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When it comes to college admissions, grades and achievement matter, but no more than leadership and taking a stand.

By Kirsten Guenther

Remember that Asian student stereotype you have in your head? You know the one. The musical virtuoso and math savant with overbearing parents who plays a mean game of ping pong? That one. Ok, now triple it. You just met Sara, my favorite client of last year.

When I met Sara, she wanted nothing more than to attend Harvard in the fall, and I wanted nothing more than to find out where she got those freaking amazing designer boots. Trendy jeans, stylish coat, hair that belonged in a Nivea ad – yep, Sara was put together (turns out in the real world looks do matter.) But she also had the brains to back it up. Her SAT scores were through the roof. Straight A's from her prestigious Manhattan prep school. She seemed like a shoo in.

And then she opened her mouth. She opened it, specifically, to say “yes” in response to my asking her if she understood our Forster Thomas style and processes. Good, she got it. But as we moved on to her extracurriculars and the importance of leadership, I noticed her head nodding in constant agreement. This apple-bobbing motion was paired with a relentless parade of “yes.”

I sighed as I realized what I was dealing with -- a “yes” girl. You see, Harvard is not interested in “yes.” They are not interested in the perfect daughter who still does what her parents tell her. They are interested in disruption and leadership. I’ll say that last part again—leadership. And you can't be a leader if you simply agree with everything you hear.

As I spoke to Sara about leadership and the importance of being a leader in regards to her candidacy, she continued to nod, smile and agree. But she didn’t get it. And the more she said, “Yes,” the more I realized how little she got. She kept pointing to her accomplishments on her resume. As if it were proof that she did “get it.” First place in the Physics Olympics, First Chair violin—and a volunteer at the children’s hospital. She looked at me, expecting to swoon as her proud parents had.

“What do you do at the children’s hospital?” I asked. She responded by telling me that she can’t actually go there because she’s not 18, but she did get a group together from her high school (50 in all) to make craft kits to provide entertainment for the sick children.

But why don’t you go there—go to the hospital and start making a real impact?” I asked. I got excited by the possibilities for her: “You could combine your passion for chemical engineering and recruit the science club to help you develop a special pillow or sheets to make their hospital beds more comfortable!” She reminded me what she had just told me—they weren’t allowed in the hospital to speak to the children. I followed with, “So just go!” Or “Skype! Can you Skype with them in the meantime?” She didn’t know. Because she hadn’t even tried.

There it was. The “yes” girl always takes “no” for an answer.

And that’s when I told Sara that real leaders don’t say “yes” to “no”. They see it as a challenge. If Sara wanted Harvard to say “yes” to her, she would have to stop saying it to everyone else.

I asked Sara, “Do you get it?” True to form, she answered, “Yes.” But this time it was different. She was on board. Together we came up with a plan for her to get her volunteers into the hospital. It has been a lot of work—connecting with hospital administrators, obtaining permissions. But what I tell Sara is that it’s the trying that matters. It’s the refusal to take, “No” for an answer and continuing to lead this group of 50 students closer and closer to that hospital, and Sara closer to her coveted admit.

3 Tips for “Yes” People:

1. Admissions officers are not your parents. They won’t pat you on the back for doing what you are told. They’ll pat you on the back for thinking for yourself; for staging a protest and raising your voice when you know change is needed, whether it’s going into a hospital to help sick children or intervening when someone is being bullied. This is the kind of trouble you don’t want to run from, you want to run towards.

2. Stop saying “Yes,” and start asking questions. What, when and how can you create change? Where you make a real impact? Strive to create change and recruit others to join you.

3. Leadership activities and accomplishments are not the same thing. An accomplishment is something you can do on your own. Leadership requires you leading a group, or at least one person in addition to yourself. Making a craft kit and sending it to a child in the hospital is an accomplishment. Creating a chapter of 50 students at your high school, and going through the necessary channels to get them into the hospital to create relationships with the sick children is leadership.

PS: No, we are not saying that grades and achievement do NOT matter. We are saying that leadership DOES.

PPS: If Sara calls me collect, asking to be bailed out of jail because she and her 50 friends marched right into the hospital to meet with the Chief Admissions Officer who refused to return their phone calls, I’ll say “yes” to the charge.


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