Making yourself stand out

Nowadays, getting into a top college is more competitive than ever.  There are three reasons for this.  First, the population is growing, yet the number of spots available at top schools isn’t changing very much (some schools are increasing their capacity, but not quickly enough to keep pace with the increase in population).  Second, more and more students from around the world are applying to American colleges, which are possibly the best in the world.  Currently, there are nearly 1 million foreign students attending US colleges.  This represents an increase of about 40% from a decade ago, and the number of foreign students increases every year.  Third, students are building better resumes through academic and extracurricular activities, creating a pool of highly qualified candidates that top colleges can choose from.

Traditionally, there have been a few factors that help students get into elite schools.  The most obvious is coming from a prominent or wealthy family.  Being a legacy (i.e., having a close family member who went to the school you are applying to) also helps.  Attending an elite prep school such as Phillips Exeter Academy (my alma mater) also gives you an edge. Finally, having a highly distinguished accomplishment will also greatly increase your chances.  When I was at Yale, I played on the chess team.  Our top board was Joel Benjamin, who was ranked as high as number two in the US while he was there.  Also attending Yale while I was there were actresses Jodie Foster and Jennifer Beals, who had just come off the hit movie “Flashdance”.

I realize that most students probably will not have any of the advantages I just cited. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get into a top college.  You just have to work harder and, more importantly, smarter than your competition.  First, make sure you take a challenging program of studies and get A’s in your classes.  Top schools want to see that you can succeed in a top program, since that’s what they offer.  Second, you need to get top scores in your SAT or ACT.  Education Online can help you with that.  But that will only get you in the competitive range for a top school.  You need something more.

Through this blog, I will be giving you a series of recommendations of things you can do to boost your resumes.  These will help you get into top colleges, assuming you have the grades and test scores.  Even if you don’t, they can still help you get into a good college and perhaps one that is better than what you normally might be competitive for.   For example, a recent student of mine was accepted to an Ivy League school.  This is a great achievement, especially since her grades were not quite at the level that many Ivy League students have. However, her resume of accomplishments, including starting a business and a non-profit organization as well as some key internships, would be the envy of many experienced adults.  Another student was hoping to get into a local state school, which would have been a reach for him given his GPA.  However, after I arranged for him to get an internship at that school, he not only got accepted at the local school, but also at a well-known school with a higher ranking and he will be attending that school in the fall of 2014.

My first recommendation is to build a relationship with the school you are applying to, especially with a professor who can serve as a mentor.  This helped me get into Yale, although at the time, I didn’t see it as a strategy.  I just wanted to work with the professor.  Most college applicants are largely statistics to the admissions committees.  If you can build a relationship with the school and in particular with a professor in your major that you will study with, you become known to the school.  In a best case scenario, the professor is pulling for you to get in.  If this happens, you are almost certain to be accepted.

Start by thinking about what you want to major in and what school you’d like to attend.  Then, go to the website of that school and look at the department associated with that major.  Look through the bios of the faculty and find a professor who is doing research in an area that interests you. Read about the professor’s work.  Then, contact the professor and ask him or her about the research.  The important thing is to get a dialog going.  In my experience, most professors respond very quickly and are flattered that a high school student knows about and is interested in their work.  Over time, the goal is to get the professor to take on a mentorship role with you and want you to come to his or her school as his/her student.  I can help you manage this relationship.  Also, this process lets you identify early on who can be a good mentor for you. This is very important since college prepares you for a job or for a graduate program.  Either way, the professor can be instrumental in your long term success.

The key is to develop and nurture this relationship.  You don’t want to overdo it by emailing every day, but you don’t want to be forgotten either. You’ll get a sense from how the relationship is going and how often to email.  Initially, you want to focus on the professor’s work.  You should ask about it, request his or her research papers and discuss the ideas expressed in them.  As you feel more comfortable with the work, try proposing solutions and research ideas of your own.  This will show the professor that you are thinking about the research in a creative way. At some point, you’ll try to get an internship with the professor, but we’ll cover that in a later blog entry.

For those of you who are doing independent research projects in high school, particularly if the research relates in some way (even indirectly) to the professor’s own area of research, you have another avenue for discussion.  Tell the professor about your work and say that you would be interested in seeing if the work could lead to publication in a professional journal.  Professors are expected to publish their own work, so the professor will likely be impressed that you are seeking to publish something while in high school.  Hopefully, the professor will be flattered that you are asking for his or her advice and will offer it to you.  If all goes well with the project, you can offer to make the professor a co-author on the paper.  This will likely help you get the paper published and cement the relationship between you and the professor.  It will also stand out on your college application that you published with a professor from that school.

When it comes time to apply to the college, I recommend you visit the school if you haven’t already done so.  Make sure you let the professor know and ask if you can stop by for a visit.  Meet the professor in person to make sure you two click.  Also, ask for a tour of the professor’s lab.  If all goes well, you’ll be working there while you’re in college and this will help give you experience for the next phase of your life.

One final recommendation.  Initially, you should contact professors from more than one school.  Students typically apply to more than one college and people typically apply for more than one job.  For this reason, you want to make sure you keep your options open.  You don’t know ahead of time which professor you will hit it off with. If one relationship doesn’t work, then you have a fall back. Also, you may want to consider a backup professor for each school.  There’s no guarantee your first choice of professor will respond to you or wind up taking you under his or her wing, but you still may want that school.  You may have to try to develop a relationship with someone else to get there.

Building a relationship with a professor is one of the best ways to increase your chances of getting into the school of your choice.  The best part is that any student can do this.  I followed this approach to get into Yale Graduate School and it worked for me.  The best part was that the professor I got to work with was absolutely perfect for me and he gave me the knowledge that Education Online is based on.  I will be happy to guide you through this process so you can find the school that is right for you as well.


Posted by on Feb 12, 2014 in John's Blog | Comments Off