New Horizons in College Admissions

For the most part, the Class of 2021 has ended its college quest. There were many winners, with their fat envelopes and exclamation point-laden emails, and there were, unfortunately, those with their skinny envelopes and conciliatory electronic messages. I sincerely hope that you high school seniors were in the former category.

In looking back over the process this year, as someone who has a special interest in college admissions success, I have seen (and suggested) numerous approaches to creating an effective college application. My observations from this particular year have shown me that the traditional approach to applying to college is losing its luster. In fact, a straightforward approach has apparently become somewhat fraught with danger, especially for the those aspiring to the Ivy League and other so-called “elite" schools. Let me explain.

In one particular case I came to know about, a young man of Indian descent was applying to some of the most selective schools in the country, including three prime targets at the top of the low-acceptance-rate list, so to speak. His credentials were impeccable and his essays were special in every way, creative with an appropriate dash of humor. Every aspect of his application was tended to with honesty and sincerity. This young man was easily in the top one percent of the nation's senior class this year, both from an academic and extracurricular aspect. He had high hopes.

In the final tally, he was shut out at all three of his top choices. Yes, others on his list of highly selective schools welcomed him to their fold, but those top three denials, his three strikes, if you will, got me to wondering about what it takes these days to break certain Ivy ceilings. So, I began searching for explanations.

Two dramatic answers popped up. One involved a letter of recommendation and the other touted a supplemental essay.

Letters of recommendation are an art. For the uninitiated and naive, the best and most powerful letters of recommendation would appear to come from powerful people: senators, Congressional representatives, celebrities, judges, college professors, attorneys, etc. Apparently, just the opposite can be just as effective, or even more so.

Two days ago, an opinion piece appeared in The New York Times. Written by a former Dartmouth College admissions director, Rebecca Sabky, it tells of how less can be more. By that, I mean how something from a usually overlooked source can greatly exceed the usual expectations. Here's the thrust of what she said:

… The most surprising indication of kindness I've ever come across in my admissions career came from a student who went to a large public school in New England. He was clearly bright, as evidenced by his class rank and teachers' praise. He had a supportive recommendation from his college counselor and an impressive list of extracurriculars. Even with these qualifications, he might not have stood out. But one letter of recommendation caught my eye. It was from a school custodian. …

… The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student's candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.

Over 15 years and 30,000 applications in my admissions career, I had never seen a recommendation from a school custodian. It gave us a window onto a student's life in the moments when nothing “counted." That student was admitted by unanimous vote of the admissions committee. …

… Until admissions committees figure out a way to effectively recognize the genuine but intangible personal qualities of applicants, we must rely on little things to make the difference. Sometimes an inappropriate email address is more telling than a personal essay. The way a student acts toward his parents on a campus tour can mean as much as a standardized test score. And, as I learned from that custodian, a sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to us than any boilerplate recommendation from a former president or famous golfer.

Next year there might be a flood of custodian recommendations thanks to this essay. But if it means students will start paying as much attention to the people who clean their classrooms as they do to their principals and teachers, I'm happy to help start that trend. …

Simple gifts. Humility. Human kindness. How often do we see these traits revealed in young people today? If you are an aspiring college applicant, take a moment and think about your demeanor. How do others perceive you? You may think that you radiate a list of positive qualities, but what do others think or say about you after you leave the room?

If you are a parent of an about-to-be college applicant, what traits do you see in your children's friends, and how do those traits spill over onto your child? Are they missing the aspects that Ms. Sabky noted in the applicant about whom she writes? If so, why is that? Has your son or daughter seen humility and human kindness from you in your role as a parent?

Sabky makes interesting observations, but, as she notes, she has let the janitor out of the bag, so to speak. I can guarantee you that her narrative will inspire a flood of blue collar recommenders next admissions season. Such is life in the Ivy lane.

Moving on to a contrasting application approach, I proffer something completely different. I saw this surprising headline the other day:

Student gets into Stanford after writing #BlackLivesMatter on application 100 times

The CNN article opens with some application essay advice:

“If you're applying to college, you can spend hours crafting the perfect admissions essay. Or you can just write the same word 100 times."

I've written a lot of articles and even a book that contain suggestions on how to approach application essays, but I never thought of the same-100-words approach. I was fascinated and read on:

[This tactic] worked for Ziad Ahmed.

The Princeton, New Jersey, high school senior was recently admitted to Stanford University after writing #BlackLivesMatter 100 times in response to the application question, “What matters to you and why?"
“First, there was a word limit on the question prompt — you couldn't have less than [obviously meaning “fewer than"] 100 words," he explained in an interview with CNN.
“As I completed my application, my academic work, volunteer activity, extracurricular and activism created a picture, but it became apparent to me as I neared that final question that the picture lacked my voice," he added. “It was important that to me that the admissions officers literally hear my impatience for justice and the significance of this issue."
Ahmed, 18, is a practicing Muslim and a self-described activist. He says much of his passion stems from him experiencing racism of his own.

He says he decided to use the hashtag because it conveyed his frustrations with the judicial system's failure to protect the black community from violence, systemic inequity and political disenfranchisement. …

… Ahmed told CNN he has been bullied online by white extremists since his successful Stanford application made headlines. But he says he's also been overwhelmed by an outpouring of support and congratulations. …

… “I am many things, but I am an unapologetic progressive activist first and foremost," he said.

This had a magical effect on Stanford admissions, whose representatives responded enthusiastically to Ahmed:

“Everyone who received your application was inspired by your passion, determination, accomplishments, and heart," the acceptance letter read.

It added: “You are, quite simply, a fantastic match with Stanford. You will bring something original and extraordinary to our campus – a place where you can learn, grow, and thrive."

Those are extraordinary comments, coming from the most selective college in the United States. Stanford boasts (maybe that's the wrong word) a 4.69% acceptance rate this year.


So, what's the lesson here, as we ponder these two original approaches to telling colleges who you are? I would say:

(1) Finding voices of those who really know you and have seen you in action out in the world, and

(2) Expressing a passionate voice about issues to which colleges respond.


The college admissions frenzy is going to continue to rage on unabated for the foreseeable future. It's a poker game of sorts. Applicants never know what cards the colleges are holding. The stakes keep getting higher and the lust to win a jackpot fuels the minds and hearts of high school seniors around the world. If you are about to enter the race for Ivy, prepare yourself.

The Talmud advises us: “If you want to understand the invisible, look carefully at the visible." The janitor and Black Lives Matter anecdotes above speak to this wisdom. Instead of building sand castles in the air, it may be better to simply examine the grains of silica on the beach.

Wow. That almost sounds profound. Almost.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.