"I'm Not Interesting!"
Today, Tasha tackles a provocative question from a Sparkler: when applying to college, is it a disadvantage to be an upper middle class white kid?
For a long time, I thought I was doing everything right for college admissions. I've never gotten below a 92 semester average, I take Honors when possible (10 APs), and I'm first chair clarinet in the band. I've racked up extracurriculars and leadership positions, and I volunteer and work in the summers; all signs point to me getting at least a 2200 on the SAT. I visited Rice University campus and fell in love. My problem? I'm not INTERESTING!
I grew up in a white, upper-middle class, suburban family and I've never really made a real contribution to the community or done an internship or anything. I haven't overcome any barriers like illness or poverty. Since Rice relies heavily on things like sports, alumnus relationship, geographical residence (I live in Houston, and they like out-of-staters), and race (white = bad) in admissions, I'm at a disadvantage. I feel that my animal-rights activism/volunteering and my excellence in band are my most important attributes, but those aren't really unique. Plus, I'm a horrible writer- I love math and science, but my writing is always boring and average. My essay will definitely hurt me because Rice's prompt is about “unique cultural traditions” and “unique life experiences”. I don’t have a cultural tradition; I’m just plain white and American. My life has been pretty good and ordinary. All these things will hurt me at other schools too, of course.
Do you have any suggestions on how to make myself stand out? Should I leave the Race blank empty on the App and the parents’ education and income blanks empty on tests? I'd like to do something special over the summer, but I don't want to let my boss or my volunteering organizations down. I might form a vegetarian club, but I’m afraid no one will join. I bet a lot of people have the same problem as me, so it would be really helpful it you'd post an answer in your column.
You have hit upon an crucial aspect of higher education: the importance of diversity. Most colleges are committed to attracting a racially and ethnically diverse group of undergrads. But equally, they are looking for students with diverse views, interests, and talents.
Instead of assuming that your race and class put you at a disadvantage, think about the unique qualities that will make you an asset to Rice. I see evidence of several such qualities in your email. Your animal rights activism could certainly make you stand out from the crowd. Have you had any “unique experiences” relating to animal rights? Have you volunteered at the local humane society regularly for years? Why is this cause so important to you in the first place? Your passion for animals could make a great essay topic. It's also awesome—and interesting—that you are good at science and math. Have you been a contributing member or leader in any clubs or groups relating to these subjects? Your experiences as a math and science whiz could make excellent essay fodder.
You say that your interests "aren't really unique," but in admissions, the key is presentation. Working at a restaurant doesn't sound too unique, right? But check out this story: I knew a student who worried that he wasn't special enough. To make his college application stand out, he decided to work part-time at a local Mexican restaurant the summer after his junior year in high school. In his essay, he explained that he took the job in order to improve his Spanish-speaking skills. He won a full ride scholarship to a private liberal arts school in the South.
Here's another possibility: embrace the fact that your life has been pretty “good and ordinary.” Your admission of ordinariness might itself prove interesting to admissions committees. Here you are, a fantastic student who's fretting that she has not gone through major life-changing experiences that would make her stand out to a college admissions committee—that's pretty interesting!
As for your question about whether or not to leave some of your background information out of college applications and tests: I would not advise you to do this. I think you should be honest about who you are and where you come from. Most college admissions committees can figure this kind of information out anyway, and the last thing you want to do is seem like you are trying to deceive the admissions office at a university you would really like to attend. My best advice is this: keep up the good grades and continue doing what interests you. If a school decides not to accept you because you aren’t “unique” enough, then maybe that school isn’t a good fit for you in the first place.
What are your thoughts on diversity and admissions? Let us know in the comments.
Do you have a question about college applications? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.