WASHINGTON, April 8, 2018: David Hogg, one of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school students who cofounded gun control advocacy group Never Again MSD , was rejected for admission by several UC system schools. These included UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine. But it was not about test scores.
If you’re the parent of a high school junior planning on college after graduation, Hogg’s rejection may be cause for concern.
What does your college application say
Regardless of your politics or your feelings toward Hogg, he is an excellent student. He co-founded and became the face of a movement; better yet, from the perspective of a school like UCLA, a politically left-wing movement.
He won the attention of the national media and national politicians. Beyond that, he’s an A-student taking advanced placement courses. Wouldn’t all that make him attractive to UCLA?
I have not personally reviewed any of Hogg’s application and do not know why he should have been accepted, or rejected. Whether it was due to his advocacy or his grades, there are many other reasons for a college rejection, none of which negatively reflect on the student. The following are a few.
The truth of high school GPAs
Hogg’s GPA is 4.2. His SAT score is 1270, which puts him in the 88th percentile. Those are both solid credentials for admission to most state schools.
But not UCLA.
UCLA admitted 16.1 percent of applicants in 2017. That is 16,494 out of 102,232 applicants. Seventy-five percent of them had GPAs above 4.13 and SAT scores above 1280. The average SAT score there is 1370. Hogg, who would be a solid applicant at Florida State. He would be in about the 25th percentile among students admitted to UCLA.
In fact, among students accepted to top-tier schools like UCLA, an A-average in high school is the norm. So are SAT and ACT scores in the 97th to 99th percentile. At Harvard, 75 percent of admissions are students in the 98th percentile and above, while 25 percent had perfect scores on the SAT.
At this point, you might conclude that your intelligent but imperfect child has no hope of admission into Harvard, Stanford, or UCLA. A+ averages and 99th-percentile test scores are levels of academic achievement that few of our children will ever see.
But there’s more to the story than that.
When all your applicants have perfect grades and test scores, how do you choose among them?
I know of several young people who have been admitted to top-tier schools with relatively modest test scores. At the same time, quite a few have been rejected by excellent schools while bringing near-perfect test scores and high GPAs to the table. What they had or overlooked were excellent application essays, letters of recommendation, volunteer and work experience.
One crucial factor is the college essay. A B-student with test scores in the 85th percentile is more than smart enough to perform well at Harvard or UCLA. Admissions committees know that. They can be won over to that student by a well-written, entertaining, or unexpectedly poignant essay.
The time to start writing the essay isn’t when you fill out the application, or even when you know which schools you want to attend. The time is before you begin the application process. It should have been a work in progress.
School counselors can provide an array of common essay prompts. The required essays aren’t long. They aren’t research papers and they don’t require hours in the library or online. They’re personal; they give the admissions committee a glimpse into the real you. You should be able to write one in an afternoon.
And then you should polish it, and polish it again, and again and again.
Do’s and don’ts of the college essay
There’s no excuse for the essay to contain errors. Or for clumsy wording. There’s no excuse for it to be boring and thoughtless. You have months to make it graceful, natural and insightful. Do it.
Under no circumstances should your essay seem forced, artificial, or contain anything deliberately deceptive. The point of an essay isn’t to make yourself into someone you’re not, but to show the best of who you are. The person inside your skull, filled with dreams and desires and plans and untapped talents and limitless possibility, is more than interesting enough for a short essay.
Don’t sell that person short buy fabricating a perfect stranger, and don’t try to buy your dreams with lies. You’ll almost certainly fail. The people on admissions committees aren’t stupid, and they have finely tuned BS detectors.
Essays aren’t required just by university admissions committees, but also by many scholarship-granting agencies. You can adjust and use an essay more than once. Write three or four on different prompts, then prepare to adjust them to the specific wants of the school or scholarship asking for them.
Work hard and impress your teachers and counselors with your attitude and initiative. Their letters are another important part of your application packet. Some schools might ask for a letter from a minister or some other religious leader, while others might want one from someone who supervised you in a volunteer or work capacity. Whether your summer job is waiting tables or building homes for the homeless, impress your supervisors.
David Hogg, prospective student
This talk of work and service brings us back to David Hogg. After weighing the gun-control issues, my next thoughts on reading about Never Again and March for our Lives were a bit cynical: “These kids are applying to Harvard.”
His anti-gun advocacy seems custom designed for a college application packet.
Prestigious schools are inundated with applicants who built houses for the poor in Haiti or tutored children in homeless shelters in Spanish. What students sometimes miss is long-term, consistent service. And not all kids come from households so prosperous that they can fly off to Haiti to build homes.
Some of them have to work at paying jobs to pay for phones and gasoline and save for college.
Whatever it is you do when you’re not in school, do it consistently and well, and make sure that it develops you as a better, more interesting human being who shines through on those college essays.
While Hogg didn’t get into his most prestigious choices, some solid schools will welcome him and his classmates. Do your best wherever you go, and you’ll do well.
Your college experience is only part of where you will go
I teach in the honors program of a state university with modest admissions requirements. One of our alumni recently returned to visit with some of our current students; he’d just accepted a job as a vice-president at Alphabet (Google). Another received his master’s degree from Oxford and his MD from Johns Hopkins, while others have worked as Foreign Service officers, head legal counsel for the NBA, worked as a marine archaeologist, and in the CIA.
The college application process is like a hazing ritual, and while you can have a big impact on the outcome, the outcomes are often as arbitrary as they appear. But they don’t decide your life. The school you finally go to won’t make you a success or a failure in life.
Some of that will be luck, but most of it will be up to you.
Lead Image: Courtesy of UCLA Berkley
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