Writing in The New York Times, Frank Bruni explains how admissions officers at some colleges take the time “to notice details embedded in her letters of recommendation and mentioned fleetingly in bits of personal information.” For example, an applicant to Davidson College had ACT scores and a GPA well below that of most of its students. Her extra-curricular activities were not particularly noteworthy, either.
However: “She’d been reared by a single mother. She had a 6-year-old brother. And for the last few years, she’d spent three nights a week making his dinner and getting him to bed while her mom was at work, earning an income so modest that the teenager met the federal requirements for receiving free lunch at school … And though her high school wasn’t chockablock with counselors, she’d had the good sense to read up on Davidson and, in her application, lay out a mix of cogent, sophisticated reasons that it was right for her … Everything about her suggested maturity, independence, determination.” She got in.
Meanwhile, The Air Force Academy “has a 17 percent acceptance rate … Because it’s free and funded by the government, it feels an extra obligation to be open to all … And because it is preparing its students to be military officers, character matters as much as — if not more than — test scores.” The academy sometimes admits applicants “despite inferior scores, and who nonetheless perform superbly at the academy. One had an ACT of well under 20, and yet she’d earned A’s in A.P. classes at her high school in inner-city Philadelphia.”
“Delving into her background, the administrators concluded that the low ACT was in part a function of a childhood in which she’d bounced around in foster care and even lived with teachers … That she’d nonetheless challenged herself academically and maintained a high grade point average struck academy administrators as remarkable. They admitted her, and she went on to win a coveted award for her performance during basic training. An Academy admissions officer says it’s not about ‘a sad story or a sob story. It’s about: What are the candidates’ life experiences, and how did they react?’”