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May 2024 Newsletter: How to stand out at T20 universities and pass the “vibe check”

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    Imagine, you fire up your computer to begin some serious research about the top twenty universities and amidst ten different tabs and ten college brochures, you find one daunting fact: there is hardly any variation in the average test scores and GPAs for admitted students to the top twenty universities. You look back to last year’s data, and the year before, and five years before that, but the fact remains. And somehow, every year, amongst 40,000+ applicants these universities are finding ways to select just 1,000-2,000 applicants per cycle. Yet, with over 20,000 students earning a 34 or above on the ACT (2023 National Graduating Class Profile Report), what else are these universities considering?

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    If someone meets the average profile of a T20, you might be questioning how they can earn a spot amongst so many applications. Or maybe someone sits just outside of their admitted profile and you’re wondering about other things they can bring to their campus. The answer often lies in one word. Vibe. Yes, that invisible cloud that follows you around, sprinkling drops of your personality, creating an emotional atmosphere that is you. Just like every person has a particular vibe, every university has worked for years to craft one of their own. In determining how to stand out to a university, understanding the vibe is an important starting point.

    So, how do you ascertain the “vibe” that a university is looking for? Sometimes, it’s actually right there in the admitted student profile–the nifty report colleges release typically including average GPA, test scores, and sometimes involvement of the students they admit. For example, UChicago lists geography and involvement of admitted students before they get into the academic profile. In such a small detail, UChicago is subtly implying, we like students who have a variety of community involvements. In other cases, determining what a university is looking for takes a bit more digging.

    A good place to start is the university’s website. Click away from the average student profile and look into additional information provided about students’ backgrounds, interests, and involvements. Pay close attention to any themes that emerge. Take a look at the university’s mission statement, values, and campus culture initiatives to gain insight into the qualities and characteristics that they prioritize in their student body. Let’s look at two examples:

    University of Chicago, “Who We Are,” 2024

    Princeton University, “Our Mission Statement,” 2024

    In a short paragraph, both of these universities have attempted to distill their vibe to prospective students and families. Did you catch the subtle differences? Drive vs. Service. New schools of thought vs. Making a difference. 

    On paper, Princeton and UChicago have nearly identical average student profiles, however, in just a quick look at their mission statements, it’s clear that these universities are looking for two very different students.

    Great, so you’re vibe-checking all the top 20 universities and now you’re wondering what this means for your application. With these vibes in mind, how can you stand out? Let’s look at common vibes you may come across:

    If someone meets the average profile of a T20, you might be questioning how they can earn a spot amongst so many applications. Or maybe someone sits just outside of their admitted profile and you’re wondering about other things they can bring to their campus. The answer often lies in one word. Vibe. Yes, that invisible cloud that follows you around, sprinkling drops of your personality, creating an emotional atmosphere that is you. Just like every person has a particular vibe, every university has worked for years to craft one of their own. In determining how to stand out to a university, understanding the vibe is an important starting point.

    So, how do you ascertain the “vibe” that a university is looking for? Sometimes, it’s actually right there in the admitted student profile–the nifty report colleges release typically including average GPA, test scores, and sometimes involvement of the students they admit. For example, UChicago lists geography and involvement of admitted students before they get into the academic profile. In such a small detail, UChicago is subtly implying, we like students who have a variety of community involvements. In other cases, determining what a university is looking for takes a bit more digging.

    A good place to start is the university’s website. Click away from the average student profile and look into additional information provided about students’ backgrounds, interests, and involvements. Pay close attention to any themes that emerge. Take a look at the university’s mission statement, values, and campus culture initiatives to gain insight into the qualities and characteristics that they prioritize in their student body. Let’s look at two examples:

     

    University of Chicago, “Who We Are,” 2024

    Princeton University, “Our Mission Statement,” 2024

    In a short paragraph, both of these universities have attempted to distill their vibe to prospective students and families. Did you catch the subtle differences? Drive vs. Service. New schools of thought vs. Making a difference. 

    On paper, Princeton and UChicago have nearly identical average student profiles, however, in just a quick look at their mission statements, it’s clear that these universities are looking for two very different students.

    Great, so you’re vibe-checking all the top 20 universities and now you’re wondering what this means for your application. With these vibes in mind, how can you stand out? Let’s look at common vibes you may come across:

    The Game Changers (Brown, UChicago, UPenn)

    These universities value students who are thinking outside the box, problem-solving, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge and discovery. You might stand out by highlighting passion projects or participation in competitions that value innovation and creativity such as Hackathons or Inventors Challenge. Or maybe you demonstrate ways in which you “break the mold” blending genres or combining specializations in unique ways. In essays, you might focus more on instances where you challenged conventional wisdom, identified problems and solutions, or demonstrated a drive for discovery.

    The Worldviewers (Stanford, Yale, Cornell)

    These universities are looking for students who demonstrate an understanding and appreciation for different cultures, languages, and perspectives, and who are eager to make a positive impact on a global scale. You can distinguish yourself by highlighting experiences abroad, participation in multicultural events or clubs, volunteer work with international organizations, or research/art conducted with a global focus. In essays, you might discuss changed perspectives, explicit statements of your “why,” or desires for positive change.

    The Do-good-ers (Princeton, Harvard)

    These universities are looking for students who are passionate about addressing societal issues, advocating for change, and making a positive impact in their communities and beyond. You might differentiate yourself by showcasing your volunteer work, advocacy for marginalized communities, participation in service-learning projects, or initiation of grassroots campaigns for social change. In essays, you can highlight personal experiences that affect your “why,” concrete actions you’ve taken to effect positive change, your role models, or your philosophies.

    The Thinkers (MIT, CalTech, Johns Hopkins)

    These universities prioritize students who demonstrate a deep love for knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a commitment to scholarly pursuits. You might stand out by highlighting independent research projects, published academic papers, participation in academic competitions, or advanced coursework in your field of interest. In essays, you can focus on aspirations, motivations, or moments of growth in your academic career.

    The Team-Players (Duke, Brown, Northwestern)

    These universities are all about teamwork, synergy, and collective achievement. They foster an environment where students, faculty, and staff come together to collaborate on projects, solve complex problems, and make a positive impact in their communities and beyond. You might stand out by showcasing your participation in group projects, leadership in student organizations or clubs, collaboration with peers on research initiatives, or organization of community service events. In essays, you might reflect on your collaborative experiences, problem-solving skills, or challenges you’ve faced.

    It’s likely that many of the universities you’re looking into fit into two or maybe even three of these vibes. And like everything else in the college admissions process, there’s no way to guarantee admission to a university. However, understanding the types of students these universities are looking for can be a great place to start when thinking about your application sticking out amongst ~40,000 others!

    ¹ A Top 20 university or college as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.

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