What Highly Selective Institutions Look for in Applicants: A conversation every educator, parent and student must have

“…the paralyzing terror of choosing the regular class earning an A over the AP class with a B.”

I initially sat down to write a post recapping my time spent at Vanderbilt. Admissions, updates, student life, etc. But a much bigger idea came to fruition and I could not help but tackle it. I know…are we surprised? The world of college admission counseling is one that takes me beyond facts and figures. As I travel the world touring and conversing with admissions, and work with students and parents from all walks of life and hold discussions and debates on higher education, it would be impossible not to write about a bigger conversation.

As I sat within the halls Vanderbilt University taking notes of highlights and admission updates, I started noticing a trend. Key statements and common threads throughout discussions led by the Deans of each school within Vanderbilt, admissions counselors, and students alike. Big statements, with clear honest points all coming from an incredibly selective and influential institution.

“Let them fail.”

“Let them advocate for themselves.”

“Be more intellectually engaging, rather than driven by meeting assignment requirements.”

“Fail fast. Fail forward.”

“Develop time management and study habits for success”

“Make mistakes”

“It’s okay not to be perfect. Not to get an A.”

“Spend less time freaking out and enjoy.”

These are statements that make up the course of what I believe should be a targeted movement. A movement that perhaps is well in the making with books such as How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims. A movement sparked by buzzwords like resiliency.  A generation with impact and choice, yet narratives of more is more, perfect is the new norm and no one gets into college unless you’ve got not only the grades, but the extracurriculars a and service projects to back them up.

And although it is a topic that’s garnering attention, I see little reprieve. I see students terrified to fail. Parents even more terrified to let them fail at the thought that it may hurt a college admission decision one day. I see pre-determined paths set forth well before a student has stepped foot into his or her first class at college. I see the paralyzing terror of choosing the regular class earning an “A” over the AP class with a “B.” It is real and it demands our attention as educators, mentors and influencers. 

While there are a small handful of the four-year college and universities that accept less than 20% of its applicants, it seems to be the norm that college is ever increasingly difficult to get into. And students should pile extras with passing colors without looking back. I call this the social media effect. The illusion that all is perfect. We only see the best of the best. A filtered image. A perfectly manifested picture. An illusion. So we forget that others have the bad days. Days of pure failure. College admissions is well into the social media effect of perfection, performance and success.

Rigorous course load  + Stellar extracurriculars  + Strong overall application = good college which = good life, a successful life…RIGHT?

Life does not operate in such a linear way. In fact, when we do not allow our students, our sons or daughters or even OURSELVES to fail, then what are we ever really learning?


With failure comes knowledge. Which also happens to generate those buzzwords; GRIT; RESILIENCY

When you spend three days with a highly selective university preaching what they want from their college students, you find that success comes from pretty simple ideals:

  • Basic time management, organization and study habits leading to incredibleacademic and life skills
  • Strong and effective communication
  • The ability to be collaborative
  • Trying new things and being okay with failing, letting go before finding what you ultimately like
  • Making mistakes and learning to move forward
  • Strong writing and critical thinking skills
  • Surrounding yourself with others that will challenge you, yet support you

I challenge educators to remind their students of this when college advising meetings take place. I challenge parents to allow their students to fail before intervening immediately. I challenge students to learn organization, motivation and study habits that work best for them. I challenge us all. To continue this conversation. Make it a movement. Peel back the social media effect and get real. Because that’s the makings of life. And it’s up to you to tackle it in the best way you know how, which by the way, includes a little, if not a lot, of failure. 


Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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