The Only Formula for College Success

You are likely hearing about the current "frenzy" occurring in college admissions. This confusion and uncertainty regarding the admissions process is coming from the news, teachers, college counselors, and even the colleges themselves.

As the former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Columbia in New York and an independent college counselor for almost a decade, I am observing more anxiety regarding the college admissions process than ever before, and I would like to add another dimension to what I believe is taking place.

The college admissions process is both unpredictable and opaque. Unless you have worked in admissions at a selective college, you really don't know the basis upon which some students are admitted and others not. Yes, many families have heard about 'fit,' but they don't and can't know what this means. 'Fit' is not something that the top colleges articulate to prospective students.

Thus, many families mistake 'fit' for formula.

Beyond being an exceptional student, many families believe that one part community service, a dose of leadership, summers spent doing research, and sports involvement will guarantee admission. They get this information from their neighbors, other family members and even the guidance staff at school.

This college guidance is not true.

For example, every family with an accomplished child has heard of the valedictorian being rejected but someone lower in the class being admitted. This leaves a feeling of hopelessness in obtaining a positive outcome to the admissions process, and as a result, students believe applying to more colleges gives them a better chance. However, applying to more colleges does not necessarily improve success, especially if the same mistakes and misconceptions are applied throughout all the applications.

A change in perspective, instead, will make a difference.

What truly gives a student the best chance of acceptance is determining not how they are like every other applicant, but how they are different--what they would contribute to a college, if admitted, that other applicants are not presenting. This might be being a terrific football, tennis or chess player. It might be being a great debater. It might be having a passion for Latin and filling a seat in that department's classes where few other students venture. It could be anything, but it must be unique and clearly and eloquently communicated to the college.

When more students feel that they understand how to present themselves in a meaningful, thoughtful way to an admissions committee, and this results in more predictable outcomes for students and their families, the frenzy will die down and there will be a better match between applicant and the colleges they apply to.

Drusilla Blackman is affiliated with The Ivy Dean, an independent college admissions consulting firm.