Are You a Rebel? The Ivy League Wants You

Portrait of a happy young female business leader stading in front of her team
Portrait of a happy young female business leader stading in front of her team

I have a question for you, students: how many hours are you spending prepping for the SAT or ACT?

And how many hours are you spending trying to get a perfect score?

If you're like most high-achieving students, you're probably spending far too much time hunched over your prep books -- and you're probably worsening your chances of getting into a top tier school.

If you've had a chance to read my other articles (this one in particular) about how a perfect SAT score can actually keep you out of your dream school, you know that the top schools really aren't interested in perfection.

In fact, as I pointed out, aiming for perfection can actually hurt your chances of getting accepted to the school of your dreams.

Let's remind ourselves of why: when you focus on perfection -- trying to get perfect grades and test scores and fit in a million extracurricular activities -- you have no time to focus on what makes you different from every other high achieving student.

Now, for many of you, the thought of not getting perfect grades and test scores is going to sound crazy to you. Because everyone has always told you that you have zero chance of getting into a top school without those things.

But what if I told you that the rebels -- the students who refuse to follow the perfection game -- are actually much more likely to get into the school of their dreams?

What are these rebels doing differently?

Number One: they're following their passion. They're getting lit up about their gifts and their talents and the areas that totally excite them.

Number two: they're actively thinking of ways to use their talents and interests to solve the problems around them. They're focused on making an impact on their communities rather than simply getting straight A's. And they're creating these things on their own, not just dutifully plugging into a club at their school or logging in a bunch of required volunteering hours.

Now, let's look at this from the perspective of the colleges. What are they really looking for? They're looking for students who are alive with ideas and creativity and who are passionate about making a difference.

Yes, the colleges want students who prize their studies and have a deep love for learning, but they are absolutely not interested in students who force themselves to sit at their desks and study day and night.

They know that that kind of student is never going to have the vision to create change and bring new ideas to the world. And that's the whole purpose of a college education -- at least that's how the colleges view this.

So, if you really want to get into an incredible school, you have to break the rules. You have to rebel and refuse to follow that old formula of perfection and taking a million AP classes and exhausting yourself with a slew of time-intensive extracurriculars.

And then, once you've decided that you're willing to become a rebel, you've got to throw yourself into creating your own project or unique undertaking. And you need to build this project into something really substantial.

Let me give you an example.

Last fall, I worked with Melinda, who was just accepted early decision to Dartmouth. And two things really stood out on her application. The first is that she'd created her own Humans of ABHS, inspired by the website and Facebook page, Humans of New York.

(If you're not familiar with Humans of New York, this is a site that showcases the photos and stories of every day New Yorkers. It's become quite a tight-knit supportive community.)

Melinda was the co-editor of her high school's yearbook, and she wanted to find a way to bring the student body together in a similar way as Humans of New York. So she decided to create a Humans of ABHS at her high school, and the response was incredible. Students shared stories that they normally would never have told anyone else. Even the teachers started sharing their stories with students in the hallways.

But that wasn't all she did. Along with close group of friends, she also started a club at her school called Better World by Design, sponsored by the Rhode Island School of Design. One of her closest friends was Sri Lankan, and after learning about the terrible violence and poverty that her friend's family was facing there, she desperately wanted to do something.

So, Melinda and her friends came up with the idea of helping Sri Lankan woman bring their beautiful textiles to the world. They started to research the physical landscape and the local festivals in Sri Lanka, and then they created new designs to pass on to the Sri Lankan women, along with design tools, so that the women could create artwork to sell for sustainable income.

Now, these two undertakings were the real keys to her application. Yes, she had strong grades and test scores and she was the captain of her swim team. But if that's all she had, she probably wouldn't have gotten accepted to Dartmouth early decision.

But because Melinda pursued the things that naturally lit her up, and because she was approaching everything she did from that place of genuine interest and excitement, she had the energy she needed to build something creative and meaningful.

In other words, she was a rebel! She didn't sign up for an internship that bored her to death but that would have looked "good" on her resume. She didn't sit around trying to think of a project that would "impress" the colleges.

Rather, she focused on making a difference by doing what she loved. And then she wrote an absolutely beautiful collection of essays that showcased how she had used her passion to make an impact on her community.

So, if you have dreams of getting into a top tier school so you can experience an extraordinary education that will allow you to make an even deeper impact on your community, start making a difference now!

Even if you're a junior, you still have plenty of time. And in fact, you want to create a strategy that you can build all the way through to the end of the admissions process next year. That way, if you're one of the thousands of students waitlisted, you have continued to build your unique undertaking into something substantial.

Here's what you can do: start by asking what problems you would love to solve in the world. And then generate a list of solutions that would be fun and rewarding to carry out.

Whichever solution grabs your attention the most and gets you feeling most lit up, that's your project. All you have to do is go build it.

So get out there and be a rebel! Rather than playing the losing game of perfection, throw yourself into finding a way to solve a problem or better your community. I guarantee you will radically boost your chances of acceptance.

Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- breaking away from perfection to pursue passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others. Learn more about how 100 percent of her students are accepted into the nation's top schools here.