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Hersam Acorn Newspapers (January 2015)
By: Kristin White and Michael White

The pressure on Fairfield county high school students to apply to and be accepted at selective colleges is as intense as ever. Applications are up, acceptances are down, and mood swings can vacillate from hope to panic, and back again. Many candidates wrongly think having a “well rounded” profile is their best path to receiving an acceptance letter.  The truth is that diving deeper into a narrow range of activities will help an applicant to better stand out.  

Students today are reacting to the competitive environment by applying to more schools. According to National Association for College Admission Counseling data, the percentage of students who submit three or more applications a year has been steadily increasing, and hit 79% in 2011, up from 67% the prior year. Students applying to seven or more colleges has also been rising, and is up to 29% from 25% the year before. In our practice, we now often see students applying to 15 different colleges each year.

This has put substantial pressure on the gatekeepers who review the applications. In 2011, the average college admissions officer was responsible for reviewing 622 applications, a 73% increase from 359 in 2005. What is an applicant to do to stand out in this maddening crowd?   

We are surprised each year to come across so many parents who think the best way to help build their child’s application profile is by encouraging them to get involved in a diverse array of interests and activities.  They are surprised when we tell them selective schools are oftentimes less interested in an applicant who has a broad range of activities. This student can come off as being unfocused, or a “dabbler.” Someone who has been involved, but unable to make a real impact anywhere.

Admissions officers at super- and highly-selective schools are instead more interested in students who become specialists, be it in math, engineering, technology, sports, the performing arts, theatre, fashion, community service or any other area. They develop a passion, and then dig deeply into it. They also find new paths outside of school to more fully develop their area of interest. They become leaders and make an impact.   

Indeed, admission officers at selective schools are looking to build a diverse class. It’s this idea of “diversity” that oftentimes trips people up to think these colleges are looking for students with a diverse array of interests. But truth is these schools want to create this diversity with a cohort of students who have built expertise in different areas. This way students learn not only from the faculty, but other students as well. They go on and make an impact in their communities after graduating. Schools also have many different activities, organizations, and fields of study to fill each year. So it’s important for admissions officers to know exactly where an applicant might fit into life on campus.

It’s harder than ever to get into selective colleges. Developing and digging deeply into a passion area can help a student to build his very own success profile not only for the application process, but also for life in general.

Kristin White and Michael White are Co-Directors of Darien Academic Advisors (DAA), an educational consulting company founded in 2005. DAA provides advisory services to students and families for college, boarding, independent day and MBA school admissions. It also provides a Career Launch service for pre- and early-stage professionals. More info:

How to catch a college’s eye