These days, standardized testing and GPA only get you through the “doorway” of consideration in the college admissions process. After you reach a certain threshold score, you’re in the same water as most everyone else. Sure, some colleges claim that they have no borderline scores that automatically guarantee rejection, but that claim only holds true for the extraordinary–the Olympic level athlete or teenage scientist who discovered the cure to cancer. Thus, from there on out, it’s about what makes you exceptional, outstanding and different. The act of creating fulfills these descriptions perfectly.
Before I discuss what the “act of creating” is, it is easiest to give an example. I’m sure we have all used the snow day calculator at least once in our lives in order to ease the growing anxiety of whether or not we should do our homework that’s due the next day even though school might be cancelled. The snow day calculator was in fact created by NJ resident David Sukhin when he was in only 6th grade as a side project. A project not meant to wow science fair judges and then be thrown away, but a project that has been used thousands of times by desperate students all over the country. Sukhin devised his own algorithm to determine the probability of a snow day based on factors such as zipcode, school type, and the number of snow days that already occurred. Sukhin is now at MIT studying computer science and business.
Colleges want people who create, whether it’s an app, charity organization, self-publication, etc. Quite simply, colleges see high grades as something most people can study for, while developing an app or doing cutting edge research as something only very few (the same few that they want) are capable of. Exceptionalism, I like to call it. And with increasing competition in the college admissions process over the past few years, the number of exceptional students has grown. I know students in Juilliard excelling as musical prodigies who start their own charity orchestras, Intel semifinalists who’ve had their names in research papers, and bloggers who have managed to get published on well known sites. Colleges take these accomplishments as a sign that these students will go on to doing even greater things after higher education. Instead of settling down at a stable job with decent pay, these students will strive to start their own companies or become CEOs of existing ones–and you have to admit, that kind of legacy reflects pretty well on the college.
The problem is, exceptionalism is exceptionalism because there are “ordinary” people. It is a little unrealistic to expect everyone to start their own thriving businesses or projects in high school. This is not to say that those who do manage such a feat don’t deserve their college acceptances (rather, they’ve earned every single one) but someone has to ask: what about everyone else? What about everyone else who spends most of high school working for high grades and putting hours into learning material and can only half heartedly dabble in extracurriculars? I don’t really have an answer to that because every human is different, and no student was born on a level playing field with anyone else in the college application process. But at the same time, those differences help shape what we can achieve and what college admissions deem unique in applicants.
Creating your own project is difficult and a lot of work. But for the most successful and “exceptional”, you realize that these people truly love what it is they are amazing at. I can’t imagine David Sukin was thinking of college admissions in 6th grade when he created his snow day calculator as a mere side project. No, these projects should be started for yourself and your passions, because only then will you not find it a chore to work through and likely abandon. It seems a little hypocritical that I’m telling you to go create something if you want to get into college, but don’t force it. But really, just think about your personal interests and place them before the scrutiny an admissions officer might give your application.
So to the high school student or even middle school student: don’t just think about grades; think about what you love and turn it into something of your own. Are you a writer? Start a blog and work to publicize it within your community. A programmer? Write your own code for something interesting, entertaining, and/or productive. Any other obscure interests? You can literally create a website for anything.