The number of high school seniors applying to MIT this year is 60% above last year. That means there are 12,000 more applicants. Harvard’s applications are up 30%. Duke is up 20%. Most Ivy League schools are up 20% at least.
What does this mean? First, it means that your chances of getting into MIT are so close to 0% that you probably need a degree from MIT to figure out the number.
Second, it means that the main thing holding kids back from reaching for the stars has been the reality of their SAT score. Covid forced schools to make the SAT non-required and that opened up the floodgates. Universities are so overwhelmed by the onslaught of early applications that the admissions committees are having to move their announcement dates back to give themselves more time.
Standards statistics are gone
What is remarkable to me is watching kids deal with the rug being pulled out from under them. After spending their whole lives hearing how important grades and scores are, those numbers don’t matter so much this year. Students applying at the beginning of the senior year have no senior grades, and some of their junior grades were pass/fail because of Covid. The kids took AP courses but they never took the test because of Covid. Kids studied for months for the SAT but didn’t get to take it.
Extracurriculars rule the day
It turns out what you did outside of school is really really important. When the quantitative measures are messed up admissions officers have to look at the qualitative angle: extracurriculars. They mean a lot this year. You have to have real interests and you had to have put in serious time. So forget founding a nonprofit with your parent’s money. Admissions officers have seen that too many times before. And god help you if you practiced violin for an hour a day for your whole life — so did everyone else applying to top schools.
The unathletic are having a moment
Excelling at something. That’s good. But not sports. The rich kids thought they were safe from a pandemic when they built secret racquetball courts in Greenwich. But no one’s safe from the budget shortfalls of Covid. Dartmouth canceled swimming. Stanford canceled fencing, rowing, sailing, and like ten other things. There is total panic among kids who dedicated their entire childhood gunning for one of those athletic spots.
It pays off to have the guts to commit at a young age
Like all years, the top candidates have hooks and spikes. A hook is when a candidate has an attribute colleges actively seek. For example, being an underrepresented minority is a hook. So is being low-income or living in Montana. A spike is an extracurricular activity that makes you stand out among other kids who have good extracurriculars. You have been so committed to an activity that you have achieved something at the national or international level — be it academic or athletic or creative.
I read the two best sources for information on college applications: College Confidential and /r/ApplyingToCollege on Reddit. Both communities are full of kids talking about hooks and spikes with the same familiarity as grades and scores. These kids can’t control their hooks – it’s mostly how you’re born. But kids can control their spikes. And it’s amazing to me that high schoolers can clearly see the urgency of choosing something to be good at but adults continue to miss the boat.
Specializing is necessary at all ages
It’s adults who I hear saying, “It’s too early to know! You have time! Let yourself explore!” But those are the same adults who explored in their 20s and then didn’t have a career focus in their 30s and ended up unemployable in their 40s. What I’m saying is that focusing is always hard. It always feels too early in life to focus. And as humans we always want to have more options. We want more life, really. But we don’t get that. So the earlier you commit to doing something, the more likely you are to stand out among your peers for doing it well.
For kids or adults, the truth is the same — if you don’t just pick something, you won’t be good at something. The fact is, it doesn’t much matter what you pick. If you are good at one thing, you have more ability to scootch over to another thing. But if you have not proven you can commit and work hard and focus to be really good at one thing, then people don’t believe you’ll be good at something else either. They’re just not interested.
Covid has changed everything –– from college to careers
I coach a lot of high schoolers these days. Because Covid has changed the college application management game as much as it’s changed the career management game. And I’ve been struck by how quickly the kids are able to pivot to a new plan as compared to the adults. Young people fundamentally believe that they will adapt whereas adults frequently hope that they won’t have to adapt.
But there are new rules. And the most important thing to do when all the rules change is to get a grip and pick a path. If you spend too much time being angry or scared about the change, you miss out on all the advantages that come with the change.
I’m offering discounted career coaching sessions to help you leverage the opportunities of Covid. My coaching sessions are usually $350 but I’m doing sessions for $150 if you purchase during the next 5 days. (Last time I offered a discounted session I was booked back to back for five months. I can’t do that again. So you need to schedule the session before February 28.)