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Getting into the top colleges (grades and interestingness )

  1. Jun 12, 2012 #1
    Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")


    I recently came across a comment by the blogger Cal Newport on his website. When asked what kind of grades were required to get in, he responded saying that if one's "grades and test scores were in the middle 50% of accepted students" (for past years, I suppose), then they have a shot.

    Actual quote:

    To those who went to such colleges and/or those who worked in the admissions' office there - top 50, I guess? - would you say that this is correct? If one's grades and SAT scores fall within that range, then that's a "tick in the box" and at this point, it's the "rest of the application" that matters? At least, this seems reasonable. From what I can recall, the minimum SAT scores of admitted applicants at various colleges (most of the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford) is usually around 650 on each section. Then, why do so many students freak out about the SATs? Another question, can excellent SAT scores (say, close to 800 on every section of the reasoning test and on the subject tests) trump a below average GPA? From what I recall, the majority of admitted students are in the top 10% of the graduating class. So, by poor GPA, I would say one that places one slightly below the top 50% of their graduating class. My first guess is that it would not, for it wouldn't fit the criteria of "test scores and grades being in the middle 50% of admitted applicants" but then again, what do I know? ;)

    Now, in your opinion, what would an "interesting" application look like? I'm not asking you what you think I should do, rather just what you think on the subject. (I think my application is fine, and if it's not, then I guess I'll rejected :-)) According to Newport, what makes one stand out is if the activity they took part in is one which is hard to imagine. If one were to "simulate the steps to get to that eventual aim", they would not be able to! Now, as it turns out, this is not very hard to do. It requires participating in X activity, keeping an eye out for something interesting that one can do and then doing it. For example, if one knows a professor, they could casually talk to them and eventually use that relationship to land a research internship, which supposedly looks more interesting than being a member of twelve clubs.

    Last edited: Jun 12, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 12, 2012 #2
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    The truth is, once the numbers are "good", no one really cares exactly what your GPA or SAT score is. Statistically, there is no real difference between a GPA of 4.0 and one of 3.99 or an SAT score of 800 and 790, and admission committees know this.

    The basic problem is that almost all of the over 15,000 high schools in the US have one or more students with near perfect GPA and SAT scores, and so the top colleges need to find some other factor to choose applicants. The question you have to answer as an applicant is "Why you?" when there are 10 or more people with the exact same grades and test scores applying for the same spot. What have you done that the others have not? What makes you special? And more than that, can you show them that you are destined for great things whether or not they admit you?

    EDIT: Students freak out about GPA and SAT scores because they are a simple measure and easy to improve. A little more study will raise your GPA and SAT score, but how do you make yourself more interesting?
  4. Jun 12, 2012 #3
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    Reasonable. When one starts spending too much time trying to improve a 2350 SAT score, it's likely that their efforts won't serve them much, if at all.

    Then what about the difference between a 2.99 and a 3.0 GPA? In that case, would a 2200 SAT mean anything? And vice-versa? (great GPA and low SAT scores) From what I gather, ad-coms tend to expect both the grades and standardised tests to be great, which makes me question the purpose of the SAT. I thought (and then, I may have been wrong) that it was to be able to differentiate between students from different high schools.

    Hmm. My best guess is that one is regarded as being "interesting" by virtue of him merely being different to the rest of the applicants. Newport raises an interesting point. Some people he's interviewed - successful "top college" applicants - claim to have willingly left out some extracurricular activities in their essay. His idea is that (compulsively?) listing every little activity, like debate, drama club and student council rep, only lumps one into the same category that every other applicant gets thrown into. That's a bad way to stand out because everyone and his grandma has that same application. So, showing fewer activities, which are different and therefore, more interesting, can make one stand out.
  5. Jun 12, 2012 #4
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    There is no difference between an 2.99 and a 3.0. There are no students at a top university that had a 3.0 that would not have been admitted if they had a 2.99.

    And yes, the SAT is sort of a check that the grades are not outrageously inflated. If a student applied with a 3.97 GPA, but an 1100 SAT, up goes the red flag!

    In some sense, "interesting" is the wrong word... you need to show something extra, and something memorable. Just sticking out isn't necessarily a good thing.

    Let me give you an example of how to be admitted. My wife had two students in her HS math class. Both were very interested in math, and decided to form a Math Club. (Good leadership points for both!) One was the top, top student in the school, near perfect grades and SAT scores, the other was a very good (3.6ish) student. The 3.6ish student asked my wife to read over her admissions essays, and one in particular was an absolutely beautiful story about how she was sitting at the kitchen table while her grandmother prepared a traditional dish for her and she reflected over the path her life had taken so far and where she wanted it to go. She had also worked in a research group over the summer... she had called all of the professors at a nearby university and read some of their papers and persisted until one of them finally agreed to let her work in the lab.

