The Definition of Success is Changing
By Assistant Superintendent Educational Services, Anais Wenn
As I walk the campus and visit classrooms at LCHS, I hear a familiar and concerning conversation among many of our students. When the focus turns to college, I hear our ambitious students define success solely through metrics such as GPA, the number of AP classes they take, SAT scores and the number of “college worthy” extra-curricular activities. It is my hope that through the Challenge Success program we can help change this very narrow, hardly achievable and almost unrealistic view of success. Many students still believe that if they do not take as many AP courses as they can they will lose their opportunity to go to the nation’s best universities. They equally believe that no matter their level of interest, they need to cram as many clubs, sports and extracurricular activities on their resume as possible. Under this notion, they put themselves under a tremendous amount of stress and pressure and set themselves up for an unhealthy lifestyle and unsatisfying high school years.
In an effort to measure the validity of these commonly held notions, I reached out to a few admissions officers from highly selective universities in the nation. I share their responses below in an attempt to add another voice to the discussion we are having with our students.
What is your definition of a "successful student" as you evaluate student applications for admission to your university?
When I'm evaluating applications, I consider a successful student to be someone who has taken advantage of the educational opportunities made available to them in the context of their high school. A successful student is willing to put themselves outside of their comfort zone and make the most of their school's curriculum by taking challenging courses. It's also important to note that - for highly selective universities like us - many highly successful students must, unfortunately, be denied admission each year. Students admitted to our university fit the above description, but they are also leaders in their communities - perhaps in their school community, their neighborhood, or their family. Leadership can come in many different forms (i.e. being the 'president' of a club or the 'captain' of a sports team is not the only way to demonstrate leadership - sometimes, leaders are the quiet ones creating change from behind-the-scenes!), and we look not just for leadership experience, but also for leadership potential.
Has the definition of a “successful student” changed over time? If yes, how has this change been communicated to high school students and staff?
In the high-pressure and high-stress world of selective university admissions, many often believe that a successful student needs to have taken a high number of AP courses, have a 4.0, and have a perfect SAT score. In the UC system, we take 'holistic review' seriously, and there are many ways to build up a competitive application beyond just one's GPA. One area where students can really 'make their case' is through the new Personal Insight Questions (PIQs) being used by UC. We are giving students an opportunity to provide us with even more context that we can use in our holistic review. The new prompts are very specific, and the responses are short paragraphs instead of longer essays. The idea that a successful student needs to write a long-form piece of creative writing filled with different literary devices is no longer true at UC. We want students to think of this section of the application as a 'job interview.' Students should tell us what they want to get out of a UC education, what drives them, what they have overcome to get to this point, or what excites them about education.
What recommendations do you have for current high school students who are building a profile of a “successful student" in hope to get admitted to your school?
Here's a rather specific piece of advice regarding college applications! I think students sometimes feel pressured to "be unique" instead of "being themselves." As an example - I often work with students who are very interested in sports or music – extracurriculars that they feel are "too common." They hesitate to write their PIQ responses about those interests because they worry admissions officers will be bored by the subject matter. That is not true! Authenticity is important, and a student's goal with the PIQs should be to give me insight into who they truly are. There is no single, 'special' extracurricular activity that guarantees a student's admission to UC. If a student loves sports, and they write enthusiastically about their involvement in athletics, that authenticity will almost certainly shine through. Just make sure that - regardless of the topic - each PIQ response ultimately gives me new insight into the student personally.
It is clear that the number of APs, the 4.0 GPA, the highest SAT/ACT scores or the extracurriculars that are on the application do not guarantee acceptance. Although academic performance is an important factor, the focus is on authenticity, and the ability to balance academic work with passion and interests (through extracurricular activities) which make the student stand out as the type of individual that any university would love to have.