Students Ace Applications Using Independent Projects – Learn All About This Well-Kept Secret Now
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Many schools are going test-optional, and, while that may be good news for some anxious would-be test-takers, it’s important to note that most schools have stated that they will now be weighting the other portions of the application more heavily. What does that mean? Well, for starters, if you don’t submit a test score, grades move up the totem pole of what-gets-looked-at-first. But what if your grades aren’t up to snuff and you feel unconfident that your target school would even look at your application? Enter “independent projects.” These are a well-kept secret of the students who land the big ones. Us here at Strategic Mentoring have seen a substantial amount of interest for these since COVID hit (both because online work is more popular and tests are out), and would absolutely encourage you to consider them.
“Independent projects? What are those? How will they help me get into my target school?”
These are student-led initiatives that really show off the passion and dedication a student has for a topic – any topic! We’ve seen success with these methods first-hand. One of our MIT team members, who also used to sit on the admissions council there, got into MIT by coding a motion-sensing drone that responded to hand directions. Other students have made personal blogs relating their family history to world-changing events, and still others have launched mini fashion brands. The most important thing is that the student 1) is passionate about the subject and delighted to chat about it with interviewers, 2) can demonstrate development or mastery of a task, and 3) can market the idea in a way that appeals to other people. It’s an extremely broad mandate, and almost any hobby can usually be made to fit into an independent project.
“I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before. This doesn’t sound like it’s in the school curriculum.”
You’re right! You won’t find “follow your passion and make it into a cool application component” in any school curriculum, unfortunately. But where you will find it is everywhere you look in the major innovation hubs. Silicon Valley, NYC, Hong Kong – high-flying students from athletes to programmers to fashionistas have found significant value in developing their personal hobbies into serious resume material. And, now that many schools are test-optional for the near future, other components of the application (like independent projects) are even more heavily weighted. If an admissions counselor is considering two equivalent applicants, but one took her passion for the Amazon rainforest and built an online webpage to track deforestation numbers and estimate wildlife population loss, and the other did nothing, we certainly think that rainforest enthusiast is the one getting the second look. Sometimes it’s beyond the curriculum where the points really count.
“So is there a limit to what you projects you can do? What hobbies could count?”
So here’s the deal. You can pretty much take any hobby, tidy it up, pick out why it’s so special, and market it to an admissions counselor. Having said that, there are certainly ideas and hobbies that are easier to take to that level, and the time spent vs. reward gained is better for those. The key to success for our students is that our team of subject matter experts works very closely to fine-tune an idea where admissions counselors would view it favorably. We generally encourage students to be very honest with us and themselves in picking out something that they feel passionate about. Most students say things like …
“I can’t think of anything and I don’t have any hobbies that I think a school would like.”
This is easily the most common response we get when chatting with parents and students about independent projects. While it’s certainly possible that a student likes absolutely nothing, we find that’s usually not the case, and, more often than not, the student is just shy about sharing what really makes them interested. In the case that a student absolutely cannot come up with any other hobbies besides watching Instagram Live, our team is skilled in choosing a project or new hobby that the student would find interesting, and could be more easily marketed to admissions counselors. Having said that, you’re probably more interesting than you think you are, and even random items that you’re passionate about can sometimes be turned into a really cool project!
“What are schools saying about this?”
We like to look to Cornell as a barometer for the wider college ecosystem since their admissions team is fairly transparent with their preferences. Cornell notes the following with respect to the recent decisions around making ACT/SAT tests optional:
- Cornell [admissions counselors] will consider with increased scrutiny their other application documents, looking for different evidence of excellent academic preparation, including:
- challenging courses and excellent grades in each secondary school (high school) context. Note: there will be no negative interpretation for schools and students who have had only pass/fail or similar grading options during this current term;
- evidence of commitment and effort to pursuing other challenging learning experiences;
- results from other kinds of secondary, college-preparatory, and university-qualifying testing where available and verifiable;
- care, craft, and authenticity in their writing submissions;
- and wherever practical and available, details, insight, and analysis from secondary school counselors and teachers.
- Applicants with no test results might more often be asked after review has begun for additional evidence of continuing preparation, including grade reports from current senior year enrollment when that can be made available in time for Cornell admission review.
- Cornell overall has not planned to adopt a test-optional admission policy permanently. As appears to be true at test-optional colleges and universities, we anticipate that many students who will have had reasonable and uninterrupted opportunities to take the ACT and/or SAT during 2020-2021 administrations will continue to submit results, and those results will continue to demonstrate preparation for college-level work.
We want to emphasize here that Cornell, and other schools, are generally OK with students opting out of stressful testing, but will be looking for applications to show evidence of commitment and effort to pursuing other challenging learning experiences. In our view, this roughly translates to “has the student attempted to push their boundaries through independent projects?” For a student that is test-shy or doesn’t have the best of grades, these independent projects can be absolute live-savers for compiling a holistic application that keeps an admissions counselor fascinated from start to end. Students get a new hobby and project to be proud about for years, colleges get students with new and interesting perspectives, and we get to help build awesome application packages. Win-win-win.
We’re handing out free consultations so that you can evaluate if your student would be a good candidate for an independent project. We know applications aren’t particularly fun, but our team of PhDs, startup founders, and masters is ready to show you the way to develop your passion or hobby and stand out amongst your peers. Drop us a note on our website, strament.com and use code KNITHACKER to reserve your free consultation and start getting ahead today.
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