What does it take to get into a top school?

Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you will change the world.

I read this once in the comment section of a Stanford student blog and it really struck me. It’s good food for thought for any of us going through life, and it’s definitely something we need to think about when applying to graduate school.

How many times have you heard of applicants with straight A’s and/or stellar test scores getting turned down in the college or graduate school admissions process? How many times have you heard from admissions representatives that the GMAT or GRE is only “one of many criteria” that they look at? Harvard College has often said that they can fill their incoming freshman class with valedictorians (each high school’s #1 academically ranked student) alone, and yet they don’t. I believe it is this kind of talk that makes the selection process so baffling and even frustrating for many applicants.

While there are definitely many factors – often subjective – that contribute to each admission decision, overall the idea is not so mysterious at all. Admissions committees, especially at the top schools, want people who are going to contribute, who are going to make a difference, and who are going to make an impact. You can be the most brilliant person in your class or in your company and score off the charts on the GMAT or GRE, but if you have never really shown a pattern of adding value to the environment around you, then your intelligence doesn’t mean a whole lot to the universities you’re targeting.

What does it mean to add value or contribute or make an impact? Often times it means showing commitment, thinking beyond yourself, and taking initiative. It is going above and beyond and doing more than you need to do.

Very early in my career I had gone to my boss at Harvard to ask why I was only given the standard 3% salary raise; surely I had done an excellent job that year. What does it take to get more than that? He told me that 3% is for people who are doing an excellent job. It is for people who do what they are supposed to do and who do it well. The higher raises are for those who go above and beyond, who accomplish more than is expected of them.

Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, and so on reserve their seats for those candidates who go above and beyond.

At work, this means taking some kind of leadership, even if it is not an official position. Maybe you’re the youngest on your team, but instead of just following the orders you’ve been given, you’ve taken one step further to identify a problem or a solution that even your seniors hadn’t seen. Maybe you’ve spoken up to management about some practices that you disagree with, when all your other peers would prefer not to take that risk.

In your personal life it may mean making the time and effort to do something more than sleeping in late on weekends. It could mean taking part in a community activity (e.g., doing volunteer work or, better yet, taking a leadership role in the volunteer work) or in your own professional, intellectual, or personal development (e.g., taking a class or training for a marathon). This is not required and I have seen great applicants get admitted without a lot of non-work activity. However, your activities outside of your career will be another window into your values, curiosity, perseverance and sense of commitment, and this can add significant value to the admissions committees’ ability to understand you.

Is all of this required to get admitted to your dream school? If you do all of those things – make impact at work, volunteer on weekends – does it mean you will be guaranteed admission at a top school? No. Because admission is relative, and you will be assessed in comparison to other applicants. However, the more evidence you can provide that you are not only intelligent but also someone who has made a difference, the likelier it is that you can rise above the majority of people who simply do an “excellent job.” During these spring and summer months as you focus on reaching your target scores on the GMAT, GRE and/or TOEFL, be sure to also take time to identify all the ways in which you have made contributions in your career, education, community, and personal life. The combination – a strong academic profile and a solid record of making impact – will help you to build a competitive application to the top schools.

 

Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor with 19 years in the field. Prior to starting Reve 8 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

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