What Highly Selective Colleges Look For in College Applications
The College Essay
The more selective the college, the more it will want to fill its incoming class with ✨ extraordinary, ✨ unique, ✨ talented individuals.
Oh, right. You knew that already.
But — had you ever thought to use that framing to your advantage as you work on your applications?
A question we use as college essay coaches to help students find the best content for their essays is a 😊 less frightening / more fun 😊 version of the same concept. We ask:
"What did you do in high school that other applicants could not have done? (Or could not have done as well?)"
Using this question helps you to get to the stuff that actually distinguishes you from others. And it keeps you from getting mired in by-the-numbers, I-worked-hard, I-did-lots-of-extracurriculars stuff that students think colleges want to read about, but actually come off as ordinary and unimpressive.
To repeat the obvious, colleges want students who set themselves apart from other applicants.
Let’s take a deeper look below the break with a case study from a recent Wall Street Journal article. (For a full orientation on the college essay, visit our College Essay Help Center.)
When you try to get into the Ivy League, you may find yourself sounding ordinary
The Wall Street Journal just published an article that hoped to rile up its readership — and it did! To Get Into the Ivy League, ‘Extraordinary’ Isn’t Always Enough These Days got almost 2000 reader comments, many of them railing against DEI initiatives and the “death of merit.”
But we see things differently at Prompt.
The article profiles a single high-achieving high school student, Kaitlin, and wonders at the ten selective colleges that rudely rejected or waitlisted her. (Two accepted her and she’s going to Arizona State on a well-deserved scholarship.)
From our college essay nerd perspective, we’re not so sure that it’s her “demographic profile” as a “middle-class white female” that hurt her as much as the article and, certainly, the comment section suggest.
Rather, we never learn from the article what Kaitlin did to distinguish herself in her applications.
The article declares her to be “extraordinary” because she:
- “took her first advanced-placement course as a freshman,
- “scored 1550 on her SATs as a junior and
- “will graduate this spring with an unweighted 3.95 grade-point average and
- “as the founder of the school’s accounting club.
- “Along the way she performed in and directed about 30 plays,
- “sang in the school choir,
- “scored top marks on the tests she has so far taken for 11 advanced-placement classes,
- “helped run a summer camp and
- “held down a part-time job.”
These are all great. The problem is that none of it is enough to mark her as “extraordinary” in a world where, academically, tens of thousands of applicants per college had similar academics to Kaitlin (GPA, SAT/ACT scores, AP classes).
As the University of Pennsylvania put it, “We expect [applicants] to have high test scores and grades. That’s a given. So another way for us to think about merit for those applicants is, what did they do with that opportunity they were given? How far did they travel in their high school journey?” (Emphasis added.)
For a selective college, those bullet points just mean that Kaitlin is at the academic threshold — that she can do the work. What they’re looking for now is the extra sparkle that will make her an extraordinary asset on their campus. That’s usually the job for the essays, which are the big distinguisher between all the academically capable students a college might select.
In fact, this is why our research has shown that essays can increase your chances of getting in tenfold. (Ten-fold is not a typo. That’s really how big a difference strong essays will make.)
From the article, we hear that Kaitlin is a “perfectionist,” and “exceptionally focused and competitive.” The problem is that we don’t hear much about what’s motivating her.
No wonder she herself ends the article wisely saying, “I used to be the kind of person who, if I got a low A, anything lower than a 95, I would be upset with myself,” but that “All that stress was not worth it.”
So what might she have done differently?
To get into the Ivy League, show that one or two lousy grades won’t phase you
The article says little about what Kaitlin wrote in her essays.
The only thing we learn is that she wrote “about her history of depression and anxiety to explain the two B’s she earned during her sophomore year.” Two things here:
First, writing about a “B” is a potential red flag. While it is true that highly selective colleges might care about two Bs, it’s important to keep in mind why: it raises a question for them, “Can this student do the work?”
That means that if your transcript shows two Bs alongside overwhelming indications that you can do the work, that’s going to be enough to reassure admissions readers. For example:
- If your B’s are from freshman year. Many colleges don't even use freshman year grades when calculating applicants’ academic indexes. Freshman year is a transition year, and grades that year are less indicative of college success (according to the data colleges use to predict admitted student outcomes).
