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  • Writer's pictureNancy Fries

Three 'It Factors' in College Admissions

Social media went nuts late last year when David Hogg announced his acceptance to Harvard University. If you don’t recognize his name, David is the Florida student who became an outspoken advocate for gun control following the shooting at his high school a year ago that left 17 dead and 17 wounded. Since the shooting, David graduated and is spending a gap year organizing protests and writing a book. But it’s not David’s controversial political views that have some people crying foul over his admission to Harvard; rather, it’s his 1270 SAT score (out of 1600) and his 4.2 GPA. After all, Harvard can fill its entire class with students who have perfect scores and GPAs upwards of 4.5; David’s score puts him in the 25th percentile of accepted students. So why would Harvard take him?

Obviously I wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, but after six years of professional involvement with the college admission process, I can surmise that Harvard admitted David because he possesses at least two of the three key attributes that stand out to selective colleges. These aren’t the only three “it factors” they seek, but broadly speaking, I have seen that students who are accepted to the most selective colleges (and aren’t recruited athletes, under-represented minorities, or otherwise “hooked”) distinguish themselves in one or more of these areas:  

  • Initiative

  • Desire to have a positive impact

  • Intellectual curiosity

By “distinguish themselves,” I mean stand out—really stand out—not just amongst the other students in their school, but amongst the thousands and thousands of other strong students from around the world who apply. Good grades and test scores aren’t enough to set a student apart from the masses. But these factors are.


Students with initiative make things happen. They are our future innovators, entrepreneurs, and changemakers. Initiative is qualitatively different than leadership. For example, just about every high school has a student body president who is arguably a leader, so merely being elected doesn’t set a student apart. A student body president who follows the path of his predecessors may demonstrate leadership, but not initiative. If that same student takes it upon herself to start new programs or effect change or help others — whether within the context of a leadership role or not— she shows a desire and an ability to get things done. Initiative doesn’t mean forming a club that meets once a month and helps at a single event that someone else planned. A better example is the after school computer coding program two local students started a few years ago—a program that has introduced dozens of younger kids to coding, and has drawn dozens more high school students as volunteer instructors. Or the mentorship program a student started at her boarding school to help international students acclimate to the United States. Colleges can envision students like these taking similar initiative at their school and throughout their lives.

Desire to have a positive impact

It’s true that Harvard can fill its class with straight A students, but straight As are ordinary these days. Colleges want more than just good students. They want people whose lives will ultimately make a difference in some way, whether through running a business or inventing a device or providing quality health care or enacting effective policy. Colleges don’t want students who lock themselves in their rooms all weekend and get straight As, which doesn’t really benefit anyone but themselves. They want students who channel their strengths and passions to benefit others. A lot of students take “voluntourism” trips, but showing up and laying bricks or digging wells for a week isn’t impressive, even though many students claim such trips are life-changing. Much more impressive is spending an entire year planning a Girls’ Empowerment program for local middle schoolers. Or buying nothing beyond essentials for an entire year to reduce your carbon footprint. Or registering countless people to vote and canvassing for candidates who matter to you. Real students have done these things, not just to “look good” on college applications, but because they have a deep sense of purpose. In this respect, you can see how initiative and a desire to have a positive impact often go hand-in-hand.

Intellectual curiosity

I’ve met a lot of students who know how to get As. GPAs of 4.2 and up are pretty commonplace around here. But what sets some students apart, regardless of GPA, is an inherent, insatiable desire to learn. Some students have learned so much on their own, they even teach me things—like the girl who self-studied solipsism. (I had to look it up, and I still can't pronounce it.) Students who sit on the edge of their seat, eager to learn, are a professor’s dream come true. But even more importantly, those who love to learn possess critical thinking skills that will help them become our future inventors and problem-solvers, educators and writers. They’re the ones who will go beyond the obvious to probe a subject. They ask good questions and seek even better answers. They challenge their classmates to be better learners through enriching discussion. I remember reading once that someone was considered the world’s leading expert on butterflies. It takes a lot of fascination with butterflies to become the world’s leading expert. Some people have a narrow but deep interest, some have broader interests; those with intellectual curiosity may fall into either or both categories, but either way, they tend to be able to find a nugget of worthwhile information in just about anything.  

This post isn't meant to urge students to create their own "it factor" just to get into a selective college. You can't fake it, and besides, none of these qualities, on its own or in combination with the others, guarantees admission to a selective college. But they are arguably more important than perfect or near-perfect grades and scores. When I hear someone say, “Sally has a 4.6 GPA and a 35 ACT,” my stock answer is, “What else has she got?” Because doing school well isn’t sufficiently impressive. How does she do life? How much fire does she have in her belly to make things happen, to positively impact others, and/or to soak up every bit of information about the world? And how authentic is it? Was it her idea, or her mom's?

So the critics are right: David Hogg’s grades and scores are low for Harvard, but balanced with his initiative and drive to have a positive impact, they are plenty good enough. Last year, he was not admitted to UCLA and several other UC schools. I don’t think he applied to Harvard, but he probably wouldn’t have been admitted there a year ago either. But since then, David has demonstrated an exceptional ability to make things happen, whether you agree with his politics or not. His biography is even on Wikipedia. You don’t need to be on Wikipedia to be admitted to a highly selective college, like an Ivy or Vanderbilt or Duke. If you’ve got top grades and test scores, your application will most likely be read. But without demonstrating exceptional initiative, desire to have a positive impact, and/or intellectual curiosity, I honestly don’t think you stand a chance of being admitted.


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