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The Four Letter Word Colleges Love


When you were younger, uttering certain four-letter words might have landed you in the time-out chair. In school, those words would likely earn you a detention.  As you think about applying to college, however, there is a particular four-letter word that is appealing, even desirable. Not only do colleges want you to say this word, they want you to demonstrate it, embrace it, and live it.

I won’t offend your grandmother by using this four letter word.  I could even say it on national TV without reprisals from the Federal Communications Commission.  The word is RISK, and one dictionary defines it as “to take a chance”.

In understanding the appeal of risk-takers in the college admissions process, it’s important to understand what colleges want and need in their applicants.  College admission officers balance two priorities (among others), when building a freshman class.  The admissions process is not just about admitting a collection of qualified individuals, it’s also about building a strong class.  If college admission officers focused solely on admitting qualified individuals, they run the risk of having a homogeneous class with too many business majors and no one in the Physics department (in which the college already employs faculty).  They might have too many violinists but no one to play the bassoon.  They can have a lot of students who have joined clubs, but not enough who have led them.  The admissions office needs to admit qualified college-bound applicants, but they must also build a strong class, and an important part of the latter is finding students who have demonstrated their willingness to take a risk.

The good news about risk taking is that it does not require you to take your life in your hands.  You don’t need to attempt to do something few others have ever tried.  Don’t set out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro unless this has been your lifelong passion. Don’t create a charity just for the sake of saying you’ve done so.  Risks don’t have to be grandiose in order to be meaningful.

A valuable risk is one that takes you out of your comfort zone, and it stretches you beyond your boundaries.  This can be done in any number of small but meaningful ways, most of which will not garner the same recognition as Nik Wallenda crossing the Grand Canyon, but which will tell colleges valuable information about your character.  Here are a few examples of students who have stretched their personal boundaries.

Ellen applied to a college for which she was slightly below their statistical averages.  In her essay, she wrote about why there was more to her grade point average than met the eye.  She earned respectable grades despite navigating a home-life that included her parents’ long and contentious divorce that involved the police, restraining orders and clandestine mid-night moves.  Yet, by looking at her grades, you would never know that she endured a major life stressor.  Her GPA and the grit it took to earn it took on a whole new meaning when the circumstances surrounding it were considered.

Nathan hasn’t really encountered any significant life obstacles.  He goes to a good school and lives comfortably with two parents.  His grades are strong and schoolwork comes easily to him. To stretch himself, Nathan volunteered to spend his summer vacation cleaning up from a Hurricane that left a nearby section of his county devastated. He left the comfort of his air-conditioned home to haul mold-infested home remnants, ruining no shortage of his own clothing in the process of helping people he had never met.  He invested a significant amount of time in this effort and continued his work after summer vacation ended.  This experience truly altered the life of this young, comfortable suburbanite which was obvious to colleges when they read about how he, a burly football player, was reduced to tears at the site of a pink Barbie purse lying in the mud-covered rubble that had recently been a little girl’s home.

In some cases, simply joining an activity is enough.  Margaret is very shy.  She is uncomfortable with group activities, yet she made very meaningful contributions to her work mentoring younger girl scouts.  In her essay, she talked about how her personality is not at all like the loud oboe that she plays.  When admissions officers understand that, her contributions as a camp counselor and group leader became that much more meaningful.

Has your life presented you with challenges, or are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone? It is important that you communicate this in your college applications because it shows colleges you will bring something interesting to their community.  They know you will contribute to college life in an interesting and meaningful way.  You will be an individual, and perhaps a leader, not just a follower or a wall-flower. You have grit and determination that will allow you to succeed. It makes you more interesting which in turn makes the college a more interesting place.

**NOTE: Encouraging you to take risks does not in any way support potentially harmful behavior



Article written by College App Wizard

College App Wizard
Lynell's 20 years of experience as a college counselor, consultant to The College Board, an Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Financial Aid have given her a unique insider's perspective to the college application process. She has helped countless students and parents navigate the path to college. She also volunteers her time with several non profit organizations to help low income students go to college.

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