If you’re hoping to get into college by impressing the admissions office, I want you to let go of that idea right now. You’re not going to impress them. Your SAT or ACT scores—even if perfect—are not going to impress them. Your GPA is not going to impress them. Your list of activities and awards is not going to impress them. Your letters of recommendation are not going to impress them. If your college admissions strategy is to impress, rethink your strategy.
I know this sounds gloomy, but it’s not. Stay with me. But first let me explain what got me thinking about this.
Two weekends ago I was at Duke University for a Duke TIP ceremony for my kid in seventh grade. All the students there scored in the top 10% nationwide on the SAT or ACT. They were in the top 5% of seventh graders who took the tests for Duke TIP. So yeah, they’re middle schoolers who got better scores than 90% of high school juniors and seniors, but that’s not necessarily impressive.
At the end of an information session held by Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, he took questions from the audience. One of the students asked, essentially, “if you have to choose between a well-rounded student and a student with a singular passion, which do you choose?” It was an extremely well-crafted and precise question. It was impressive. She seemed to really force him to give his preference. And then…he very politely demolished the question. Dean Guttentag said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “That’s not a real choice we have to make. I choose 1700 students, not one. We accept plenty of well-rounded applicants, and we accept plenty of angular ones. Nobody wants a school with only one type. So you don’t need to worry about that.” He then turned his answer to the parents in the audience: if you have a child who’s really well-rounded and interested in many things, nurture that and celebrate it. If your child is more angular and super-interested in a single field, nurture and celebrate it. There’s no single path. He completely, but politely, shot down her impressive question.
And look, I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on that seventh grader, who is definitely smarter and more poised than I am. There’s no way she would she have known that the dean—like thousands of other admissions professionals—has been asked that question hundreds of times. There’s no way she would have known that her question, as well-formulated as it was, isn’t actually very impressive.
That got me thinking about things that college applicants may think are quite impressive that aren’t necessarily that impressive. And I realized that the list is long. All the quantifiable, tangible things that go onto a college application are, in themselves, not that impressive. Even top 10% things. Even top 5% things. Even top 1% things. Not impressive.
To demonstrate why they’re not impressive, let’s use a sports analogy*.
Imagine you’re a top high school basketball player invited to try out for an elite basketball camp that is watched by recruiters from the top college basketball teams. The judges at the tryouts are all current and former NBA and WNBA players. Do you think you’re actually going to impress these pros with your dribbling? With your passing and running? With your shooting? They’re not impressed: they’re all much better than you are, and most of them were already better than you are when they were your age. Impress just ins’t a part of it.
It’s the same with college admissions. High school seniors with perfect SAT scores still get denied from some colleges. A fantastic GPA doesn’t guarantee anything, and it really doesn’t impress. You may be a great high school student, but the people who are looking over the applications are much further along than you. They usually have Master’s degrees, and many have PhDs. You’re great in high school, but they were also great in high school. And then college. And then grad school. Like the pro athletes in the basketball analogy, they’re all better than you, and most were better than you when they were your age. You’re not going to impress them.
The more positive part of this message comes when we remember that people do get into the elite basketball camps. They do go on to play college basketball. And high school seniors do get accepted to colleges. So what’s the secret, if not impressing the admissions office?
Again, think about what the basketball judges are looking for. It’s not just dribbling, passing, and shooting—all the players trying out can do that, or they wouldn’t be at the try-out in the first place. What the judges are looking for are less concrete and obvious: coachability, teamwork, self-awareness, work ethic, preparation, discipline, joy for the game. That’s what the coaches and judges are looking for, not the raw skills but how the players develop and use those raw skills. The same is true for academics. Admissions officers, especially at “elite” schools, aren’t just looking for test scores and GPA—most the people applying have good test scores and GPA. They’re looking for teachability, community involvement, self-awareness, work ethic, preparation. What’s called “the joy of the game” in sports is called “intellectual curiosity” in academics. But it’s the same thing, it’s really important, and it’s easy to spot, even if intangible. As the Duke dean put it, “we’re picking the interesting students from among the smart ones.”
So, like the super-smart seventh grader, let’s try out a hypothetical. You have two equally successful basketball stars. They both have around the same average of points per game, and it’s a high average. One works out in the gym 30 minutes more every day than the average player on the team. The other works out in the gym 30 minutes less every day than the average player. Which would a coach prefer to have on the team if the coach had to choose?
A typical high school student might prefer to be the student who works out less. If you can get the same great results without extra effort, that’s great, right? You can use that time for other things. You have more “natural talent.” But the coach is a lot more likely to prefer the one who works out more. The coach knows that athlete is disciplined and has resilience. If something starts going wrong with the “natural talent,” and something always does, the coach knows the student with the extra time in the gym is more likely to know how to overcome the problem. The coach will pick the interesting player from the strong ones.
Honestly, a lot of high school students don’t need to hear this advice. They haven’t made getting accepted to an elite college their goal, and they intuitively know that it’s better to be interesting and curious than strive for an impressive resume. But if you have been working on impressing admissions offices, then it’s ok to stop now. If you’re a strong student and think that strength is going to impress people enough to accept you into an elite college, then you’re not there yet. Work on “the intangibles.” Teachability, teamwork, self-awareness, work ethic, and preparation can all be learned and practiced.
Joy of the game? Well, you’ve got it or you don’t. Luckily, there are more openings than there are people who have that, so you can work with it. But an academic star, just like an athletic star, has to ask themselves: if I don’t have the love of the game, why do I want to excel so bad? That’s going to be possibly the hardest and most important question you’ll work with in high school, and it may lead you to a very different place than you currently think you’re going.
It’s not that grades, test scores, and a good transcript don’t matter. That’s not my point. It’s that those things are the background pieces that help show people your truly impressive qualities. They aren’t actually that impressive in themselves. If you’re not using those things to build yourself into a more interested and interesting student, they won’t really take you far.
*I love sports analogies. When I was in classes training to become a high school teacher, a Classroom Management professor told us that everything is better for high school students if you relate it to cars, sex, or football. That’s the key to their attention. I found that to be great advice. Except I don’t like football; I’m more a baseball guy. But I still use—overuse, probably—sports and cars analogies, and now you know why.
Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m going to my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.
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