Thursday, September 3, 2009

"How can I improve my chance of admission?"

A reflection on this common question

In case you have not yet picked up on my style of post, you will likely not find an answer below to the question "How can I improve my chances?" Instead, I hope the perspective I share will help you consider how YOU can answer this question for yourself.

When people ask me, "How can I improve my chance of admission?" I have to take a deep breath, compose myself, and think about what I can do to practically help the inquiring applicant (typically in a short email or the 30 seconds I have with him or her). For some reason this question reminds me of the joke, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" (A: "Practice, practice, practice.") I have a hunch the questioner wants me to give explicit directions on how to get into Dartmouth College. Instead, I can typically only answer in broad strokes.

Thankfully, today most applicants and students know there's no "formula" for admission, but yet somehow a notion persists that there are particular things applicants should all do to get in. Unfortunately, the list of particular things applicants should do really doesn't get them in, it only ensures they're at least a realistic applicant. Such things would include getting good grades, being active in and/or out of school, taking rigorous courses, making a difference through your endeavors, and challenging yourself in and out of the classroom. This answer seems akin to saying "Practice, practice, practice."

So how do we move beyond this trite answer? Well, I like to think of an applicant on three levels.
1. The authentic person
2. The person who does things to get into college
3. The person we meet through the application

About Level 1: The authentic person

The first level is the ideal. When I read an application, what I really care about is the real person with all their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, talents and curiosities, pursuits and frustrations, personal qualities and quirks. We work very hard to recruit and admit the authentic students who will add to Dartmouth in diverse ways and have already demonstrated an ability to make a positive difference in their communities--whether on the field or on the stage; in a class or in an organization.

About Level 2: The person who does things to get into college

I hope that the second layer of an applicant becomes a part of the authentic person. The things a person does to get into college should be done out of a natural love of learning and passion for his or her pursuits. Speaking personally, I remember when I was in high school I was motivated in some part by the college admissions process, but the things I chose to do were authentically me. Although I had people in my life who said I should run track because the admissions office wants to see that; or I should take AP Physics because the admissions office wants to see that--I followed my own interests (and I never ran track and I never took AP Physics). I was myself and Dartmouth admitted me for being myself.

The things you should do to "improve your chances" are the things YOU WANT to do for yourself--and that can be anything! If you want to play football, that's what you should do to "improve your chances"; if you want to act in plays, that's what you should do to "improve your chances"; if you want to join the military, that's what you should do to "improve your chances"; or if you want to design and program a website to help your mom with her job, that's what you should do to "improve your chances." If you find some of your motivation for doing these things in the college admission process, that's fine--but do the things that are authentically you. Never choose to do something because someone says that's what Dartmouth is looking for. When I read an application, I'm looking for the genuine you.

About Level 3: The person we meet through the application

You need to complete your application in a way that reveals the primary layer, "The authentic person." In short, make sure your application reflects the breadth and depth of who you are. Understand that everything you fill out means something in this process. For instance, when you complete the background information section about your family, academic programs you have attended, and other info, you may think you're simply filling in blanks--but the words you fill in truly mean something because your family and your schools have influenced who you are. Furthermore, if you think something in your family history or background needs a little more explanation, give us a few sentences about that under additional information. It's these details that make you a unique human being.

Similarly, take advantage of the extracurricular section and make sure it shows more than names, titles, and awards--it must show commitment, so share with us in a brief sentence exactly what you're doing in your extracurriculars! Show us how you've been committed to your extracurricular pursuits, how you've made a difference, and how you've pushed yourself beyond the classroom. The extracurricular section should show us what you do with your time beyond academics--whatever that may be. Then there's the personal statement. In short--Make it PERSONAL! Tell us what we need to know to understand the authentic person behind the application. Reflect on who you are, the family and community you live in, and the opportunities and challenges you've had. Write well, make it interesting, and most importantly, make it personal.

As for the academic record, testing, recommendations, and everything else--well, I'll leave all that to another post.

For now, my advice for "How can I improve my chances?" is to ask yourself, "Who am I?" and consider how to make sure your application answers this question.

This isn't the whole of my advice--but start here: Who are you?

1 comment:

  1. Ben, thank you for giving me something to link to every time I get this question from now on!