    Any guesses which student was admitted to Stanford straight away and which one got in off of the waitlist? :smile:
  6. Jun 12, 2012 #5
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    Cool. I reckon those are few... :-)

    Yeah, I didn't mean "bad interesting". (say, criminal record - could be interesting but "bad")

    This is hearsay for all I know, or perhaps those people were just really nice, but somebody (on CollegeConfidential...) who was admitted to Brown said that when they went to the "preview event", some people in the ad-com immediately knew who she were when they heard her name. (her essays)

    I'm guessing the one with the 3.6?

    Now, this seems to go in contradiction with what Stanford say on their website. I couldn't find the link but it was on a FAQ. "Is it bad if I take hard classes and get slightly lower grades than if I had taken easier classes?" To which Stanford replied: "Our students take hard classes *and* get As." or something along the lines of that. BUT, their incoming class is definitely not filled with 4.0s!

    Another thing is while the girl may have just been a "good fit" (this term is thrown around a lot) with Stanford but for all we know, "4.0" could have well had an interesting story too.

    I understand your wife is a math teacher. Did she cover any advanced work with this student? I'm curious to know how she was able to read actual research papers and make sense of them.

    Stanford also seem to place a lot of weight on their essays, though probably not to the extent of UChicago. The supplements for both look cool.
  7. Jun 12, 2012 #6
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    Not true because 3.0 is often a cut-off point (requirement). That being said, if you have a 3.0, it's pretty tough to get into a top school. But it can mean the difference between them looking at the application and not even accepting it.
  8. Jun 12, 2012 #7
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    Scores should be as good as you can get them. You don't need perfect scores across the board but they should be respectable (a good heuristic = at least 700+ in each category is good enough to stop worrying about scores and focus on other things). Good scores won't get you in, but a bad score can keep you out.

    The caveat: At top schools, 800 Math 2C scores are ****VERY**** common and so you should definitely try to at least get that one, especially if you're going into something quantitative.

    In terms of grades, you must be near or at the top of your class. Outside the top 5%, your chances drop significantly. If you currently go to a regular public school, you should probably aim at being top-3 of your class.

    Grades are the single most important part of your application because admissions officers need to know that you can handle the workload if accepted. Take the hardest courses you can and excel in them. Unweighted GPA will probably need to be at LEAST a 3.7. Anything lower and you shoot yourself in the foot. At a regular public, you'll probably need 3.9+.

    Recs: Get a recommendation from both a humanities teacher and a science/math/etc teacher to round yourself out.

    Extracurriculars -> depth, not breadth. Being really passionate about a few things is far more interesting than just spamming as many EC's as you can so you can inflate your application. EVERYONE does that. Standing out in the crowd is far more powerful. Admissions officers are not in the business of admitting pure test-taking machines. They want smart, hardworking people who are also interesting and have personality.

    Essays: Variegate your sentence lengths. Don't use pretentious words just to sound smart (aka don't overleverage supercilious vocabularly for the sake of augmenting the external perception of your vernacularian prowess). Try to use really interesting anecdotes. Talking about your big football victory or how the icy elements tried to hinder your pathetic mortal coil as you scaled some mountain in a feat of mighty determination... boorrrring. By interesting, I mean seemingly mundane but actually profound in its implications. Show, don't tell (the first 10 minutes of the movie Up = absolutely perfect proof of this concept).

    How to make your essays not suck: Ask people to read them with honest feedback. Were they engrossed in your story or did they hyperskim it because it was cliche, boring garbage without a compelling story? Write something you would actually want to read. Something clever, interesting, witty, thought-provoking, etc.

    I got into 6/8 Ivies (and have been a member of CC since pre-2004) so I feel like I had the right idea as to how to craft my application, so, hope this helps.
  9. Jun 12, 2012 #8
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    Absolutely. This surprised my wife, but it was crystal clear to me as soon as I read the essay. Keep in mind, I had the same view of the two of them as an admissions officer, while my wife actually *knew* them.

    My wife had both of them for calculus. The research work was medical in nature, so it wasn't full of higher math, just statistics. I think that part of why that student got the internship is that she dug in deep enough to convince the professor that she knew what was going on, even though I'm sure she must have been slightly weak on the details. That determination impressed the professor, and I'm sure it impressed the admissions committee as well.
  10. Jun 14, 2012 #9
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    Thanks a lot for the replies. I'll post again come March/April next year to let you guys know how it worked out for me. Hopefully I'll get in somewhere.

    UAHuntsville offers automatic scholarships (I think so?), which cover up to the full cost of tuition and room and board, to people who have at least a 3.0 and good SAT scores. Good would be something in the range of 1400-1500/1600 (Math and Verbal), I believe. We don't use a GPA system but I reckon mine would be somewhere around the 3.0 mark. At any rate, there's still hope I make it in *somewhere*!
  11. Jun 14, 2012 #10
    Re: Getting into the "top" colleges (grades and "interestingness")

    The good thing about living in the US is that if you graduate high school and have or can borrow the money, there is *definitely* a school *somewhere* that will accept you!
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