Maximizing College Acceptance Using the Pareto Principle

Can 20% of what you do count for 80% of your college application?

What most often leads to an elite college acceptance?

One valuable exercise to answer this question is to put yourself in the shoes of a college admissions officer. Let’s try taking the perspective of someone who is reading countless college applications.

First, they will check to see if the basics are covered:

  • Above-average grades

  • Above-average test scores

  • Extracurriculars that demonstrate strong abilities outside of academics

Second, they will contextualize your application. How does this particular student compare to others in relation to your:

  • Location

  • Race/Ethnicity

  • Socio-economic status

Admissions officers understand that every high school is different. This means they will try to contextualize what you have done relative to other students of a similar demographic. You don’t need to be the best applicant; you simply need to stand out in your demographic.

Third, they will look for a unique and genuine story. Admissions officers at each college have a story to tell of what each student can bring to the campus community. What character in that story can you play? Are you the aloof thinker who daydreams about new inventions and goes off to build them? Or are you the prodigy chess player known to many? Maybe you enjoy writing short stories in your free time? Perhaps you like to tutor younger students.

Whatever it may be, think about what you enjoy doing the most. What story can you start writing now that admissions officers will read and think “wow, this is an amazing story! I want this student at my institution”?

THIS is the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) of college admissions. Out of all the things that are necessary for a great college application, 20% of things are likely to generate 80% of the results. What one or two qualities do you possess that will account for 80% of your application standing out?

Let’s take a hypothetical student as an example:

  1. Has great grades in school

  2. Plays a varsity sport

  3. Plays a musical instrument well

  4. Is the president of a school club

  5. Taught themselves five different languages and provides translation services for immigrants

Which of these five things do you think admissions officers care about the most? The first four are quite common, and students with these qualities exist at nearly every high school. The last component, however, stands out as unique and compelling.

Now let’s think about this in terms of time. If you dedicate 20% of your time to each of those five things, you can be sure that learning languages and translating will be the 20% that achieves 80% of the success in their college application.

You can use the Pareto Principle as you think about spending your time in high school:

  • Excellent grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities account for 80% of the effort that generates 20% of the results.

  • Unique interests and experiences crafted into a well-told story can account for the 20% of effort that achieves 80% of the results.

There is an important caveat to be made here. College admissions officers can usually tell when an applicant does something just for their college application. Excessive leadership positions in extracurriculars, overly sentimental or cliche stories, and writing that is *too* polished can detract from how genuine you seem. Your most genuine self will be holistically reflected throughout your entire college application – essays, recommendation letters, descriptions of extracurriculars, and interviews. Don’t “fake it until you make it”. The 20% of your time that can create 80% of the results requires you to dedicate time towards pursuing your interests. 

Written by J.L., an MIT graduate who studied Computer Science, and edited by the Path Mentors team. 

At Path Mentors, we believe that project-based learning and mentorship is a better way to find your interests and excel in high school. Rather than pursuing cookie-cutter extracurriculars, we pair students with mentors from top colleges to work on independent projects that help them explore and develop their interests. Learn more and schedule an introductory call at