If you’re a high school student who is yet to finish the college application process, this blog post is for you.
I had a 58% GPA in grade 12 and submitted my college applications a week late. 3 months later, I ended up with a $100k merit-based scholarship to a top-ranked US university.
To answer the question of how I got so lucky, I investigated the college admissions process. I talked with dozens of admissions officers from top US universities to understand the process inside the admissions office. Here's what I found.
US colleges receive anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of applicants annually. In order to streamline their decisions, most universities follow a variant of the below system, depending on the school’s size, prestige, and whether it’s private or public.
Stage 1: Litmus Test
Every application is read over by 1 or 2 officers for initial screening, which acts as a litmus test for whether or not you move on. In this stage, admissions officers look for reasons to cut you such as low scores, no extracurriculars, or poor references.
Stage 2: A Reason to Stay
Each applicant’s profile is read through by 1 officer, in which they have 10-15 minutes to digest and judge the application which you spent months perfecting. In this stage, officers look for stand-out items such as high scores, strong extracurriculars, or well-written essays. You are rejected at this stage if the officer fails to find a reason to advocate for you.
Stage 3: Committee Vote
The admissions officers review every remaining applicant as a committee. Each officer personally advocates to the committee for why you should be accepted. These debates for each student can often range from 20 seconds to 20 minutes. The final decision in this stage, determined by voting, determines your acceptance decision.
Throughout this entire process lies a staggering amount of flaws - mostly determined by human error. Individuals with personal biases are making hasty decisions that decide your future.
The admissions officers I talked to have admitted to rejecting more applicants when in a worse mood and being biased towards and against different traits. Your application may very well be read by an officer who doesn’t appreciate your musical talents, athletic commitment, or academic prowess.
The committee works long hours, and if your application is reviewed near the end of the work day, then good luck impressing a team of officers who read applications for months in a row.
So what can you do to stand out? My suggestion is to be unnervingly authentic. Admissions officers smell BS from a mile away. Have genuine curiosity about what you hope to study and how the university plays a part.
Don’t believe me? I used this method personally, and it worked against all odds.
At first glance, I would be the last person to ask for advice. In grade 12 I was suffering from a douse of teenage angst, during which my priorities became clear. I had a 58% average due to missing all my exams. My class attendance rate was in the 60-70% range. I only applied to 4 colleges in total. I started my essays AFTER the deadline had passed, and submitted them a week later.
DISCLAIMER: do not bomb your tests and submit your applications late. It is a complete statistical anomaly that I still got into ANY college, let alone graduated high school, despite making those terrible mistakes. I absolutely should have been punished for making those mistakes, not rewarded.
When I showed my essays to my school's college counsellors, they said writing about failed companies and relationships is a terrible idea. Yet, I ensured each college knew why I was uniquely interested in them.
I communicated my authentic thoughts, no matter how controversial, into my essays. I was accepted to 3 out of 4 colleges I applied to, with one of them offering me a $100k scholarship.
Be genuine and let your identity speak for itself. Remember, you can’t control what others think of you.
Just like how outrageous it was that college admissions turned out great for me, other students aren’t as lucky. I know of plenty of deserving students who were rejected from all top20 schools they applied to:
Tech entrepreneur who sold software startup for 6 figures
Altruistic NGO founder who changed dozens of lives
Value investor who’s turned thousands into millions
IOI and IMO gold medalists
Interns at FAANG companies
…and many more incredibly talented people
Each of those people would have succeeded regardless of whether they attended Ivy leagues or a community college. Colleges made huge mistakes with their applications, and they very well can do the same with yours.
What can you do?
You have unique interests, skills, and life experiences. The best you can do is authentically present the best sides of your identity. Your college admission decision does not determine your worth or what you become, so don’t let other people’s opinions of you while they're on a bad day leave you with any regrets.