Getting into highly selective colleges has become ridiculously competitive. Rather than exploring whether their future happiness and success really depends on attending one of the most selective schools in the country (the answer is probably not), students put ever more ridiculous burdens upon themselves in an attempt to get in.
But often they are doing it wrong. Here are some of the mistakes to avoid making:
Taking a required course over the summer to “get it out of the way.”
If a student just doesn’t want to spend sophomore year, say, struggling with chemistry or dealing with a foreign language, it makes sense to take a course over the summer. But if a student tries to get that course out of the way so they can focus on more “impressive” courses like learning Python or taking an extra AP, they may be doing it wrong. The admissions offices at highly selective colleges generally don’t take summer courses seriously. You may be viewed as trying to take the easy way out, or of not respecting the importance of a foreign language or a difficult STEM course. College admissions officers are smart enough to know the difference between a year long course and a month long course.
Spending a lot of money on “elite” summer programs
Will attending the Stanford summer program for high school students give you an edge at Stanford? No. These programs generate revenue for the University (or the entity running the program and renting out university dorms and classrooms). Although a student has to apply to them, they will take just about everyone. College admissions officers at elite universities are interested in making the system more egalitarian, and these programs reserved for the privileged do not sit well with them. The programs that impress college admissions officers are those that are truly competitive - these are usually free or low cost, and you can find them by Googling around or asking your guidance counselor.
The higher the price tag, the less impressive the program will look. These programs might help a student by just making that student smarter and better connected to peers who are ambitious and sophisticated; or a student might happen to really impress a grad student or prof teaching the class. But there are other things you can do with your summer that will impress college admissions officers much more.
A student who works all summer at Mcdonald's, saving money for college and getting to know people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds might very well look more impressive.
Self Publishing books or creating apps just to get into college
These activities take a lot of effort, but they will only matter in your college application if you sold or distributed a whole lot of copies. There’s a huge difference between creating a book or an app, and creating an impressive book or app.
Creating a nonprofit where you teach kids who are not in need to code or to do well on their SATs.
College admissions officers are interested in diversity and equity. If you are going to help kids learn something, it should be free of charge and the students should be in an under-resourced, at-need community. The privileged need your help. If you make money tutoring that might impress a business program, but so many high school students are doing this that there are other ways to better distinguish yourself.
Taking a lot of difficult APs that are unrelated to your area of focus or your central narrative.
College admissions officers at highly selective colleges are looking for students who are highly passionate and accomplished in a single area. The student who starred in all the musicals, and then directed a musical at an under-resourced school. The student who draws constantly and eventually writes an affecting graphic novel (an admissions officer might actually read your graphic novel, but not your book about machine learning). The student who becomes fascinated by phytoplankton, helps a professor with research, and the research gets published. Just taking a lot of hard AP courses when you could be following a passion isn’t that helpful (though you do want your class schedule to be generally rigorous)
An applicant should study for standardized tests and do well on them, take a challenging course load (but not necessarily the most challenging possible workload), and develop a skill or knowledge in something they are authentically interested in. Because an applicant will be presenting an extensive application with multiple essays and letters from teachers and the counseling office, the admissions officer will see through your attempt to appear as something you are not, or your attempt to buy your way into college with extra programs and tutors.
If you want more information about all of this, contact Bentham Admissions.