How I Got into a Private University

💬 Student Stories

Hi! My name is Gayatri (she/her/hers) and I'm a rising college sophomore. I applied to 7 private colleges during my application cycle and was lucky enough to be offered a generous scholarship to my top choice, Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt University is one of the premier private colleges in the country and it's been a trailblazing research institution since 1873 — basically, it's a school with a lot to offer and was one of my top choices when applying to schools. I'm part of an overrepresented minority (ORM) in college applications, Asian/Pacific Islander, and come from a decently large metropolis in the South. At Vanderbilt, I'm double majoring in English and Child Development and minoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I plan to graduate college, teach for a few years, and attend law school, someday practicing in public interest or advocacy work.

Going into the college application process, I wasn't sure what exactly I wanted to study. I was interested in education, English, chemistry, history, anthropology, and psychology — basically, I liked to learn and wanted to attend a school that would foster my love for knowledge. I knew that location mattered to me — I wanted to live in a big city and take advantage of the opportunities and connections I could make there. I did not have a concrete career aspiration, but I knew I wanted to teach for a while and also attend grad school at some point, so making connections was really important to me. Also, I thrive with hustle, bustle, nightlife, and diversity, so I sought out universities that were located in metropolitan areas. I was also interested in schools whose missions aligned with my ideals — emphasis on learning instead of achievement, diversity and inclusion, liberal arts/exploratory coursework, and equity. After narrowing down my search, it was time to get started on my application.

🤓 Let's get into the nitty-gritty...

Crafting the perfect application for a private school might seem like a daunting task, but it's definitely an approachable, achievable endeavor. Let's break it down:

Application Requirements

Vanderbilt, like all the private schools I applied to, offered options for most components of the application; instead of the SAT, students could take the ACT, for example.

  1. General Application: This could be submitted through the Common App, the Coalition App, or the QuestBridge Application. Questions asked about demographics and family history, test scores, high school coursework, and personal information.
  2. I used the Common App because it was the most convenient option for me, as I used this application for most of my college submissions. Having already filled out the majority of the application for other schools made my Vandy application so much simpler.
  3. I made sure to include impactful extracurricular experiences and to skip those experiences I dabbled in, but didn't really get anything out of (read: HOSA). I included my years of playing field hockey, volunteering experience, and part-time jobs.
  4. Test Scores: The SAT with Essay or ACT with Writing was required for all applicants
  5. I preferred the ACT to SAT, so I took the ACT 3 times (twice with an essay) and submitted my best score. Vanderbilt allowed me to superscore ACT, as many private colleges do, so that's definitely a nice advantage to taking the ACT!
  6. Letters of Recommendation: Vanderbilt asked for 3, and preferred two to be from academic references
  7. I asked my AP Calculus and AP English Language teachers to write my academic recommendations. I chose these teachers because they knew me well wholly — they saw me succeed, learn, and flourish, but they also saw me struggle (both academically and personally) and explore my limits. I liked that they could speak to my character, perseverance, and resilience — I wanted my recommendations to paint an accurate picture of me as a person, not just as a student.
  8. My third reference was from a volunteer supervisor who worked closely with my friends and I in high school. I liked that he could speak to my spirit for service while also touching on how I interact with friends and peers.
  9. Essay: Vanderbilt required two essays — a personal statement and a supplemental essay. The supplemental essay only had one prompt, so every applicant wrote on the same broad topic.
  10. The personal statement was the notorious "Common App essay" — infamously 650 words too long and 650 words too restrictive for biography writing. My best advice for this essay is to strive for authenticity. There's nothing impressive about bragging or asking for pity, but there's something really, really, special about narrating your character and capability concisely and convincingly within those 650 words, so try to do that!
  11. The supplemental essay asked about extracurricular and work experiences. I wrote mine on my most meaningful experience in high school, volunteering with my local Special Olympics summer camp. I advise applicants to choose an activity that they're truly passionate about and to use the essay as an opportunity to tell a story about themselves, not their awesome experience. This essay is NOT a resume!
  12. Application Fee: The application fee was $50, but there are waivers available — just apply or ask your counselor for help!
  13. Coursework: Applicants must have completed 4 years of English, 3 years of science and math, 2 years of social science and a foreign language, 1 year of history, and 3 years of electives by graduation.

Application Non-Requirements

  1. Interview: While Vanderbilt offered alumni interviews to students who lived near Vanderbilt alums, this process is entirely opt-in and not interviewing does not penalize your application. It's a great opportunity to interview, though, so if you can get an interview, definitely attend!
  2. While I didn't have a Vanderbilt interview, I attended interviews for 3 other private schools. Dress casually, ask lots of questions, and stay calm! College interviews are great learning experiences and can be really fun ways to learn and feel grown-up.
  3. SAT Subject Tests: To apply, students are not required to take any SAT Subject Tests. If desired, though, these scores can be added to supplement an application.

My Application

Here's what my application roughly looked like:

  • ACT: English (36), Reading (36), Math (35), Science (35), Essay (11)
  • GPA: 4.6
  • APs: 12 in total (Bio, Calc AB, Calc BC, Chem, Comp Gov, Human Geo, Lang, Lit, Psych Stats, US Gov, World)
  • Electives: Latin 1-3, Theatre, PLTW Engineering electives (just for fun b/c I loved my teacher) and Art Appreciation

How I Made My Application Stand Out

I made sure that each component of my application represented a different, but important part of my character. I wrote about activities that were impactful on me, but also those that allowed me to make a change in others' lives. Rather than trying to pad my resume at every turn, I omitted meaningless activities and accolades and instead focused on a few quality elements of my high school experience. I was able to tell a story with my application by doing this, because it was clear that I truly cared about community service and bettering myself through learning from others. I also took a risk and wrote a vulnerable essay — my personal statement touched on some of my most difficult challenges. However, instead of writing from a point of weakness, I used this opportunity to show strength and growth, proving that I was entirely human, but committed to being the best human I could be.

Consistency and authenticity are key!

📝 For Applicants

Please don't see your private school application as a lost cause. Your application is your opportunity to advocate for yourself, so work to be genuine and tell the truth about your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and achievements. You'll be better off for it: you'll understand yourself better, and so will admissions officers!

Private schools can be VERY expensive, so make sure also to apply for any scholarship you can. You'll be surprised how big of a difference a couple hundred dollars can make for college bills.

Remember also that admissions decisions are not at all reflective of your abilities or your potential. At the end of the day, college is just an opportunity to learn for the next four or so years. You have a bright future ahead of you regardless of how your applications turn out.

Good luck applying! And remember, consistency and authenticity are the secrets to making an effective case for yourself.

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