College Want Winners. Are you a Winner?

By Neil Chyten

Of course, not everyone can win everything. However, candidates for top colleges must demonstrate that they have the qualities that winners typically possess. And, along the way, if you could win a contest or two, that might help! It also helps to prove to colleges that they can be winners in the sweepstakes for top high school candidates by proving your intention to attend if you are accepted. This is not limited to the things that traditionally fall under the category of demonstrated interest. It includes answers and examples that you provide throughout the admission process.

Recently, I called the director of admissions of a major Ivy League university on behalf of a student who was rejected and wanted to know why. After all, he was captain of two varsity sports teams, had a 3.85 GPA with many AP and high AP test scores, high SAT scores, and a significant number of activities. Of course, I knew the answer before I placed the call, but nonetheless I wanted the student to hear an explanation that came directly from the admissions office. Officially, they said that he was a great candidate and that they, or any other top college, would be lucky to have him. But the next two statements revealed their true reservation. First, they said that the student did not make eye contact during the interview. Next, they indicated that the student had lots of second and third place finishes but had not come in first place in anything of significance. These two seemingly disconnected statements are actually connected subcomponents of one of the most important characteristics that top colleges look for; they look for winners. Winners win, and winners also make direct eye contact during conversations.

But it goes even further than this. Colleges themselves like to win the sweepstakes for high-value candidates. This is especially true in the Ivy league where there is a cordial peace, even a partnership, that exists between colleges. Make no mistake, there is also an underlying rivalry. It is like when two world class athletes face off against each other on the athletic field of battle. They may respect each other, but each one wants to “beat the tar” out of the other one and emerge from the contest victorious. With Ivy league colleges competing against each other and other top colleges around the country, the battle for high value high school candidates is fierce. So, even though most Ivy League colleges say that demonstrated interest is not considered in admission, they are still doing research and asking questions that belie this contention. They are still tracking social media data. They are still tracking those who have visited the campus or who have participated in virtual tours. They are still asking how you heard about the college, whether anyone in your family has ever attended or worked there, and if you know anyone who is currently attending. They are still asking, “why us” on the college application—and they expect a specific and direct response. They know that you are much more likely to attend upon acceptance if you know something about, or someone on, the campus, and that you also know something about the culture, the curriculum, and the college itself. 

You see, winners make the right choices. Winners do the research and put in the practice time. Winners demonstrate confidence. Winners do whatever is necessary to win. Winners even know how to turn defeats into victories. Most important, winners want to attend the right college. Therefore, to get into the right college, you must prove to that college that you are likely to attend if you are accepted—and you must do this for every college to which you apply (not an easy task!)

During a recent consultation with an Asian family, I was told that they had guided the daughter away from piano and tennis and into oboe and basketball instead, because they were less associated with the Asian stereotype. When I asked the student if she was better at oboe or piano, she indicated that she was better at piano. When I asked if she was better at tennis or basketball, she, without hesitation, indicated that she was better at tennis. So, in order to avoid a stereotype, she left behind two activities that she was likely to have far more success with and replaced them with two activities in which, with a significant amount of work, she might become mediocre. What the family had failed to realize is that college admission is less about the activity itself and more about accomplishments associated with that activity. Since this particular student is far more likely to participate in orchestra (and even win awards) as a piano player than an oboe player, and since she is far more likely to become a varsity athlete in tennis than in basketball, the family had done a disservice to her by overthinking the process. Colleges respect accomplishments, regardless of who accomplishes them. Said another way, the depth of commitments is far more important than the breadth. After all, winners don’t have to win everything, but they do have to win something to carry the title.  

If you want to win the top college sweepstakes, you may want to demonstrate that you are a winner in some form or fashion. You do not have to literally win a contest to be a winner. You can demonstrate the qualities that winners typically demonstrate. You can show confidence and resilience. You can show dedication to becoming the best at something. You can prove your value by dedicating yourself to helping others, because that is what winners do. But being a winner is not something you can fake; it is something you have to earn. You could begin by making a list of things you are best at, and then figuring out what it will take to become better. You could make another list of things that need improvement and identify steps that will help you improve. One general piece of advice I would offer is that you choose activities that you truly enjoy and that you have aptitude for. Try not to overthink the process. Instead, focus on bringing out the qualities that make you a winner in any field, in any subject, in any sport, or in any activity.

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