How to Hone Your Academic Angle

Schools are interested in students who pursue academic interests outside of the classroom.

Students with unique interests, such as medieval literature or the classics, may have an edge in college admissions.

Students with unique interests, such as medieval literature or the classics, may have an edge in college admissions.

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With more students applying to college than ever before, once fairly surefire strategies such as maxing out on AP courses, achieving top scores on standardized tests, and applying as an early decision candidate are no longer reliable keys to acceptance. In our work with students at Application Boot Camp, we focus on how to create a unique scholarly "edge" in a crowded field.

Top colleges are flooded with kids who are dutiful and conscientious, with the strong grades and scores to prove it. So admissions staffers increasingly look for high-impact applicants—those with unusual academic interests who demonstrate a deep love of learning.

Almost everyone who applies to the nation's top colleges has great grades and test scores, but few devote time to pursuing knowledge outside the classroom. Colleges want budding scholars, not just diligent drones.

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Initially, high schoolers often have only a vague idea of what they might want to pursue and no good idea about how to leave their mark. We worked with one young man interested in environmental issues, for example, who proposed starting a recycling program at his school. We wanted him to think bigger. In chemistry class, he had been studying carbon and the carbon-neutral movement; why not aim to make his school the first carbon-neutral high school in the country?

Over the next few years, he introduced motion-sensor lights, solar panels, smart thermostats, and energy efficient heating and cooling, and carried out comprehensive energy audits. He started a blog and a website; soon, schools around the country were inviting him to share his methods.

In short, he didn't just log community service hours in the name of "getting in," but rather took meaningful action. With a local environmental science college professor, he also undertook a comparative study of renewable energy technologies and ultimately co-authored a paper on the topic.

When it was time to apply to college, he came across as a student who would bring his zeal to campus. He was accepted at Harvard University, Stanford University, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan.

The more unusual your scholarly edge, the better it may serve your cause. Colleges get tons of prospective premed students, biology majors, and government majors, but not so many in medieval literature, the classics, or even specific areas of history.

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One student we worked with had loved mythology from an early age, studied Latin at a high level, and even dedicated a summer to an intensive program in ancient Greek so she could tackle authors like Homer and Sophocles in the original language.

How could she export her love of classics outside the classroom? She proposed to a local middle school that she design a curriculum introducing seventh and eighth graders to Latin language, culture, and literature. The program was a huge success, and continued even after she headed off to her top-choice college, Yale University.

The moral of the story? Find your area of intellectual interest and dive in. Explore it actively. You'll show colleges that you are much more than just a good student.

Mimi Doe and Michele Hernández are cofounders of the college admissions counseling firm Application Boot Camp LLC and coauthors of Don't Worry: You'll Get In.