You don’t have to be perfect to get into your dream college

By Josh King, Assistant Director of Admissions at The University of the South, Sewanee, TN Find a dream college that “fits.”

Whether it shows up on your transcript or elsewhere, you have challenges. Did you struggle with those pop quizzes in pre-calculus? How about those hour-long runs at practice?

Often, the success of your admission review depends not on your perfection, but rather on your ability to cope with imperfection.

One way you can make your challenges less challenging in your application is by explaining what you gained from being challenged. What did you discover about yourself? How did you cope? How do you plan to overcome challenges in the future? If you can express your answers in your application or in direct communications, you might find empathy, sympathy, or downright likeability. It’s highly likely that the people reviewing your application also have challenges.

You should have your challenges in mind long before you apply to your dream college, though. You have to find your dream college, and that means finding an institution that suits you. If the college suits you—in your perfections as well as imperfections—then the college is likely to identify you in the admission process as someone who suits it. This mutual respect between institution and individual is what we in college admission call “fit.”

Your imperfections can actually help you find your dream college; put them to work for you as you search for your dream college. Here are three common challenges and how you can make them work for you:

  1. Challenge: “My dream college must be ranked among the ‘top 10’ in the nation.”Our culture loves lists. We want to rank things, so that we can know what the best things are, and—when we have those things—everyone else will know that we have the best things. Remember, lists are complicated things; none of them is definitive.The college that fits you best may not be on a “top 10” list. That doesn’t mean it can’t be your dream college. If it has the academics you need, the extracurriculars you want, and the career counseling that will help you meet your professional objectives, take a look. If you go visit, and you feel like you belong there, go ahead, love it, and put it at the top of your list. That’s the one that matters.Some of the most well-known college ranking systems use data compiled about students entering the college, not graduating from it. If you would like to see colleges ranked by alumni outcomes, check out The Alumni Factor.
  2. Challenge: “My ACT/SAT scores are not high enough.”No matter how high achieving you are in the classroom or how much you excel in your extracurricular activities, you might not be admitted to your dream school without an impressive test score. For many students, that’s what this challenge means. For admission to many of America’s best colleges, no test score is required.“Test optional” colleges allow students to apply without submitting test scores. “Test flexible” institutions allow applicants to pick and choose specific tests to submit, such as multiple SAT subject tests.Find your test-optional or test-flexible dream college at
  3. Challenge: “I can’t afford to go to my dream college.”College is expensive. It’s true. What’s also true is that many of the best colleges also provide generous need-based financial aid packages for families who need help paying for college.Unfortunately, as the New York Times recently reported, the students who could benefit the most from financial aid at selective institutions are also the students who know the least about the access they might have to financial aid. Less than half of high-achieving high school seniors who would qualify for need-based financial aid attend the country’s most selective colleges.Don’t focus on the listed cost of attendance when researching colleges. Consider the quality of the institution’s financial aid and what the real cost will be for you and your family. You may be surprised by how affordable your dream college can be.

The final decision is yours.

“My dream college must be ranked among the ‘top 10’ in the nation.” That’s not a restriction. That’s an opportunity for you to find your favorite 10 colleges.

“My ACT/SAT scores are not high enough.” Does that require you to narrow your list of colleges? Sure, but you have to find some way to do that, anyway.

“I can’t afford to go to my dream college.” Your dream college may be more affordable than you expect it to be. There are resources available to help make your attendance possible.

Whatever your challenge and however you choose to make it work for you, know this: The final decision of where to go to college is yours. Now, that’s a dream come true.