“What colleges should I apply to if I’m ranked #1 in my class and have a 1520 on the SAT?”
That is a very typical question we get. This is really a question of value, i.e. “What is the value of those credentials in the eyes of college admissions committees?”
Many people expect applying to college to be a straightforward formula (e.g. “If my grades are X, my test scores are Y, and I have Z as an extracurricular, then I will get into Harvard.”), but it is not an objective process that exists in a vacuum. Forecasting the potential value of candidates is a subjective process.
So in this post, we will discuss how we should be thinking about value. We will then talk about how to actually create value in a future post.
What is value?
Value is subjective, and it is determined by the potential recipient (undergraduate admissions officers, in this case).
Each college will have their own peculiarities in terms of their ideal student profile that they target (hence, the importance of finding a college that is a mutual fit). But one thing is clear: there is no inherent value in grades, SAT scores, and extracurricular activities without a context to give meaning to them. You can’t show Stanford that you are a perfect fit for what they need if you don’t even have the self-awareness to reflect on your qualifications and accomplishments.
Breathing life into your qualifications and accomplishments
Your GPA, standardized test scores, and extracurriculars don’t speak for themselves. There has to be a story behind them, and you have to be the one to tell it.
None of the components of your college application exist in isolation. You can have as impressive of a list of credentials as you think, but you have to give meaning to them by providing context on how those experiences challenged you to become a better person in our society.
Thinking about value
Value is not what you put into something; it is what comes out as a result of what you put in.
For example, the number of hours you spent volunteering at an animal shelter is irrelevant. What matters are:
What have you contributed in terms of outcomes (e.g. lives impacted)? (value added)
What have you taken away from the experience & how you can apply it? (personal growth)
Those are examples of the real measures of success.
Experience is not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you. Having the self-awareness to reflect on how you’ve grown as a result is key, and that’s the type of story that will make a college admission essay breathe life into an application.
Going back to the original question
The more relevant step would be to first figure out what your priorities and added value are, i.e. tell us who you are, what you offer, and what you want.
Mentioning your class rank and SAT score does absolutely nothing to humanize or distinguish you from other applicants. Choosing a college is more of an art based on mutual fit rather than a certain set of statistics determining which set of colleges are for you.
It’s impossible to demonstrate to a college that you’re perfect for them if you’re not even clear about what’s important and interesting about you, as well as the commitment and growth you’ve showed in developing your interests.
You get selected for the value you provide (and it’s subjective), not the inputs you put in or the qualifications themselves. So you must give meaning to those in order to create value.
Remember, value is subjective.