) The Pandemic. I'm serious. Depending on the age your student was when the world stopped turning on its axis for two years (and counting, depending where you live), there is a developmental hole in them somewhere that they're likely not recovered from. The lockdowns arrested academic development, destroyed social skills, and created an atomic bomb shockwave of apathy and anxiety in children and teens. Don't discount it as an issue even if your student held their own on paper; part of them is, if not suffering, at least confused.

4) Our Culture Dismisses the Importance of Writing... But Colleges Don't. I knew I was a writer by the time I was four, and it wasn't long after that that I started to notice a weird dichotomy. People reacted to my gift for words, and treated me like I was some kind of super-being. In the same breath they made it clear my gift was unimportant because it was unlikely to make me a millionaire. The corporate world doubled down on that bigtime. Now, we're living in a world where visuals rule, and where coding is much more remunerative than most jobs, and where bots and AIs can write your term paper for you, so guess what? Young folks take the path of least resistance and never find out how actually powerful a tool language is. Being a good writer can get you accused of being an elitist, having your head in the clouds, or being completely career-proof (none of which are true), and no one seems to mention that it can also make you persuasive, attention-grabbing and hot-damn smart-sounding. To complicate matters, schools have dialed back humanities curricula to make more space for STEM disciplines, and the bottom line is, when your kid applies for college it's statistically likely that they will never before have been asked to write about themselves in the first person. Ever. They aren't used to it. It feels scary, alien, even dangerous to them.

Students who have worked with me have gotten into (short partial list) Brown, Duke, Georgetown, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Princeton, Vanderbilt, UChicago and NYU. What these successful folks have in common is simple. They've done their homework—and I don't just mean their academic homework; they've spent time with the prospective schools on their lists and learned those schools' "love language." (Don't worry, this does not require visiting every campus, though that's nice for those who have the privilege. College websites, and platforms like YouTube, are bursting with information about what makes University of You Are My Everything proud of itself. I can show them how.) They've gotten out of their own way enough to dig deep for what makes them unique. And they definitely didn't approach those schools with a Basic Bro of an essay.

I can't say it strongly enough: your student's ability to tell their story with vivacity, courage and insight can trump a lousy ACT score or (the horror!) a handful of Bs on a transcript. It can. Tons of students graduate with 4.0+ GPAs. Good for them, but their target schools want to know who they really are, not just whether they can take the hardest classes on campus without having a meltdown. Remember when they were toddlers and melted down? What did you say to them? Was it "Use your words?"

You have to use your words. Do it with craft and honesty and you've got yourself a golden ticket to a great future.

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