- If your B’s aren’t recent. Similarly, junior year grades matter the most (and maybe 1st-semester senior year). Showing improvement is huge; recent indications are more helpful for determining future success.
- If your B’s were in harder classes OR in classes that don't matter much (e.g., most colleges don't include music or gym course grades in their academic score calculations).
- If there’s other overwhelming additional evidence that you’re high-achieving. For example, having strong AP scores really helps. (Extra bonus if you get a B in the AP class but a 5 on the AP exam.)
It does seem that Kaitlin fell into this “you can relax a little” category:
- Her Bs were from sophomore year, so not recent.
- They were in English and AP History, so not unimportant classes, but depending on how she did the AP History exam, she may have that “extra sparkle” to make up for the class grade.
- Overall, the article suggests her academics are otherwise stellar. (For example: “She is now [with the two B’s] ranked 23rd out of 668, or in the third percentile.” Third!)
With that out of the way, the potential flags with “explaining away” a set of Bs include:
- It can make you seem like you get hung up on trivial things. (A “B” isn’t that serious, especially if your academic record is overwhelmingly positive, as Kaitlin’s seems to be.)
- It can be hard to “explain away” a low-ish grade without sounding excuse-y. Which you really don’t want.
For most students, you can use the Additional Info section to give a good explanation for how the Bs happened and what you learned from them. (Emphasis on taking responsibility.)
- Helpful — “I discovered I needed to work harder and smarter.” And then explaining how you went about doing it.
- Harmful — Stating any excuses (including anxiety or depression).
- Excuses you *can* state — Extreme hardships, such as food or shelter insecurity.
What Kaitlin should have put in her Additional Info section: She probably fell into the “extreme hardship” category, given that she was in a “two-month, outpatient mental-health program that limited her academic work to two hours a day.” She could have explained this as the reason for her *slight* dip in grades.
Then, she should have worked on framing the experience positively. She might have written about how proud she is that her grades barely dipped during the time she was in recovery. This would allay readers’ fears that something as minor as a B in a class can trip Kaitlin up — she’s not fragile, she’s resilient!
She also could have added some words on what she learned from the experience. Probably a lot! How did it improve her mental health going forward? How did it help her to have a more empathetic view of others? There’s no “right” answer, but she must have learned something from this experience, and saying so would have been great.
In short: the way you write about poor grades or explain them really does matter. Never give excuses unless the excuse is extreme. Put as much focus as you can on what you learned!
Second, writing about a history of depression and anxiety is also, unfortunately, a tricky subject. Students often focus too much on how the mental health issue impacted their life, rather than showing what they learned from it or how they grew from the experience. In other words, it's the classic pitfall of focusing on what's happened to you, instead of on what you've done.
Nevertheless, discussing mental health issues can make your application stronger when done right. The two places to do this are in the Additional Information section (to explain a problem), or in the Personal Statement or Supplement (to show your growth).
Mental health as a college essay topic: In a substantive essay, it’s important to keep the focus on how these issues have tested or improved your character. For example, they are an obstacle you have overcome through determination. Or, your mental health struggles have made you kinder, or given you a broader perspective.
→ For Kaitlin, her two-month stint in a mental-health program does sound like a big deal — maybe a formative experience. What did she learn from it, and did she grow from the experience?
If she could write about how what must have been a difficult time helped her gain perspective and showcase her resilience, it could be a strong addition to her application.
To get into the Ivy League, ditch the ordinary and go for extraordinary
We don’t know what Kaitlin wrote in her personal statement. But we know it didn’t get her from “can do the work,” to “will be a star on campus” for many of her admission readers.
Which is normal: without guidance, most students write essays that undersell their strengths.
In the words of one admissions dean:
It's quick and easy for candidates to share, and for admissions readers to assess a candidate's ‘what’. However, the hope is to find the 'how' and the 'why' behind an applicant's ‘what’. If a candidate is a chemistry loving, slam poet who pole vaults, cool, that's 'what' they are. But, 'HOW' and 'WHY' have they become a chemistry-loving, slam poet who pole vaults? Too many candidates stop at the 'what' and do not give the 'how' and the 'why.' (Emphasis added.)
This is most likely where Kaitlin went wrong. We think she likely needed to add two things to the impressive “whats” on her resume:
- Add detail - most students even struggle with the “what” aspect. Generally, they don’t describe their achievements with numbers, accolades, and concrete, impressive facts that make it clear the level of difficulty involved. (We cover how to do this well in our Activity List article.)
