We’re excited to share this guest article from college admissions expert, Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, which explains how college admissions are different from 20 years ago, and how that can actually open brighter opportunities for your child.
Why College Admissions Rates Are Lower Than Ever
Dropping college admissions rates over the past several decades routinely grab headlines. Each Spring, we’re bombarded with stories like how Stanford’s acceptance rate is now below 5% and how UCLA only accepted 12% of in-state applicants in 2018.
Colleges aren’t admitting fewer students than they were a decade or two ago, they’re simply admitting a lower percentage of them. This trend can largely be attributed to students applying to more schools each year on average, the rising number of international applicants, and the ease with which students can apply to colleges.
If you’re the parent of a high schooler, you probably remember completing college applications by hand, typing up your essays on a typewriter or computer, and physically mailing everything. As time went on, each school developed their own application platform, so students could, for example, complete Dartmouth’s application on Dartmouth’s portal. Currently, centralized application systems like Common App allow students to simply click boxes to indicate where they’d like to apply.
Given how easy it is to apply to additional universities, families happily submit each school’s application fee with thoughts like, “It can’t hurt!” and “You never know!” In turn, application numbers rise, admission rates decline, and parents remain convinced that they wouldn’t have gotten into the school they went to if they applied today.
Therefore, it surprises most parents when I mention how getting into a great college isn’t necessarily harder these days, it’s just different. The highest achieving and most successful applicants from 20 years ago would be among the most successful applicants today if they follow the strategy I describe a bit later.
Successful College Admissions: Then
When you applied to college, there was an emphasis on being a well-rounded applicant. In addition to achieving high grades and test scores, you were probably advised to join sports teams, clubs, assume leadership positions, and perform hours of community service. This worked in an era when schools received far fewer applications overall and when college admissions was not given the same attention it is today.
Over time, more parents, students, and counselors caught on to the “well-rounded” approach to college admissions. For decades, more and more students have enrolled in every difficult class their school offers and joined club after club. Most students felt the stress and countless hours of homework and extracurricular participation would be worth it when they finally got into an Ivy League school or other dream college.
Unfortunately, their “proven strategy” and optimism have been increasingly met with disappointing results: students with previously coveted admissions profiles are now being rejected in droves. We’ve all heard of or know students who seemingly did everything right, but who did not get into top universities.
Parents I speak with tend to have one of two responses to these stories: a commitment to doing everything they can to get their child into these increasingly exclusive schools, or a defeatist attitude about how their child could possibly get in.
Instead of wondering why the old approach no longer works and modifying their strategy, most families double down and do more of what they know. For instance, if students were previously encouraged to join two clubs, they are now told they should join five. If they were encouraged to take two AP courses per year, they’re now pushed to take four annually.
Successful College Admissions: Now
The college admissions game has changed. With so many highly qualified applicants applying to top colleges with a high GPA and SAT or ACT score, it’s difficult for admissions committees to tell who the most impressive and distinctive applicants are. Deciding between two strong, “well-rounded” applicants becomes a toss-up. In other words, the “well-rounded” approach no longer works.
High school students who are wisest about the admissions process recognize that while strong grades and standardized test scores are necessary for college admissions success, they are not enough on their own. Instead, they need to be supplemented with unique extracurricular activities, not the standard collection of things everyone else is doing.
A unique extracurricular profile is one through which a student goes deeper with one or two activities to demonstrate creativity, initiative, leadership, curiosity, and impact. It’s usually achieved through opportunities that students develop or seek out on their own, rather than by following a well-traveled path blazed by others—parents, siblings, former students at the same high school—who achieved admissions success.
Before I offer advice on how your child can develop this type of profile, let’s compare two hypothetical students’ activities to demonstrate how much more impressive and interesting this approach will help your child come across vs. taking the “well-rounded” approach:
- President, yearbook club
- Secretary, student council
- Team captain, varsity basketball team
- Member, soccer team
- Member, science quiz bowl team
- Member, soccer team
- Sibling, child with autism
- Coach, soccer team for kids with disabilities
- Founder, soccer league that integrates kids with and without disabilities
- Speaker, TED (topic: providing access for kids with disabilities)
When college admissions committees review William’s application, they’ll recognize the large amount of time he devoted to extracurricular activities, but nothing will jump off the page. There will surely be many other applicants with similar extracurricular profiles.
On the other hand, Stacy’s achievements will not only be extraordinary, but will also give admissions readers pause. They’ll wonder about the story behind Stacy’s TED invitation, how she thought to found a valuable soccer league, and where she found all the time. When admissions readers have difficulty explaining an extracurricular path, they find the student interesting.
Most parents will learn about Stacy through her TED talk, an impressive achievement for anyone, let alone a high school student. They’ll admire her work but think, “My son/daughter is bright, but they’re not one of those kids.”
What most parents will neglect to ask is how Stacy got invited to speak at TED or what activities Stacy did not do to free up time for the soccer league pursuit that mattered most—her passion.
The word “passion” gets used a lot these days. We tell our students, “Discover your passion” and “Follow your passion,” but don’t provide guidance on how exactly they’re supposed to do that.
How can your child find their passion? Do they just sit around until it hits them one day? Does someone else tell them what their passion is? What happens if they don’t find their passion after some time? Is there a certain time limit before your child should just follow the herd and join every activity offered at their school?
