What colleges are looking for in more concrete terms; Stanford calls for "Academic Excellence, Intellectual Vitality and Personal Context", but what does that even mean? A closer look at the qualities college fawn over, what they ACTUALLY mean and how to show them.
So your mother tells you you’re special. Sometimes. So your teachers like you. Enough. So your friends like to hang out with you. When they’ve got nothing better to do. Unfortunately (or fortunately), they aren’t the ones filling out your college application. This is your chances to show colleges why they want you, not the other way around.
Let’s start with Stanford, that’s a pretty okay school, right? We’ll get a little more general after we look at these specifics: "Academic Excellence, Intellectual Vitality and Personal Context" [http://www.stanford.edu/dept/uga/basics/selection/index.html].
Stanford claims “Academic Excellence” as its foremost concern in the application process. Show them how well you’ll do at their school, that you’ve been prepared for it and taken the most rigorous schedule you could. They won’t accept students the don’t think can thrive at their school. GPA, which is not nearly as important as class schedule when it comes to the more prestigious schools, is still significant as it alludes to your ability to handle more difficult courses.
Stanford’s “Intellectual Vitality” section, however, is quite clear about what they want, (using the parallelism of “We want” at the beginning of every sentence might have made that a little obvious) so I’ll post it here for your ocular pleasure. “We want to see your commitment, dedication, and genuine interest in expanding your intellectual horizons; both in what you write about yourself and in what others write on your behalf. We want to see the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that will allow you to spark a lively discussion in a freshman seminar and continue the conversation at a dinner table. We want to see the energy and depth of commitment you will bring to your endeavors, whether that means in a research lab, while being part of a community organization, during a performance, or on an athletic field. We want to see the initiative with which you seek out opportunities that expand your perspective and that will allow you to participate in creating new knowledge.”
However, there is one excerpt I’d like to take a closer look at; “depth of commitment”. Note that they’re not looking for you to be involved in every club on campus. They want to see you make a difference somewhere, not see you pretend to be a part of everywhere.
Finally and slightly somberly, they describe “Personal Context”. Who are you? Where did you come from? How did your life affect your school environment? How have YOU excelled and did you take advantage of your opportunities? Show them how far you’ve come over time, don’t just give them an inanimate still-life. Also, be wary of writing with self-pity, undue humility, shame, or underlying anger. It’ll make you look crazy.
So don’t be crazy and make them want you. Best of luck! Because, you know, your mother’s probably right.