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How to Stand out in College Admissions

High GPAs, test scores, and .... underscheduling?


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What if there were a way to get into competitive colleges without sky-high GPAs and test scores? After all, when colleges publish their averages of these statistics, doesn’t that mean there are plenty of people below those averages that got in? Sure, there are athletes, legacy considerations, and so forth, but have you also considered how irresistible colleges find entrepreneurs, community leaders, and inventors? These are not necessarily born geniuses, but rather people who eschewed the conventional strategy of loading up on APs and extracurriculars for an interesting life that is not geared towards getting accepted into college.

Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar has a subtitle that promises “a revolutionary plan to get into college by standing out (without burning out)”. In it, Newport presents a lot of radical, counterintuitive advice, but backs it up with real case studies of “relaxed superstars”, students who have found a way to stand out amongst the competition without packing their schedule to the gills. In fact, he stresses the importance of “underscheduling” in order to give yourself plenty of free time for exploration. This free time should be used to explore interests and follow up on opportunities, things that a student bogged down by 5 AP classes, 3 clubs, and a sport might not be able to do. The key is not to find vanity activities, but rather a deep interest, something you would eagerly do over binging on Netflix on a Saturday morning.

To an admissions officer, there might not be a big difference between a student with 4 AP classes and one with 5, but there is a big difference between the umpteenth treasurer of the key club and someone who has published a book. If I had to describe in a single word the type of person that colleges are looking for to shine through the mass of generic students, it would be “interesting”. The best way to become interesting is to focus on very few interests and achieve a mastery that makes you fascinating to talk to. For example, I played violin during all four years of high school. I sank in hundreds of hours and even got pretty decent at it, but to be honest, I didn’t continue playing after high school; and if you interviewed me about it, there would not be much for me to say. That means it was not really a deep interest (even though I did enjoy it), and it didn’t provide a level of innovation that would really make me stand out to colleges. Imagine if I had used that time to teach myself how to make beats and reach out to local DJs, which ultimately could have led me to perform a set in a club or make a song that went viral. That would make for a more interesting story, show more initiative, and be more fun than being the nameless member of the orchestra that I was.

Cal Newport’s book goes into much more detail about how students can implement this groundbreaking plan. It is not easy, but it is very much a case of working smarter instead of working harder. I highly recommend checking the book out not just as a way to make yourself more attractive to colleges but instead as a way to lead a happier and more fulfilling life.