Want to know how to get into highly selective colleges? Just watch NBC’s The Voice.
Stay with me. I’ve sacrificed many hours (it’s a tough life!) to bring you advice on how to get into the Ivy League and stand out in the face of overwhelming competition at the most selective colleges—simply by watching the latest episodes of The Voice. (Okay, so I also worked in highly selective admissions at Harvard for four years.) Look, I don’t necessarily think that highly selective colleges are the best schools out there, but I realize that many of you will apply to these schools anyway, so let’s make sure your application doesn’t land in the “no” pile. In the end, you want admissions officers to root for you because they connect with you, vote for you because they like you and they value what you have to offer, and commit to you because they can’t imagine their college without you.
If you’re not familiar with The Voice (where have you been?), it’s a singing competition in which contestants perform in “blind auditions” with the judges’ backs turned to them. If the judges like what they hear, and they want the contestant on their team, then they turn their chair to face the contestant.
Every time I watch this show, I am transported back to my bleary-eyed days as an overwhelmed Ivy League admissions officer wading through thousands of files looking for some spark beyond the numbers. You would think that the judges would turn for anyone with an incredible voice, but that’s not how it works. When no chairs turn, it’s often because the judges didn’t feel a connection.
Before we move on, you must remember this:
Getting into highly selective colleges takes more than a perfect technical performance.
“It’s so hard watching good people go home, but I’m looking for something that really moves me.” - Judge Kelly Clarkson
Highly selective colleges could fill their classes with students who have perfect grades and test scores. Think about what else sets you apart. Maybe you love history and have devoted your summers doing archival research at your local library. Maybe your thing is sports analytics and you help coaches on various teams at your school keep and analyze their stats. Whatever your “thing” is, don’t worry if it’s impressive or fancy enough for Ivy League admission. Hone in on your interests—immerse yourself in them—because there’s nothing more attractive, or moving, to colleges than a genuinely passionate kid who follows his or her interests.
Okay so you have the numbers, and you’re immersed in a passion that distinguishes you. Now what? Below are a few more ways to stand out…
You must choose the right song (for you).
“I just don’t know if that was the best song to showcase what you were capable of.” - Judge Kelly Clarkson
The main college essay is your song—your voice. Choose a topic that is meaningful to you and put your heart into it. Admissions officers don’t care what the topic is if your essay allows them to connect with you in some way—you have to make them want to turn their chair for you—to vote for you. Don’t choose an essay topic because you think it will impress. Admissions officers don’t want to see all of the high notes you can hit in 650 words, they want something more nuanced and authentic. And when you pick the right song, you can expect comments like this: “Your voice instantly makes me feel… It’s fun when you hear someone signing with so much passion and fire.” - Judge Adam Levine
What if you have perfect grades and test scores, and you shared your wonderful story through your essay and academic and extracurricular passions, but you still don’t make it?
Your “genre” may not be a match for the college.
“I’m looking for something super specific because I don’t want everybody on my team to have any kind of similar vibe.” - Judge Kelly Clarkson
You could do everything right and still not get in. Sometimes you’re not admitted due to things outside of your control. Maybe you play the violin, but the orchestra doesn’t need any more violins that year—what they really need is a bassoon. Maybe you want to major in economics, but the college really needs more history majors. Colleges are looking to build a diverse class. It’s okay to aim for highly selective colleges if you’ve done your research and feel like you’re a good fit, but don’t take it personally if you’re not accepted and you’ve done everything right. A well-balanced college list can ensure that you will find a place at a college that values you for you.
At the start of every season of The Voice, the show’s host Carson Daly proclaims this to be “our best season ever!” This sounds a lot like highly selective colleges in late March/early April when they are announcing their admit rates, which are “the lowest ever due to the most competitive year ever!” It can be easy to be overwhelmed by these announcements.
But remember this: I love The Voice, but good singers don’t need it to find success in the industry. And good students don’t need highly selective colleges to be happy and successful in life.