Alumni Day talk to Athenian HS students, January 9

Coming out of high school I had a great GPA, great SAT's, and great recommendations, but I was still a pretty weak candidate for college admission. How? I was puzzled too, when I was a senior and I got turned down from my top seven choices. The standard model for college admissions is this - you send your transcript, you take the SAT and hope for a good score, sign up for tons of activities, and write about the week long overseas community service trip that changed your life, and then you get in where you get in. The standard model is very deterministic; your SAT's and GPA more or less determine where you'll be able to get in. Here's the problem: Stanford gets 5000 applicants that look exactly like you every year, and they only have so many spots in their incoming class. Fortunately there's a way to beat the standard model, and pull way above your weight in terms of your GPA and SAT's, and that's through your activities. Specifically, you need to have impressive activities. Here's what I mean by impressive: if I could go out tomorrow and sign up for every activity you're doing, then your activities are not impressive, and won't impress a college admissions officer either. But, if you're doing crazy things, requiring a high amount of skill that I can't easily imagine myself doing, you have an impressive activity. ONE impressive activity will be your gravy train all the way through college. How do you get an impressive activity? First, if there's an activity you love doing, that you think about in the shower or that keeps you up at night, drop all your other activities and try to build an impressive level of skill in that one activity. If there isn't anything that gets you super excited, it's okay. Pick one of your activities at random, drop the other ones, and try to build an impressive skill level. One impressive activity is better than twelve crappy ones. If that doesn't sound particularly exciting for you, look for activities from your childhood you especially enjoyed, or for things people tell you you are exceptionally good at. For me, I've always been good at math, but I didn't try to excel or build my math skills, for fear of being pigeonholed. Your goal in picking extracurricular activities should be to try and become the best in California at something. Start a business, write for the Contra Costa Times, or learn how to program and contribute to Google Chrome. Are those activities unusual for someone your age? Of course. But you know what, so is being in the top 5% of applicants to Yale. So if you haven't figured out by now, I was a weak applicant because I didn't have impressive activities; I spent a lot of time playing sports (two different sports, go figure), and I wasn't good enough to earn a scholarship. In the past year I've done more cool stuff, and built up marketable skills, more than in the eight years before that put together. I just wish I'd started when I was your age.

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