- Connect to your character - when you talk about why you did something, you end up also showing what traits within yourself propel you to succeed. We call these the “5 traits” that all admissions officers look for. If you show you have one (or more) of these traits, you show that your one achievement is proof of the many more achievements you’re likely to have in the course of your college career and beyond.
Let’s take an example from what we know about Kaitlin: the fact that she founded her high school’s accounting club.
First, let’s look at that through the weary, skeptical lens of an admissions reader going over thousands of applications in a day. They’re thinking:
- How hard is it to start a new club at this high school? Probably not that hard.
- Does this club have any members, actually?
- Do people do anything in this club? Is it providing any kind of real value?
- Did Kaitlin found this club for a reason, or is it just resume-padding?
You can see that the founding of this club isn’t all that great on its own. Kaitlin still has a lot of work to do to show that only she could have founded this club (or done it as well as she did).
Next, let’s add some detail to make this item pop. We don’t know much about the club from the article, but let’s just suppose two invented facts:
- Club membership grew every year, from 5, to 10, to 20 members.
- Kaitlin has set up 16 partnerships with student clubs to help them create budgets, track expenditures and fundraising receipts, and generally be their pro-bono accountants. This is a 50% improvement over last year, when she had only 8 partnerships set up.
These details fill out the “what” of the club.
They are numbers-heavy — numbers are one of the best ways of showing what you really accomplished. The problem with numbers is that they aren’t always easy. Kaitlin would have to go back to her sophomore and junior records to find out how many members she had in those years. She has to count up how many partnerships she’s got. But taking the time to figure out these kinds of numbers almost always pays off in stronger descriptions.
Now, the admissions officer is thinking: how many students could build a 20-member club? How many could sustain steady growth over three years with a new club? Not just any student could do this. This takes real patience, effort, creativity, and dedication.
Finally, let’s look at why Kaitlin founded this club and made it a success. Again, we’re inventing some details here, as we don’t know the “why” from the article:
- Maybe Kaitlin was looking for some more hands-on opportunities to learn business skills. (In the article, we learn Kaitlin wants to study business in college.)
- Kaitlin didn’t have enough time to start a “side hustle” or pursue other opportunities because she needs to hold down a part-time job on top of her studies.
- As an avid theater person, Kailtlin also noticed as a freshman and sophomore that the Drama Club was underfunded because its budget wasn’t managed as well as it could have been.
If Kaitlin put these three pieces together, we’re learning a ton about how founding this club isn’t resume-padding, but an example of the type of driven, creative, intelligent person that Kaitlin is — a person with tons of potential to succeed in college and beyond.
In terms of the 5 traits, this “why” for founding the Accounting Club would show:
- Initiative — Kaitlin had a need (for more hands-on business experience) and found a creative way to make it happen, all on her own.
- Contribution — Kaitlin’s solution was also about helping the Drama Club and other clubs at the school.
- Drive — Kaitlin kept with her solution for three sustained years, growing it over time. She obviously never took no for an answer and stuck with this project long enough to make it a success.
- Intellectual Curiosity — Kaitlin’s interest in the business world was strong enough to lead her to this nifty accomplishment.
Again, as the admissions reader learns about this Accounting Club and how it came to be, they’re going to be thinking:
- Few students could have started this kind of club, and made it such a success.
- Few students could have made the club so useful within the school, improving its culture by strengthening student clubs.
- Few students bring this much energy to pursuing their intellectual curiosity and passions.
Kaitlin has now distinguished herself as unique. Not ordinary. Exceptional.
Importantly, at Prompt, we’ve noticed that the difference between “ordinary Kaitlin” and “exceptional Kaitlin” is NOT generally in what they’ve done. Rather, it’s about the work they put into explaining those achievements in their applications.
Students get side-tracked when writing by things that don’t matter, such as:
- Beautiful writing, studded with fancy metaphors and philosophical musings;
- Talking about their suffering (family tragedy or obstacle);
- Talking about how their passion (sports, arts, music) “makes them feel alive,” instead of what they’ve actually done.
When students focus instead on the 5 traits, they also start to answer that question: what have you done that nobody else could do? They start to stand out from the crowd. And get admitted.
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