When you think of April, you may think of Spring, Easter and prom. But for many high school seniors, April means only one thing: college admission letters.
Acceptance rates seem to be dropping at campuses across the country. It’s happening at the elite schools like UC Berkeley, where the number of accepted students declined by more than nearly five percent from 2011 to 2012. At Harvard, the acceptance rate went from 6.17 percent to 5.92 percent, while at Stanford, the number went from 7.07 percent down to 6.63 percent.
That’s the dream school for Alex Greene, a 17-year-old from New York City who spoke to NBC Bay Area via Skype. He caught the national spotlight when he was featured on websites like Reddit and Huffington Post for the iPhone app he made to apply for Stanford University. In the app, he talks about applying to the Computer Science program, as well as his love for snowboarding, doodling, design, mountain biking, and of course, app development.
“I just kind of thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’” said Greene. “I think Stanford’s about doing creative stuff. That’s something really nice about Stanford University – something I could relate to by making an iPhone app.”
Neha Verma is also 17. The senior at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont said the pressure is sometimes unbearable, with stiff competition among high-achieving students – everyone trying to do the best on tests and excel the most outside classroom walls.
“When you think about it, you’re up against people that are champions in what they’re doing,” Verma said. “You’re kind of disappointed for awhile when you hear this person saved the entire world, and you’re just doing soccer or something.”
So Verma decided early on to focus on something outside of SATs and AP classes: charity. She began to design dresses, ordering them from India, and founded www.LuvNeha.com. Then she put on two charity fashion shows and said she raised $10,000 for the Oakland Children’s hospital, specifically for the kids fighting cancer. Even so, she added people had their doubts about her decision to spend so much time on the shows, taking away from studying and building her college application resume.
“My grades were faltering a little bit because I was spending so much time finding sponsors and contacting hospitals and stuff,” Verma recalled. “I wasn’t sure it was going to work out. People were like, “Oh no, what are you doing? You’re putting your grades at stake!”
Erinn Andrews knows all about the challenges of applying for college – but from the other side of the coin. She spent some years as Stanford’s Assistant Admissions Director.
“With 30,000 or more apps coming in every year and about 20 people to sift through those, folks can have a reading load of anywhere from a couple hundred to 1,500 or more apps to go through.”
For that reason, Andrews said, it may not be the wisest thing to add extra reading for the admissions officer, and that includes extra links, like the one to Greene’s iPhone app featured on YouTube.
“The Common Application is not set up to play videos to go to links and certainly he could have included that, but admission officers do have a lot to get through and it’s not a guarantee they would see these supplemental kinds of materials.”
Andrews pointed to passion, in addition to competitive grades and test scores, as the key ingredient to capturing an admission officer’s attention. In this case, she said, quality supersedes quantity.
“Students often try to do a lot of different things. Just pick one to two of those things, maybe two to three of those things you most love doing,” Andrews offered. “If that’s video game-playing, fine, love video games, but maybe you want to program them, too. Maybe you become the best gamer in a particular area and you’re in national competitions.”
Or, she said, think about combining various interests and excelling in that project.
“If my interests are, say, music and physics, then maybe I will do something around acoustics and figuring out how to craft the perfect room,” Andrews said.
Chris Gerben, lecturer for Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, said he is impressed by Greene’s app. Gerben saw the story on Twitter and said he retweeted the link to a story on Greene and his app, getting a retweet from Greene just minutes later. Gerben addressed the negative comments from people on the internet who criticized Greene’s app as “unsophisticated.” He said those people are simply missing the point.
“To me the point is the fact that he did it and put it on Reddit and other popular forums on the internet, and got it noticed, and got it so an instructor at Stanford, me, noticed it,” said Gerben. “I think he’s being really savvy about how he’s using social media to really put his foot in the door.”