Working hard is a good thing, right? It’s something to be admired. Someone who is described as a hard worker is someone we, in our society, should respect, right? Right! But in the highly selective college admissions process, working hard should be underplayed as silly as that may seem. In highly selective college admissions, those who are viewed to be hard workers are at a disadvantage against those students for whom, say, learning or prowess at a sport come easily. The naturally gifted learner, the highly talented hockey player, and the great debater have advantages over the student who spends hours and hours in the pool working on his breastroke underwater pullouts and backstroke flip turns. It may seem unfair. But it is what it is.
Does this mean that the applicant from a lower-middle class family who has to work at McDonald’s after school every day is at a disadvantage in the highly selective college admissions process? Absolutely not if they convey their story correctly! If such a student manages to excel in school and on tests in spite of (or maybe even because of) working at McDonald’s, that student is going to have a heck of a compelling application. But as the “Sesame Street” saying goes, one of these things is not like the other: The student who works hard at McDonald’s is very different from the student working on his breastroke underwater pullouts. One story is compelling. One just isn’t.
By all means, students should work hard. But you don’t want teachers writing in their letters of recommendation how hard of a worker you are. You don’t want that coming across to admissions officers at highly selective colleges because they likely think about the term “hard work” differently than do you.