I had the pleasure of talking to a very bright young lady recently. She has an extremely impressive academic record. She is an IB student with trimester averages right at or just above 40, 2200+ SAT, 800 on the Math II Subject Test and 760 on Chemistry, and predicted a perfect 45 for IB final grade (teachers wrote a pretty big check for her to cash!) Good list of extracurricular involvement , capped by the captaincy of her basketball team. She and her mother came to see me about her college list. After my recent post about bad college lists, she was worried that hers fell into the same category and was wondering if she needed more safeties and if she did, did I have any to suggest to her. Her list was thus: Claremont McKenna, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, NYU, Princeton (applied REA), Penn, USC, Stanford, Northwestern, and Cal Berkeley.
At first, it seemed top heavy but given her powerful academic credentials, perhaps not. I turned the whole thing over in my mind.
Does she need to apply to more safeties? I replied that it was wrong to think of safeties as just that....safeties. One applies to a college not just for the purposes of having a safety, but because one is genuinely interested in that college. When you do your college research, look for schools you LIKE and you would be happy to attend regardless of its perceived prestige or reputation. Only after you've cut down your list to a manageable number should you consider factors such as reach, target, and safety. If you have too many reaches and targets, then you need to look further afield but always motivated by this thought: am I genuinely interested in this school? Why? One should never apply to a school simply because it's a safety or because it's really prestigious and I just MIGHT get in. Apply to a school because you are genuinely interested in it. And have enough schools that you like so they cover a spectrum of admission possibilities.
The more I talked to her though, the more I sensed that she had no driving reason to apply to any of the colleges on her list. When I asked her what was so special about Harvard or Northwestern such that they were on her list, she couldn't really answer. As I suspected (and as is true with many students), she was applying without being cognizant of anything particularly appealing to those schools except perhaps the name and the reputation of the schools. I said that she should spend time, sit down and ask herself why she was applying to the schools on her list. I advised her to do the research and ask herself what she wants out of her four years in college. In short, do the stuff that she should have done a year ago when she began her college search.
Yes, this kid had everything...the great grades, solid extra curricular activities, and the finances to make it all happen. But there was little or no purpose to what she was doing. That's the lesson I want to drive home today. Regardless of where you are thinking of going to college, in the US, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK or just staying local, the most important thing is be purposeful. Make sure that all your college applications are purposeful, that they're all there for a reason that's personal and powerful for you. If you have this, it will be reflected in your application and this can only be beneficial to you.