How to Contextualize Yourself Based on Your Background Pool

When strategizing on how to put together your college application, it's important to understand that everything you do in high school will be contextualized by your background pool. Colleges are picking from a pool of qualified students to put together a diverse student body, and not picking the best applicants ranked by "GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars" in an absolute way. This means that you will be compared against people that share the same background as you do, and it's important to recognize your background pool so that you can better strategize for how to stand out from within it.

Factors that define what background pool you belong to are ethnicity, gender, family, location, major/interests, and high school. This means that if you come from a poor rural area and are good at programming, for example, the background pool you will be compared against will be significantly less competitive than if you come from a wealthy area and are similarly good at programming. This makes sense on multiple levels. The school benefits from having a greater diversity of regional perspective.

You wouldn't want to go to a school where everyone is exactly like you, right? Colleges feel the same way. Admissions officers will try to fill the student body with a diversity of cultural, ethnic, and geographic perspective so that students can better learn from each other. Top schools also have active communities like Chamber Music Society, Muslim Student Union, Philosophy Club etc. and admissions officers want to admit top students representing different interest areas to fill these campus niches.

Also, students' accomplishments are more accurately evaluated in the context of the resources available to them. For example, Robert (who is part of the Applihood team) was a first-generation college student who taught himself everything he needed to know for science fair from electronics books and the internet. Because his parents had never attended college, admissions officers were much more impressed by his science fair awards than by science fair awards of students whose parents have PhDs - it takes significant personal initiative and drive to achieve as much as he did, and admissions officers recognize that.

The key for standing out within your background pool is to first recognize your competition, and then strategize how to craft a unique narrative to stand out from your pool. For example, the profile of an Asian male from California who does well at math competitions is extremely common, so unless he qualifies for the USAMO / MOP, it's unlikely that he will stand out enough in his pool to be selected for a top school. Instead of competing even more furiously to achieve at the national level for math, it would be more strategic for this student to have experiences no other Californian Asian male mathlete can talk about.

On the other hand, if a Hispanic male mathlete performed just as well in math competitions as the Asian male mathlete, he would have an easier time getting into top schools because the number of people from his background pool applying to top schools is much smaller. Therefore, it's strategic for the Hispanic mathlete to continue developing his narrative of being good at math because the profile of a successful Hispanic male mathlete is unique, and he will have little competition from his background pool.

Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comics, wrote that to have a successful career, there are two paths: 1) become the best at one specific thing, or 2) become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. The first strategy is almost impossible to do (think International Olympiad medalists), but the second is fairly easy because capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. College admissions work the same way - you make yourself rare by combining two or more "pretty goods" until no one else in your background pool has your mix.


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