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As you know, 2020 was a mess for college admissions and reporting test scores. And unfortunately, 2021 may be the same. Many colleges have announced test-optional admissions policies for the fall 2021 cycle. But it’s still unclear, without admissions data, how many test-optional students colleges admitted into the class of 2025. But anecdotally, I have had several students get admitted without test scores.
So I thought it would help you if I explored what worked in their college applications. And while I cannot share their files while regular decisions are being deliberated, I can instead speak to commonalities in their applications that I believe were effective in getting them admitted.
If you’re a high school freshman, sophomore, or junior, you should read this post. I wrote it to help demystify why test-optional students may have been selected over those who submit test scores. It includes strategies that will help you craft an effective application, especially if you’re not the best test-taker and worry about your test scores.
Accepted Student Profiles
Student #1: Admitted to Harvard
- 4.0 GPA
- 11 AP Classes
- 1 summer college intensive at Boston University
- Extracurricular activities offered by the school until 10th grade
- Self-directed, entrepreneurial projects, including a web-based app that
would help local food pantries deliver food to senior citizens
- JV Wrestler
- Wrote an essay on his role in the Me2 Movement and gender equality
Student #2: Admitted to Cornell
- 3.7 GPA
- 7 AP Classes
- Classically trained dancer
- Started 7 clubs her school didn’t offer
- 1,000+ community service hours, ranging from her local community to
half a world away
- Wrote an essay about the injustices of COVID-19 on black and brown
communities and how she’s going to work to change this as a physician
Student #3: Admitted to Johns Hopkins
- 3.6 GPA
- 5 AP Classes
- 10 college-level classes — offered online
- Started a nonprofit tutoring program for kids in low-income
- Wrote an essay about challenges growing up Black and the weight he
holds on his shoulders every day to “represent” his community
#1: Tell your whole story
A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. You are the protagonist, and there are characters around you who help progress your account (e.g., teacher recommenders, high school counselors, parents, etc.). Beyond your college essay, everything you report on in your application tells your story and speaks to your strengths, goals, and aspirations. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, it should also show the saga around you.
“Like a Hollywood blockbuster, it should also show the saga around you.”
In other words, there often forces, albeit invisible, around you that can prevent (or make it difficult to) achieve. But at every turn, you’ve diverted or overcome them anyway. If you can’t think of anything personally, it can be societal challenges. For example, student #1 took the approach that if senior citizens suffer from hunger during COVID-19, the community is suffering. As a result, he created a solution to solve it and bring a broad impact.
In adopting this same approach, you’d show how you’ve made it your purpose to help those who don’t have a voice and what you’re doing to defend them or bring awareness to those who do have power.
#2: Be active in sports and life
All the students were athletes – Timothy, a wrestler, Jennifer a dancer, and Michael, a swimmer. Studies show that students involved in sports have confidence, are team players, resilient, and conscious of their time, managing academics with practices and
games. But there is also evidence that athletes are more likely to give money as alumni. Even if you’re not an official varsity athlete, just by showing colleges that you move is good. Whether it be hiking, long walks in the neighborhood alone or with your dog, or
daily trips to the gym, you’re showing a quality that is highly valued because of what it says about your mental abilities beyond grades or test scores.
#3: Extracurriculars beyond school activities
Your school offers limited activities. During COVID-19, there may be nothing to put down on your resume. Whatever is offered, they are often the same activities that everyone in your graduating class has access to.
What’s important to an elite university, especially if you’ve applied test-optional, is to strive to create your own opportunities.
These are called self-directed projects. The projects you choose should make sense. They should be connected to your passion and interests already defined by the classes
you’re taking and your skillsets. And according to Robert Levine of University Consultants of America, “the four factors colleges will use to evaluate extracurriculars are the length of time, quality of performance, impact (geographically), and originality. For example, all of the students created projects with all four criteria Mr. Levine
highlights. Create a project that you can commit to doing at least one day per week, for at least one hour. You want the project to have reached beyond your school or community. The more people you can bring impact to, the better. And want to do something unique, excellent, and represents your personal brand (whole story) conveyed in your application.
#4: Write an essay not stifled by prompts
When writing essays, I had the students look beyond the prompt. In fact, I encouraged them to write an essay first, and after it was perfect, we’d go back and check the box. It doesn’t really matter. No college gives points if you answer the right question or not. The prompts are just there because teens need guidelines to get them started.
Whatever essay you write about should progress your story — the one your whole file is trying to tell. It should lead the reader to that “Aha” moment about you. Meaning, when they come to the end of your essay, they understand you fully. It all makes sense, why you’ve pursued the path you’ve selected, what you think it all means, and how [the college] fits into your life’s mission. It’s a hard story to tell as a high school student, but you do your best in the words you can best put together at 17 years old. It’s crucial to write an essay that takes you outside of your comfort zone. And make sure that you consider your profile. It does matter. Great essays are ones that deal with race, gender, challenges with friendship groups, societal inequities, socioeconomic issues, and anything else you may be afraid to talk about, but really do matter and need to be discussed more. In every essay that the students wrote, they dealt with sensitive topics.
Conclusion + Next Steps
As some next steps, here’s what you should do to take action on telling a stronger story in your application, even if you don’t submit test scores:
- First, spend time getting clear about who you are, what you’re about, and what you plan to pursue in life as it relates to careers and college options.
- Make a spreadsheet of extracurriculars you’ve been involved in. If they are all school-based, spend time thinking about how to get involved outside of school. Choose projects that relate to what you’re passionate about and build on skills you’ve built in school.
- Join a sport, or get involved in a movement-related activity since you know this is something valued (and it’s good for you anyway!) and a sport may not be possible due to COVID-19.