How much time should you devote to your passion for didgeridoo-playing, Tuscarora-speaking, or capoeira so that you stand out in the college application pool? How important is it to have an an exotic talent or hobby for successful college admissions? Will it help or hurt?
When the competition is stiff — as it is with college admissions — it’s essential to stand out from the crowd, no doubt. As a sort of academic beauty pageant, competitive admissions requires you to showcase your best attributes and dazzle your viewing, judging audience.
So, what is the best way to dazzle and captivate? Will it be through breakdancing, as was the case with a student of mine admitted early action to Stanford a few years back, or rather through a more conventional resume of academic rigor and extracurricular energy?
What Do Admissions Counselors Consider?
The most truthful answer: Since you will be judged individually and holistically, it depends. You hold the key, the secret formula to presenting your attributes and experiences, and through them, your unique character and potential.
That said, admissions officers are guided by a definite set of considerations. What are they? If you view a university’s reported admissions statistics, known as the common data set, you will find the following categories: rigor of secondary school curriculum, class rank, academic GPA, standardized test scores, application essay, recommendations, interview, extracurricular activities, talent/ability, character/personality, first generation, alum relation, geographical location, state residence, religious affiliation, racial/ethnic status, volunteer work, and work experience.
These criteria are located in section C7 of every common data set. Each school also classifies how important the category is to its admission process by designating it as very important, important, considered, or not considered. Individual colleges put a different emphasis on these categories, so be sure to have a look at the data set of the schools you’re considering to verify that you are a good fit. You can find a list of common data sets for many school on the College Lists website, as well as on each college's Noodle profile.
What Do Admissions Counselors Value Most?
As a general rule, colleges consider these criteria in the following order of importance:
Your academic record (Or more specifically, your specific performance in light of the rigor of your school’s curriculum; they read your transcript carefully.).
Your standardized test scores.
Your accomplishments, whether they are community-based, artistic, or research-oriented (This is where they begin to understand your “talent/ability” and “character/personality.” The smaller and more elite the school, the more these last categories count.).
This article, The Importance of the GPA in College Admissions, offers further insight into how admissions officers analyze your academic record.
The kinds of accomplishments most appreciated by colleges will vary according to the school’s mission and culture. Reed or Bennington, for example, both known for their eccentric and highly intellectual student bodies, will most probably find your breakdancing or Theremin-playing charming. A school with a more conservative environment, like Dartmouth or Wake Forest may not. Then again, MIT or Caltech, home to wizardly tech geniuses, would most certainly be impressed by an award-winning competitive math student who is also a throat singer. That’s just cool!
Applicants with Unique Talents: A Case Study
A cautionary tale, however, if you’re intent on pursuing a STEM course of study at an elite school: I want to relay some “notes from the field” I gathered while working this past season with an extremely impressive student who was also a semi-professional lead dancer in Kathak, a North Indian traditional art form in which female dancers wrap bells around their ankles.
Working with this student on her art supplement, a video montage of several highly impressive performances, was exhilarating. I relished every moment of reviewing and co-editing clips in which she twirls like a whirling dervish, channels the characters of Indian gods and goddesses, and even simultaneously plays the harmonium, sings, and maintains a complex rhythm through bell-clad footwork.
Because her artistic work is so powerful, I was convinced that this highly disciplined, multitalented co-valedictorian with very high standardized test scores would surely be admitted to her dream schools. While generally pessimistic about a student’s competitiveness for a school like Stanford, thinking that her immeasurable talent would compensate for this future coder’s lack of deep experience in tech activities thus far, I was excited. When results time came, however, while other students of mine — all of them less intensely creative — were admitted to Stanford and other top-ten schools, she was not.
In reflecting on this curious situation, I’ve made a few mental notes about contemporary admissions culture. Elite colleges seem more impressed these days with extracurricular activities that display leadership, teamwork, entrepreneurship, community service, or advanced STEM engagement. Surveying the admissions pool for future professionals who will reflect well on their institution, admissions officers may be somewhat less enamored of individual creative genius and more excited by activities that display a certain kind of “practical wisdom.”
So, What Should I Do?
With the exception of some outliers — such as Reed, Whitman, Oberlin, Bennington, Occidental, Evergreen State, Brown, University of Chicago, Bard, Beloit, College of the Atlantic, Colorado College, and Earlham — colleges and universities have become focused on grooming students for professional connectedness. Accordingly, in preparing for your spectacular appearance on the admissions stage, your best bet is to focus on displaying professional and intellectual promise, however creatively or conventionally you define it. Once you’ve made that case, dazzle your audience with your special talent, sealing the deal on your uniqueness. Send your admissions officer off to lunch with a beautiful, sonorous memory of your harmonica-playing, or a chuckle from your improv video montage. Everyone welcomes icing on the cake.