Mind Over Matter: 3 Ways to Conquer College Acceptance Rates

College Acceptance Rates

You close your eyes and dream about playing ultimate frisbee on the main green.

You can nearly taste the greasy 2:00 a.m. shawarma wrap on a well-earned Saturday night. You’re looking forward to a spirited debate with a tweed-jacketed Young Republican from Connecticut in Poly Sci 101. The college experience awaits. And then, a bucket of ice water snaps you out of your reverie. It comes in the form of an email forwarded from mom, who just read an article in the New York Times about a horrifying statistic: the acceptance rate to your dream school is… disgustingly low. Your picture of college starts to fade, your future looks bleak… you start to convulse.

Sound familiar? Awesome. It means you’re in fantastic company, because we have ALL been there. We have felt that drop in our stomachs, we have watched that virtual door to our destinies slamming SHUT, we have stared with numbed souls at those harrowing statistics, which seem to get worse every year.

But, we made it to the other side.

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And we have some advice. Real good advice. So listen up. Let’s call it the Admissionado 3-Step Recovery Program to Statistics-o-holic Syndrome. Here’s a brief summary of the steps.

  • Step 1: “Go to 11.” – Whatever your drive used to be? Kick it up a notch.
  • Step 2: “Take the Red Pill.” – Choose risk over safety in your application, and dive headfirst down the rabbit hole.
  • Step 3: Stay classy. But mostly, Diversify. – Choose a big number of target schools, and a sensible spread of schools. And submit confidently.

Step 1 – “Go to 11.”

(You guys ever heard of Seabiscuit?) Well, I’m talking about a HORSE. One nifty little horse. Who had it in him to win races. But sometimes it took a special circumstance to get him going. Know what it was? Seeing the nose of another horse pull AHEAD of him. Ha! The threat of another horse beating Seabiscuit… well, it made him mad. So rather than buckle, and whine, and look to the stands for emotional help, Seabiscuit said to himself “OH HELL NO.” And he found a new gear. A gear that would soon leave his competitor in the dust.

So your dream school is hard to get into? Awesome! Make it THAT much more your business to reach. And stretch. And pile on the wins between now and application time, to pull ahead. Don’t let a harrowing statistic get you down. Take it the opposite way. Seabiscuit that sucker. Have it motivate you. Look at that stat through squinted eyes (Clint Eastwood-style), and start smirking. “Go ahead, harrowing statistic. Make my day.” Become defiant. And take matters into your own hands.

Step 2: “Take the Red Pill.”

Now that your fist is clenched, and you’ve got some solid blood flow, it’s time for the next move. You’ve spotted the competition, and like Seabiscuit, you’ve made the decision to make your move. But… what does that move LOOK like? If you’re Seabiscuit, you need to figure out whether you’re gonna cut inward, or drift outward, or stay the course and just accelerate. Now, one thing you’ll have to wrap your head around is that you’re not a horse. (By the way, if you ARE a horse, we have some topic ideas for your personal statement.)

But so, most of you are not… equine. And you’re staring at a statistic that basically tells you that out of 100 applicants, maybe fewer than 10 are gonna pass through the gates. Well, there are a thousand directions you can take it. But, the bottom line is, you need to make like Rihanna and shine bright like a diamond. Why? Precisely BECAUSE the odds are so steep, it’s not enough to let your profile speak for itself, you need to make it SING. And profiles sing most beautifully when they are unique. Interesting. Refreshing. Different. Unusual.

Challenge: accepted. (Good decision.)

So, what makes you sparkle? (The answer isn’t always obvious, but the very exercise of asking this question will get you on the smart path. The Admissionado-approved path.) Come up with a few possibilities. You’re a violin player? Awesome. What else? You’re an officer in the NHS? Fabulous. You play a sport? Aces, write it down.

Before we forge ahead, quick news flash: a giant chunk of the 90% that FAILS to make it through… has stellar SATs, and killer GPAs, and wildly impressive activities lists. What they lack isn’t profile strength. It’s profile INTRIGUE.

In fact, let’s return to that statistic, the one that made you throw up initially. Think critically about what that low acceptance rate is telling you, in light of the fact that the competition is so talented and so tough. It’s telling you many things, but mostly that over 90% of applicants simply aren’t interesting enough. Standing out is one of the most crucial aspects of mounting a successful college application. But you’ve heard that many times. And it is easier said than done. But this is where you need to do your most critical thinking, and take some risks. What makes your profile truly interesting? If you’re not careful, you may default to a safe approach of determining what aspects give your profile true intrigue. We recommend taking it the other way. Let low acceptance rates INCREASE your appetite for risk, precisely because the odds are so steep. These numbers should have the positive consequence of encouraging more creativity, more cheek, more confidence, more imagination when highlighting your key attributes, choosing essay topics, etc.

Step 3: Stay classy. But mostly, Diversify.

So you’ve figured out your angle, and you’ve (wisely) figured out how to take some smart risks. Clap clap clap. Now what? Now comes actual execution. Where are you gonna apply? Well, once again, let those acceptance rates become your new best friend. The smartest possible strategy you can adopt here is (using basic comps like mean SAT and such) to determine where you are competitive: Top 10? Top 30? Top 50? Top 100? Ballpark it initially. If you’re a Top 100 guy, awesome. If you’re a Top 10 gal, equally awesome. No shame in where you land. Your personal bracket is your personal bracket. But wherever you, as an individual, land… your next task is twofold:

  1. to maximize your chances of getting accepted somewhere, while
  2. stretching your potential so you can go to the best school you can get into.

Here’s how to put acceptance rates to work FOR you. Wherever your ballpark level is, research a few schools that are the same general level of “rank” (you can use any popular ranking like US News). Then, look at the acceptance rates of those schools, and take a rough average. What is it? 25%? 15%? Whatever it is, let that be your baseline. And apply to a chunk of schools that fall generally in the same class. Now, you’ll want to hedge just to be safe, and add some schools where the acceptance rate is even HIGHER than your baseline. Many refer to these as “safety” schools. It absolutely does not hurt to add two or three to the mix. Ensure an admit. You can always decide to say “no” later on. But make sure you have a choice.

Okay, now here’s where it gets fun. Take a look at acceptance rates of schools that are a little LOWER than your baseline. Schools that, purely according to probabilistic logic, are “ more difficult to get into.” Many refer to these as “stretch” or “reach” schools. We highly encourage it. Reach for the stars. Don’t just finish the race, WIN it. Or, at least run like you WANNA win it. Then, your finish will taste sweet no matter what position you’re in. But go for it, damnit. You only live once. We recommend a healthy number of reaches. At least three, maybe even five, maybe even more so long as all your other bases are covered.

Let’s review. Acceptance rates are bumming you out… paging Dr. Admissionado?

Step 1: “Go to 11.”: You saw another horse threaten to take a lead. And you said “Nuh-Unh.” Step 1 is all about deciding to pull ahead and win the race. Rock on.

Step 2: “Take the Red Pill.” Is deciding how. What’s your tactic? You control what goes into your application. This gives you ultimate control of your fate. Make smart, risky choices, and push your profile to the edge.

Step 3: Stay classy. But mostly, Diversify. Is executing. Getting that application out there. But where? This is the part where you decide how to play the odds in the smartest way possible. You want to ensure an admit, that much is obvious. But you also want to put yourself into the best and brightest college campus you can possibly manage.

At the end of the day, folks, there will be a billion and one statistics out there that have the power to CRIPPLE you, if you let them. Mostly, ignore all of it. But every now and again, if a particular stat gets into your bloodstream, and you just can’t shake it… then make like Seabiscuit. Get mad. And find your winning gear.

Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!

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