By IvyWise Principal College Admissions Counselor
In 2013, a Pennsylvania high school student named Suzy Lee Weiss wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about not being admitted to the Ivy League colleges of her dreams. The article drew national controversy over the unrealistic expectations of college admissions offices and the role of diversity in building an incoming class at the most prestigious universities. “I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker,” she wrote, satirically.
But does an applicant’s lack of diversity serve to be a liability in competing for a spot at a highly selective school? In some cases, it does. Be that as it may, I find it hard to believe that any student lacks diversity.
After all, you don’t have to be an ethnic minority to receive the large envelope from your top choice institution. You do, however, have to identify the areas where you can provide the kinds of diversity that your number one college is seeking.
In my experience, students who have taken this approach have been more successful at finding a school that they love, in addition to being asked to join the incoming class the following year. At IvyWise, we call this match between the university and the applicant “the fit.”
In defense of all the admissions committees across the country that make tough decisions year after year, having excellent grades, perfect standardized test scores, and outstanding extracurricular activities isn’t enough to guarantee that a student will be admitted. Admissions offices want students who stand out from their peers and show demonstrated interest in perpetuating the university’s missions and ideals.
At highly selective universities, there are thousands of applicants who meet and exceed these criteria, so selecting applicants who are a good match for the campus becomes a decisive factor for admission. Moreover, colleges and universities have an obligation to provide a learning environment that matches the world beyond its gates as closely as possible. I like to think of universities as bubbles of knowledge, where students develop by being exposed to new people and ideas. Within this bubble, learning goes beyond the classroom and into the residence and recital halls, sports teams, quads, and student centers.
When these students graduate, they will have the training they need to address the needs of an ever-changing world because they have been exposed to the challenges that the world of work will present to them. In the real world, not everyone is from the same country, nor are they all chemistry majors who play one heck of a jazz flute. The world is a mosaic from which everyone benefits through interaction and collaboration, and this is why diversity is so important to admissions committees across the country.
I encourage my students to think more critically about their strengths and develop an application strategy that emphasizes a match between their unique qualities and what the school of their choice would be interested in.
Suzy Lee Weiss could have increased her chances of being admitted to her first choice if she focused on the distinctive strengths and contributions that only she could bring to that particular school. Articulating this match well is the challenge that applicants must overcome when they are applying to colleges.
Having knowledge of what the university is all about and being able demonstrate the ability to add to the campus is largely missing from most students’ application strategy. What this means is that applicants have to do more research on their top choices and ask smarter questions of admissions officers and current students. “What does it mean to be a Cornell student?”
But their work does not end there because they must also know what the university needs from its incoming students. I wouldn’t be shy about asking an admissions officer: “What kinds of students are missing from your campus?” A well-planned application strategy will attempt to fill this void and set the applicant apart from his or her competitors.
If a student discovers that there isn’t a great match between him or herself and the school of his or her choice, it may be best to find continue searching. College guidance counselors are right to emphasize that a student should apply to the colleges where they will be successful and not apply to the colleges where they will feel uncomfortable and stressed, even though it may be a big name school. I tell students to go where their diversity is most wanted, where the fit feels just right.
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