Talented Students Winning at the College Admissions Game

For several years, college admission counselors at the most competitive colleges have been telling applicants who are ranked number one or two in their high schools, with perfect or near-perfect grade point averages and SAT scores, that they’re just not good enough. So what is it that these most prestigious colleges are looking for when they admit their applicants? The Dean of Admissions at Dartmouth College offers a hint in the annual report to secondary schools. While Dartmouth seeks academically accomplished students for its incoming freshman classes, “excellence in extracurricular areas also receives careful attention. We look for evidence of accomplishment as well as the depth of commitment and follow-through that lead to significant contributions and recognition from others.” In other words, competitive schools such as Dartmouth seek a well-rounded class of talented students.


Richard has been a competitive swimmer since he was seven. By doing an online search of college swim teams, Richard will select colleges that are appropriate for him academically and athletically. Most importantly, he will not limit his choices to those colleges where his high school coach has made a contact or where a college coach will promise to recruit him.

Harvard University has some wonderful links and whatever you may be searching for can generally be accessed through Harvard’s swim site. Richard starts his search by Googling “Harvard and swimming”. He clicks on “Harvard Swimming & Diving,” and finds the Men’s Team. He finds “Schedule and Results,” and selects a specific swim meet. He finds a list of all of the swimmers’ times who competed at that meet, as well as each swimmer’s name, his class, the college he attends, his best (seed) time, and his final time. While on this page, Richard can also look at the actual best times of backstrokers from each college. In order to decide whether a specific college’s swim team is right for him, Richard needs to get in touch with some of the team members. He is able to find this information on the team roster, where it has: the swimmer’s name, class, event, height, weight, hometown, high school, and e-mail address. By accessing the team roster, Richard can now e-mail swimmers, ask questions, express his concerns, and, hopefully, gain a better understanding of the college, the team members, and the coach.

If he really thinks that he can get recruited by an Ivy League swim coach, he should e-mail the coaches, send them his athletic profile (note: always be honest with your times as this can all be accessed online not to mention what might happen if you get admitted and can’t swim close to your times), and keep them posted on any significant new swim cuts. Coaches can let Richard know after July 1st of his junior year if they are interested in him as a swimmer on their team. By reading the Press Releases or News Articles pages and studying the team’s Web site, Richard can prove to the coach how knowledgeable he is about the team. The coach, in turn, can judge his knowledge and interest in the team.

To find similar information about swimmers and swim teams from different colleges, go back to Harvard’s “swimming and diving” home page. Then, look for Harvard’s swim links to other college swim teams (or Google “College and Swimming”). You should find a site that has links to all college swim teams regardless of their NCAA Division. Similar links can also be found on the NCAA website.


Loren is an exceptionally talented flutist in the top 10 percent of her class with 2100 SATs. Loren knows that the most competitive colleges are a reach for her academically but based on her musical talent, she may have a chance. She’s interested in the University of Pennsylvania and would like to play in Penn’s marching band. Loren Googles “College Marching Bands” and finds Penn’s band. By clicking on “roster” or “team,” she can find the names of all band members, the instruments they play, their class, and their e-mail addresses. From there, she can select the “flutes section.” In a particular year, she counts 10 flutists: 4 seniors, 4 juniors, 1 sophomore, and 1 freshman. Based on this information, she realizes that the Penn Marching Band Director is probably looking for new recruits to replace the graduating seniors. She can e-mail a marching band member and ask specific questions about the Penn Band, the band’s director, or about Penn. Another way to find the same information is to visit the Compendium of Marching Bands Web site, which links to college and university marching bands across the country.


By Googling “college and university theater,” an actor can access a listing of college and university theater departments. By selecting a specific college, the user can visit that school’s drama department homepage. Here, an actor can read the biographies of the student actors and the faculty. This site should also show the types of performances that have been given in recent years as well as the performances scheduled for the upcoming year. The student can view the academic program for theater majors, see online course listings and descriptions, e-mail students involved in theater, and e-mail the theater directors. All of this information gives the actor / applicant knowledge of that college’s theater department and some sense as to whether the department and the college would be a good fit.


Dance department websites give the dancer much of the same information as theater sites. By Googling “College and University Dance Programs,” a student can access a list of colleges and universities with dance programs that have websites.


Science and math researchers also need to market their talent, but this takes some creativity and intuitive thinking. Eli knows that if he is to be among the 10 percent of students accepted at a particular school, he has to do something to get himself noticed. He was involved in independent science research and spent his summers in labs working on his own projects. Prior to his senior year, he worked on a psychology project and wrote a paper that ultimately earned him recognition as a Semi-Finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search.

To let colleges know about his work, Eli wrote about one of his science experiences for his application essay and included his abstract with his college applications. He also e-mailed psychology professors who did similar research at the colleges to which he applied and asked his high school science research mentor to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf. Intel did not announce the winners until the middle of January, after Eli submitted his college applications, so once he became a semifinalist, he, his mentor, and his guidance counselor informed admissions counselors at the colleges to which he applied that he was a winner of this most prestigious award.

As colleges become more competitive, prospective students need to develop special talents, skills, and experiences to gain admission to their top college choices. Yet having those talents, skills, and experiences still may not be enough. Students need to market their specialty wisely as they search for the college that is right for them. Also, they need to make their own college selections, rather than leaving those selections to their high school coaches, directors, or mentors. It is the author’s hope that by using these strategies, talented high school students will find that “appropriate fit” that will ultimately result in Winning at the College Admissions Game.


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