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Application Strategies

Showing Your Speed

What does it take for you to be an ideal college applicant? Is there such a thing? Rather than trying to create a standard list of accomplishments and test scores, it’s helpful to approach your college applications using an analogy: preparing for college is a race. But this race is not necessarily judged in the usual manner – and that is because not everyone is starting at the same line.

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Many high school students feel they must race towards a finish line that consists of scoring a 2400 SAT, a perfect GPA in all AP or IB classes, and participation in sports, music, and service clubs. And unless you cross that specific finish line, you think you won’t make the cut.

This is one of the biggest myths in college applications for students, especially students from low-income backgrounds. It’s not about the finish line. It’s about the distance you’ve covered – i.e. your speed.

Of course, students must meet basic minimum academic requirements to ensure a successful transition to college – no matter how fast you are, you won't survive a transition to college if your academic foundation isn't strong enough. Consequently, you will still need a strong grade point average and well-above average scores for admission to Harvard. Once you meet this threshold, however, there is a lot more to your candidacy than your GPA and standardized test scores.

Put yourself in the shoes of a college admissions officer. They want students who can make the most of the education they offer. They judge students by projecting what kind of an impact students will have on their campus and, more importantly, what impact students will have on society over the course of their career. Colleges want to find the strongest, fastest students, because over the long haul speed is everything. If admission officers simply evaluate candidates at a specific snapshot in time, they would have no concept of how fast that person is moving and consequently do a poor job of projecting.

For example, a student who moved to the United States in her freshman year of high school might score 550 on the Verbal and Writing portions of the SAT. This might seem unimpressive, unless you knew that she’s only known the English language for three years. Learning English in three years and scoring 550 on the SAT verbal – that’s fast.

A student with a great GPA but no extra-curricular activities might seem a one-dimensional candidate – until you knew that he was working 35 hours a week at a job in order to help his family make ends meet. A great GPA and a full time job – that’s strong.

If you are among the first generation in your family to attend college, grew up in a low-income family, or speak English as a second language, you probably began your race at a very different starting line than the majority of the other college applicants.

It is imperative that you use your application to tell colleges about your starting point and how much ground you have covered. Focus less on today’s snapshot in time. If you don’t, you are doing yourself a disservice. Without this information, colleges will not have a clear understanding of your speed.

Since most sections of the application are standardized slots for you to enter your contact information, scores, and grades, you need to provide clues about your starting point and the distance you’ve covered in your application essays.

writing about your life

It is essential that low-income student make a case for themselves in their writing. Whereas the QuestBridge College Match application was built with low-income students in mind, most, if not all college applications were not. Most colleges have a policy of “need blind” admissions, which means that they do not ask for financial information about a student and make the promise that if they accept an applicant, the college will do their best to make admission affordable to that applicant.

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This policy makes it challenging for low-income students because unless they mention something in their essays, the college knows nothing about a student's financial situation. Other than looking into where a student lives and what high school he attends, colleges do not know that the student may have had resource limitations or endured significant financial hardship.

You need to feel comfortable writing about your life and your experiences. Overcome any feelings of shyness, shame, or reservation you might have about writing personally about difficulties you’ve faced, challenges you’ve overcome, and differences that you may have experienced in access to resources. You may wish to try brainstorming and free-writing first on several topics to get yourself started, and then select a topic that will reflect the positive personal characteristics formed in the context of your background, such as perseverence and grit. This takes an open mind, as well as persistence, but quality essays that present who you are will be worth all the time you spend.

It is important that when writing about yourself in your essays, to do so in a way that shows how it has or did affect you, and what you experienced. Looking for pity will be obvious. Embedding a sense of anger will turn people off. Coming off as entitled will make you sound self-centered. Feeling like your experiences aren’t worthy of acknowledgement will result in an uninspiring essay. Look out for these pitfalls!

Have someone read over an essay for you and see what their observations are. Your essay should be as moving as an excellent conversation you would have with an intimate friend. Movingly funny, movingly sincere, movingly deep, it doesn’t matter, so long as it has meaning and it’s moving.

It may take you a while to express yourself clearly. It is a myth that a great essay comes easily for some people and not others. We have worked with brilliant students for years and they all work hard on their college essays. Give it time. These should be the best essays you’ve ever written. They may take you up to 3 months or longer, so start early if you can.

strategize: The rest of Your Application

As stated earlier, essays are a low-income student applicant’s best friend because the rest of the application is fairly straightforward and, in fact, has the aim of being as standardized as possible. Applications will ask you for your grades, standardized test scores, your class rank, your awards, extra-curriculars, and your contact information.

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There isn’t a great deal of elaboration that you can do within these categories. You’ve done certain things, gotten certain awards, received certain grades, or you haven’t. Therefore, the only way to maximize these areas is to know what colleges consider an achievement or an extra-curricular activity. This is not the time to be shy or modest.

Admissions officers want to know about your background and what you do outside of the classroom in order to put your academic performance into a larger context. In the extra-curricular activities section of your application, you will have the opportunity to state any activities that are meaningful to you. A college wants to see a student that has demonstrated interests beyond academics. Your involvement in these other interests allows colleges to see how and what motivates you when you aren’t in classes.

You may have needed to spend your time doing things you don’t consider to be as “college attractive” as your peers’ activities. For example, you may have needed to work a part-time job, take care of your siblings or family members, or have had a personal emergency that you have needed to take care of. If this is the case, there is no need to worry. So long as you indicate somewhere on your application that these other activities are ones taking up your extra free time, then most admissions officers will not look at you less favorably.

These seemingly less “college attractive” activities happen to be very common for low-income students, especially having a part-time job. Having a job is a fantastic thing that shows a high level of personal motivation. Working part-time to support yourself or your family is generally more challenging than doing volunteer work in your community.

You can indicate these things in the section of the application where you list extra-curricular activities, within an essay if a certain activity you do is meaningful enough to you (we have read some excellent essays about after school jobs and taking care of sick relatives), or within an essay that asks you for any additional information that you were not able to express in your application.


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