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ILUMIN Blog

Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 2)

John Chen

 Yale University Library

Yale University Library

Please note that this is a three part blog on what traits colleges are looking for in competitive applicants. Click here for Part 1.

Ivy Leagues seek students who are risk-takers

Parents need to help nurture strong decision making skills. This also means allowing children to taste failure. Time and time again. Ivy Leagues often seek students who take risks and aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, one of the Common App prompts reads: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

MIT is even clearer about it. Their admission criteria of MIT states: “MIT wants to admit people who are not only planning to succeed, but who are not afraid to fail. When people take risks in life, they learn resilience as a result - because risk leads to failure as often as it leads to success.” 

Take Jeff for example. Like Tim, he wanted to help students from a low income community. But his idea was to teach “easy” Calculus to 5th and 6th graders. Though his parents confessed their concerns to us that this program wouldn’t work, and (possibly distract Jeff from his studies), they wanted their son to try. Jeff was certain his passion for math would be infectious, but his program of 15 kids dwindled to a class of four. It was a painful, yet even in his apparent failure, Jeff realized that what were more important weren’t his math lesson plans—it was simply that he showed up each week. He was the only stable adult in the lives of these inner city kids. With that fresh perspective, Jeff brought in math games into his program and slowly built it up again to 13 students. Their teacher later thanked Jeff, since she saw a whole grade level improvement in their math abilities by the end of the year. Jeff took his experience of failure and leveraged it to gain admission to Cornell University.

Unlike Jeff, Cindy didn’t reach her goal. She was aiming to study pre-med. She did hospital volunteering and a bio research summer camp. When we asked if she wanted to try to start a pre-med club at school or do research in a lab she hesitated. She had never done these things before and they seemed outside of her comfort zone. Cindy wanted to stick with what she was already doing--and take no risks.  While she become a lead volunteer and went to two more summer camps--these actions weren’t enough. Even with her perfect 4.00 GPA and 34 ACT score, she was rejected from all Ivy Leagues.

Ivy Leagues look for students who push the boundary, take chances, and demonstrate “grit” in the face of failure. Yet, this level of dedication and direction only happens when the student is truly passionate about the project.

Stay tuned for our final post describing the last and most critical trait colleges are looking for!