The secret to getting into a top college

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag, Van Vechten, Carl, 1935 Jan 4

Would he like it if I told him?

The other day, I was reading the comments to a guest column in The Washington Post written by a high school senior, William Pang. Pang attends a private high school, the Berkshire School, and had applied this year for admission to elite colleges. In the column, the young man showed admirable courage in his willingness to share his disappointment at recently having been rejected by his first choice, Brown University. Rejection is never easy, especially when so much of our sense of self is invested in a cherished goal like getting into a prestigious college.

But this particular commenter availed himself of his anonymity to lay into Pang for having presumed to dream big:

You didn’t get into an Ivy because you were probably a carbon copy of ALL of the other students. You should have been working a non-traditional job while in high school and foregoing the extra fluff (i.e. extracurriculars). For example, someone who wants to study mechanical engineering would get in, if they had a 3.5 gpa, good but not great SATs, and worked as an auto mechanic while in high school. A tailored essay stating something along the lines of wanting to design cars, etc….would seal it.

As reluctant as I am to admit it, though, the commenter did touch on a useful insight into the mysterious workings of the college admission selection process. As most of their websites take pains to point out, colleges value diversity in their incoming classes. But there’s a rationale to their efforts to craft a diverse incoming class that has just as much to do with seemingly intangible qualities as it does with ethnicity, gender, or income levels.

College counselors often give the advice that applicants need to specialize in order to stand out. But they rarely elaborate beyond the edict, also made by this commenter, to be “non-traditional,” which carries with it a classist undertone. What the commenter seems to be saying is that, in order to get into an elite college like Brown, you have to be both smart and working class. Or, at the very least, you have to appear amenable to what are conventionally understood to be working class values, like the willingness to work as an auto mechanic.

In his column, Pang mentions that he gets straight As at the Berkshire School. Coming from a place that upholds a high standard of academic rigor, he wonders why that wasn’t enough to get into the best universities. But consider the equation from the other side of the desk. Faced with a pile of applications—a pile that grows in elevation each year—admission officers struggle to distinguish one candidate from another.

Amidst a crowd of A students, how does the aspiring applicant stand out?

The conundrum for most high-performing students like Pang is that getting an A in, say, Physics, even if it’s AP Physics, doesn’t convey much information to an admission officer. Yes, it shows intelligence, diligence, and ambition. But an A is relatively opaque. Lots of kids get As, especially when grade inflation is factored in. And AP Physics, however academically rigorous, is still, for the most part, basic knowledge gleaned from a textbook.

So to buttress academic success, aspiring applicants resort to laundry lists of extracurricular activities, or what the commenter contemptuously calls “fluff.” This becomes more noise through which admission officers must sift for any sign of a good fit.

The underlying problem is that high school students need to recognize that academic rigor is only a special case of something more universal, intellectual rigor.

Intellectual rigor is the capacity to engage with a topic in a way that: is sustained; accounts for multiple perspectives; and is logically coherent.

We’re used to thinking of intellectual rigor as the purview of scientists and philosophers, cloistered in their labs and ivory towers. But intellectual rigor is a standard to which every professional aspires. It’s power is that it’s not a grade—a spot in a pecking order—but a way of contributing to a vital conversation with real-world consequences at stake. In contrast, academic rigor is both superficial and artificial, because, in large part, the work done in its pursuit has an audience of one, the teacher. Beyond pleasing teachers, academic achievement has no real-world consequences.

This is the advantage that private school students often have over their public school peers. While too many public school students are learning to prepare for standardized tests based on a static curriculum chock with textbooks curated by the groupthink of often politically-motivated committees, the most effective teachers are pushing their students to listen, talk, read, and write beyond tests and grades. They’re empowering their students to do work that is sustained, accounts for multiple perspectives, and is logically coherent—work that’s worthy of an audience larger than one.

When college counselors tell ambitious high school students they need to specialize, what they’re really saying is that they need to pick something—anything, really, whether a sport, hobby, or subject—and pursue it with intellectual rigor. And as with any other skill, intellectual rigor can be learned.

For the aspiring AP Physicists out there, build a gnomon and use it in an experiment to confirm that the world is, in fact, round. Recreate the famous double-slit experiment. Work through Albert Einstein’s breakthrough paper from 1905 on special relativity, then blog about the experience.

In this light, the commenter’s suggestion to Pang holds weight. If an aspiring engineer loves cars, he certainly can bring intellectual rigor to his passion by working at an auto mechanics shop. He could then leverage his familiarity with the nuts and bolts of cars to design and build his own car in the family garage. That would definitely impress a college admission officer.

Dr. Sean

Dr. Sean

Co-Founder at Readerly
Dr. Sean has over a decade of teaching experience at universities in the US and Asia. He earned a BA with honors from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of London. You can read more about his teaching and research here.
Dr. Sean