Have you ever wondered how to get that elusive “wow” factor in college admissions that can get you into competitive schools with insane admissions rates? If so, we’ll take a look at seven categories of wow factors and some examples of what kind of activities that can push you over the edge at elite universities.
The wow factor is the kind of activity that will make you stand out as an applicant at schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Duke, M.I.T., and CalTech. You do not need to have a wow factor if you’re applying to schools that are not as competitive since you are not expected to have such activities, but they could contribute to your college application and make up for a lack of test scores or GPA.
1. Proven Excellence
This is the most straight forward of the wow factor categories. What it means is that you are basically the best in the world at something or best in YOUR world at something. For most top colleges (top 10 colleges) we’d want to see you be the best at something in your state, top 20 in the country, or the best at your school at several things.
Examples: Best First Baseman in Baseball in California, Number one Bassoon Player in New York, top 100 scorer on the AIME, etc.
It’s easier to be really good at something random than really good at something that’s typical. Even being the best at something in your high school can be enough of an accomplishment but it depends on all the factors you have going for you and how competitive overall you are as an applicant.
2. Original Projects
When it comes to original projects we like to see things that aren’t necessarily formal activities but show an incredible amount of creativity or entrepreneurship. They show that you’re a self starter and that you just get out there and do things without being told to do so.
Examples: Building robots, creating prototypes of inventions, writing a novel, create giant sculptures for public display, producing a play, etc.
Adulting doesn’t just mean paying bills and taxes but doing things that ambitious adults could do and very uncommon for teenagers to do. One caveat with this is that we don’t recommend that you do the sort of jobs that teenagers often do (tutoring, pet sitting, lawn mowing, etc). Activities that are of the caliber of being a wow factor are finding a startup, writing articles for newspapers that get published, creating your own successful web store or forum, etc.
Some entrepreneurship programs that can help students form a startup include Startup School (YCombinator), LaunchX, Founder’s Bootcamp, and MIT Bootcamps.
4. Being a Headline-Maker
In addition to doing somethings where you accomplish feats, get awards or doing thing things that adults would do, you could also gain traction in your college application if you can be really popular. This has to be measurable attention for it to be impressive enough and classify as a wow factor (say, 10,000 people subscribed or engaged at minimum). Anything you could do that can get press coverage of or bring together thousands of people for something you do will be adequate to include in your application.
Examples: Parkland survivor David Hogg,
5. Do Something Quirky, Original, or Random
Sometimes all you have to do is stand out and doing something that is atypical . If it is something atypical and intellectual or exhibits curiosity and passion, all the better! At the end of the day, the way that random activities really work there way in to your application is through essays.
Examples: Worked at your local zoo, built an impressive insect collection, created a jousting club.
Turning these fun ideas and experiences you have into an intellectual discussion will make it a wow factor.
6. Clear Leadership
This factor is straightforward and is similar to achievement. If you are a proven leader, that can help you get into college. In the past, being a leader was enough to get you into college where admission rates were 15-20% and now that they’re a lot lower at these top schools, clear leadership isn’t always enough of a wow factor. However, for some students it is enough and you never know if it is going to be for you. This means you could be a leader in very traditional ways like being the head of your school’s student council, but you also want to be a leader in a way that’s more authentic and less title-oriented. If you can tell a story (in your college essay) about particular conflicts that are very contemporary and talk about how you were able to negotiate those conflicts, that can be a wow factor. Being a leader not only in title but in spirit might give you an extra push.
Examples: Starting an anti-bullying initiative at your high school while serving as president of the senior class. Creating a suicide prevention effort after the issue affected your school.
7. Incredible Grit
This one is one that is hard to manufacture but if you had particularly challenging circumstances in your life but you are an incredibly resilient person and you bounce back, this is the category for you. In this category you don’t really even have to have an activities, so to speak, you just have to be the kind of person who when terrible things happen to you, you are able to power through them, make opportunity where there is little, and have a positive attitude.
Examples: Growing up homeless or as a foster care kid, overcoming family issues, surviving cancer, scoring higher and learning more even though your high school only sends 20% of its graduates to college.
Whatever your story is, if you’ve been able to surmount and overcome obstacles, be sure to tell your story and use it as your wow factor.
Remember that if you don’t have a wow factor that falls under these categories that it doesn’t mean you can’t get in to a top school, it would just be harder.