Applying to college isn't all about the application essays, even though it can sometimes feel that it is. The essays are one of your chances to stand out from the pile, but without the grades, scores, rigorous high school record, and teacher recommendations, admission to the uppermost most selective colleges is generally out-of-reach.
Part of being a successful applicant is choosing wisely where you'll apply. With our mania for applying to a dozen or even two dozen colleges, the idea of targeting your choices has lost out to strafing the landscape with applications.
How will you know where to apply? Here's the homework. Study the college's website and its writing supplements for clues about the kind of students they're looking for. Read the entries in The Best 380 Colleges, and in The Insider's Guide to the Colleges - and look honestly at your own record. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and the other top universities don't make decisions based exclusively on top grades and top SAT/ACT scores. Keep in mind these words from the Yale admissions website:
"We estimate that over three quarters of the students who apply for admission to Yale are qualified to do the work here. Between two and three hundred students in any year are so strong academically that their admission is scarcely ever in doubt. But here is the thing to know: the great majority of students who are admitted stand out from the rest because a lot of little things, when added up, tip the scale in their favor. So what matters most in your application? Ultimately, everything matters. The good news in that is that when so many little things figure into an admissions decision, it is fruitless to worry too much about any one of them.
"Every applicant brings something unique to the admissions committee table. Perhaps one application stands out because of sparkling recommendations, while another presents outstanding extracurricular talent; maybe your personality shines through a powerful written voice, or maybe your keen mathematical mind packs more punch. Our goal is to assemble a diverse, well-rounded freshman class, and that means admitting exceptional individuals of all types. You may find this answer unsatisfying, but we assure you that it is true: the part of the application that carries the most weight is different from applicant to applicant."
This article from the Yale Daily News lays out the numbers for recent classes, including the class of 2020 - and it includes this excellent news for this year's applicants: "The class of 2020 will be the last class of roughly 1,360 students, as subsequent classes are set to expand by 15 percent for the four years after Yale opens its two new residential colleges in fall 2017."
This past year, Yale reviewed 31,455 applications, the largest applicant pool by 500, and chose 6.49% [1972 students] for admissions to the class of 2020."This is the fifth year in a row that Yale's acceptance rate has remained in the 6 percent range, after hovering around 7.5 percent from 2009 to 2011."
If Yale University is on your list, visit its website and watch the four videos by members of the Admissions Office, especially the first, on writing the essays. Yale requires the Common Application essay as well as a few supplements. One is 100 words on Why Yale. Another is 500 words on a subject of your choice - anything: academic, personal, or an elaboration on something you mentioned elsewhere. Another is on what you'd bring to the suite you're likely to live in. And you're likely to see a group of questions requiring very brief answers.
I've had the privilege and pleasure of working with a good number of Yale applicants - of whom a good number were admitted. All were top students and, I imagine, all could do the work at Yale. Those who got the letter that began "Congratulations" stood out even in the crowd of excellent students: As high school juniors and seniors, they displayed impressive accomplishments in many areas and an unmistakably high degree of intellectual and cultural curiosity, sophistication, and dexterity. Each was very different from the others in their specific talents and interests - and none, as I recall, were athletes or legacies.
As you turn to your college application essays this summer, whether it's the Common Application essay or the many supplements that highly selective colleges require, keep in mind that they are one piece of the admissions puzzle, not the entire picture of you.
If you're a top flight student applying to the most selective colleges, the essays need to confirm the rest of your application - and show another dimension of who you are, beyond what's in your transcript and on your activities list. If your record is heavy with achievements, it's great to lighter in the essay and show who you are - a quirky personal anecdote, for instance - when you're not acing every competition.
If you're applying to less competitive schools with a good but not outstanding record, the essays can really help call attention to your application, and the essays might need to work a little harder.
And if your academic profile has more than a few weaknesses, the essays can do a lot to compensate for them.
Through it all, bear in mind that there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S., and that there are many more fine choices - truly excellent choices - beyond the Ivies, and beyond the most selective in the list. Those reference books I mention above are full of good news.