A lot of different factors feed into college admissions decisions. Sometimes the most surprising things can turn out to be a plus or a minus.

One time I worked with a client who was graduating from a small and selective private secondary school. In the context of that school, his GPA, which was between 3.0 and 3.5, wasn’t bad, and he had a top notch SAT score.

You’d think that would make him an attractive college applicant, right?

But he had a real challenge when it came to showing extra-curricular activities or social involvement.

His high school was so small that it didn’t have the clubs or student government organizations that bigger schools do – there weren’t even 60 students in this client’s graduating class. That meant there was next to nothing to list under ‘extracurriculars’ on his college application.

The first essay he wrote was fantastic in terms of writing, but it didn’t show that he had any interests or accomplishments outside of the classroom. This client was a great kid and well-suited for the selective universities he most wanted to go to, but on paper he had some real disadvantages to overcome.

We focused on the content of his essays. He needed to write about something that would give a more balanced picture of him as a person. We talked about things he had done outside the classroom and how they related to his academic interests. In the end he wrote a fantastic essay about an internship he’d done that was related to his interests in social justice.

One of the client’s top-choice schools was an Ivy League university. The other school he targeted is also very difficult to get into, with an acceptance rate on par with the Ivy League schools. He accepted an admissions offer to the non-Ivy school and is very happy there. It’s a better fit than the Ivy League school because it has a smaller class size, which was easier for him to adjust to after his high school, plus a strong social justice program and lots of internship opportunities.

I’m glad it turned out that way. In all honesty, I’m not sure it would have if he had applied to that school using his original essay.

– Contributed by Senior College Admissions Consultant Aileen Brown. Aileen was formerly an admissions officer at Dartmouth College.

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