Episode 13: What Colleges Don't Want

Episode 13: What Colleges Don't Want

Date of Publication/发布日期
November 27, 2020
Jonathan Helland
Files & media
Volume 1 2020-2021

What Colleges Don’t Want

As I pointed out in my previous essay, “What Colleges Want,” different colleges look for different things from their students. Colleges have different self-identities when it comes to what kind of student is “a good fit” for their school, and admission decisions are made by human beings, not algorithms.

In that essay, I tried to show what colleges are actually looking for in their student body. In this essay, I will try to show some of the things that are likely to turn admissions officers away from a student, and expose some misconceptions about college admissions.

College don’t necessarily want students who are “well-rounded”

This first item has plenty of exceptions, but it’s worth pointing out because this is something that has changed in recent decades. It used to be conventional wisdom that colleges wanted “well-rounded” students—students who are strong in several areas, who are athlete-musician-artist-scholars.

Personally, I think such well-rounded, “Renaissance-men and women” are happier, more interesting people, but unfortunately the trend in college admissions has shifted toward specialists. Students whose applications are more sharply focused will seem more passionate about their subject area and possibly better prepared for the rigors of college.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however, and students with diverse interests should continue to explore the world. There will be places for them at some very fine schools. It’s just become the exception rather than the rule.

Colleges don’t want students who are monomaniacal, either

It’s easy to take the previous advice too far and present yourself to schools as someone who only cares about one thing. But colleges don’t want students who spend every waking moment (for example) doing math problems to practice for their math competition in between their math classes whose essays are all about math.

Colleges want students who not only have the intellectual capacity to handle work at an elite college, but also the social and emotional readiness. Hobbies, diverse interests, friends—these are all things that support personal well-being and social and emotional health.

College application readers also want students who are interesting (see below) and unique, and that’s less likely to happen if a student’s application is all about one thing.

So the trick is to have an application that shows focus and passion while still representing an interesting person with some balance in their life.

Colleges don’t want students who are (too) extrinsically motivated

College admissions officers are generally academics and usually humanities majors. Such people tend to be idealists. They, as well as most professors, likely nurture dreams of an idyllic academic community in which every student is there because of an unadulterated love of learning. A student body made up of wide-eyed youth still tottering on the tipping point between childlike curiosity and adult wisdom.

This isn’t only idealism. Extrinsic motivation relies on either frequent rewards or delayed gratification—neither of which are a guarantee. Colleges know a student who loves the work will do the work.

I’ve written previously on the importance of passion, especially passion for learning, passion for your area of study, or passion for making the world a better place. This passion is the type of intrinsic motivation that will drive students to achieve excellence. Extrinsic motivation usually inspires student to do what is required, but not much more.

Colleges don’t particularly want students who are only going to college for other reasons, even eminently practical and understandable reasons like “making a lot of money” or “impressing my peers.”

When a student’s application appears to tell the story of someone seeking accolades, status, future wealth, or other external rewards, it’s going to make a bad impression.

As naive as it might seem on the part of college admissions offices, students should at least create the impression that they want to attend elite colleges for the world-class educational experience, rather than for the status, prestige, and wealth that might result.

This may seem obvious, nobody wants to be seen as greedy or status-hungry, but students can inadvertently betray their motivation in countless ways on the application, especially in their essays and activities. It can be obvious when a student is just collecting accolades and achievements for the sake of personal advancement rather than out of curiosity, or love of learning.

Colleges don’t want students who are all alike

College admission officers read hundreds, if not thousands, of applications every year. No matter how accomplished the student, an application that looks exactly like the previous 30 applications will be forgotten as soon as it’s read.

Sometimes this is the result of ambition—a large number of students all doing what they think will get them into elite colleges. They want to follow a formula, and the most obvious formula is what worked for others in the past.

The problem is elite colleges want students who are special. Once two applicants look exactly the same, neither of them is special anymore, no matter how impressive otherwise.

This means, unfortunately, there is no recipe you can follow to get into your dream college. What worked for one student might not work for another student—not once it becomes “ordinary.” What worked for your cousin’s kid won’t work for yours.

This is why you should be very skeptical of claims like “______ University likes students who do _____ activity.” That may have been true at one time, but it’s going to be less true once they start seeing it all the time.

Colleges don’t want just one thing

As I discussed in “What Colleges Want”, diversity is important to schools. Part of that diversity means accepting students with diverse interests, diverse personalities, and diverse achievements.

Students will never find the college that is the right fit for them if they are trying to be someone else or are trying to be what they think a college wants them to be. The best approach, as always, is for students to be their best selves.