During my 15+ years helping students get into top colleges, I’ve observed that the most successful college applicants take a deliberate approach to identifying what interests them and working hard at it before developing a passion and achieving atypical results.
After years of pursuing activities in a specific area of interest, students like Stacy routinely achieve results that their well-rounded peers simply don’t have time or energy for. These peak achievements are often the result of what’s known as a “passion project”, otherwise referred to as a capstone project.
While completing a passion project takes effort, it tends to require less time—and associated stress—than trying to participate in every activity to keep up with or outpace peers. Fortunately, this relatively relaxed approach also comes with disproportionate admissions outcomes.
How to Develop a Passion Project
Below is a step-by-step approach to how your child should pursue their project, from having no idea what their passion is to completing the work. Stacy will serve as our example.
Step 1: Free up time
Students who complete the most impressive projects tend to be the ones who protect their time. They reject opportunities that are time-consuming yet not impactful or meaningful, even if their peers are pursuing them.
At first these students use their time to explore areas of interest, whether or not they consider these areas of passion. When they identify the pursuits they enjoy most, they go deeper and cut the other ones out.
Stacy could have joined the yearbook club, but she saw how members devoted 10-20 hours per week, especially during the three months prior to publishing. While she was interested in the opportunity, she liked being involved with her brother’s soccer team more. When she was invited to serve as the assistant coach during her freshman year, she accepted. During sophomore year, she was promoted to head coach.
The biggest obstacle to freeing up time is the feeling of pressure—from students themselves or their parents. I routinely see parents intellectually buying into the idea of freeing up time to pursue areas of real interest, only to then push their kids to join activities that all the other high-achieving students are participating in, out of fear of falling behind.
The parents who resist this pressure and instead encourage their children to spend time discovering what they like and deliberately pursuing those interests are more likely to reap successful college admissions results.
Step 2: Go all in
The specific activities your child pursues are important, but so are the length of commitment, depth, and level of achievement. Generally, it’s much better to pursue two activities deeply for four years than it is to pursue five activities at a relatively surface level for two years each.
When your child identifies the activities they like, as well as what they like about those activities, they should take their work to the next level rather than remain stagnant.
While coaching soccer, Stacy realized that she was far more interested in helping kids with disabilities have positive social and developmental experiences than the X’s and O’s of the game itself. She noticed how much other kids on her brother’s team enjoyed interacting with their typically developing siblings, and how they had limited opportunities to play with typically developing peers.
Instead of simply continuing to coach soccer, Stacy polled her players’ parents and receiving significant support to start a league where students with and without disabilities played alongside one another. The league, which started out with four teams, became an instant hit. By the time her junior year rolled around, Stacy’s league had grown to sixteen teams and was covered by the local newspaper and small- to mid-sized websites devoted to parenting kids with disabilities.
The largest obstacle to going all in is the sheer amount of effort students devote to less impactful activities. For instance, joining a competitive model UN team can require 10 hours of practice per week. Science Quiz Bowl can take up another 10 hours. And so on. When you add it all up, students have very little time to pursue what matters most. Being hyper selective solves that problem.
Step 3: Gain support from a mentor
I often say that a mentor’s aid is akin to extracurricular activity rocket fuel. The right support can accelerate passion projects like no other means.
Who qualifies as a mentor? Depending on the passion project, a mentor can be a teacher, local university professor, artist, athlete, or whomever else. A mentorship also need not be formal. It simply involves building a relationship with someone who can help your child advance their extracurricular goals quickly.
Stacy’s goal in involving a mentor was to more quickly spread news about her league so that similar leagues would get started in neighboring communities, states, and across the country. Stacy reached out to the reporter who had covered her league at the local city newspaper—The Seattle Times—and asked whether she knew anyone at the LA Times, New York Times, or other major paper that might be interested in getting the word out. Soon, the league was covered by The Washington Post, receiving the attention of TED, which quickly invited Stacy to give a talk.
The biggest obstacle in gaining support mentor is thinking that busy professionals, teachers, etc. would not be interested to help a high school student. In my experience, potential mentors are often eager to guide bright and hard-working students, but rarely receive meaningful questions or requests.
When most parents hear about the rising difficulty of college admissions, their reaction most often tends be throwing their hands up in defeat or simply doing more of what used to work.
The college admissions game has changed and, with it, the strategy for success. While grades and test scores remain important, they must be paired with a meaningful and focused extracurricular profile to help your child get into their dream schools.
Pursuing a passion project is a surefire way to get the attention of admissions committees everywhere. While these achievements seem impossible for most high schoolers when we focus on the final result, taking a deliberate approach will make a passion project far more manageable, while reducing child’s participation in less impactful activities—not to mention their stress—along the way.
About the Author
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into top schools such as Harvard and MIT. He is also a former Cornell admissions interviewer.
Growing up with Tourette Syndrome in a middle-class family, Dr. Shemmassian was often mocked by peers and teachers and discouraged from applying to elite colleges. Therefore, he taught himself everything he needed to know to graduate debt-free with his B.S. in Human Development from Cornell and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
Dr. Shemmassian has been featured on The Washington Post, US News & World Report, and NBC, as well as been invited to speak at Stanford, Yale, and UCLA. He presents on topics including standing out on college applications, writing memorable personal statements, and navigating higher education with a disability.