Not being the brightest student but having amazing ECs vs Brightest Student but okay ECs

How do admission officers view a student who may not be the brightest student (not getting straight A’s, etc) in class but has outstanding ECs and leadership? How is this compared to a student who is extremely smart but has average ECs and leadership?

This very much depends where you’re applying.

For the top schools, I can only speak for Stanford (because I’m now in a Facebook group with other admitted students for class of '21 and have heard about their stats/ECs etc.). I suspect most will be similar though.

Grades are a boundary to pass. If your SATs are high enough, and your GPA is good enough, it’ll cease to matter much for admission. Obviously, it’s great to get every single part of your application perfect, especially with the very selective colleges.

For me, my stats were pretty much bang on average for Stanford, but my ECs would have stuck out a lot. In my experience, the most selective colleges seem to want people who are going to excel in their chosen field, change the face of their field, or indeed change the face of the world. This is often not (but sometimes) the people with the best SAT scores or GPA.

This said, I know of an applicant to Stanford in Auckland who got rejected this year with exceptional ECs (won’t specify, but world class) and a B average predicted grade in A-Levels, so you definitely have to pass a barrier. It’s definitely a good idea to get tutoring and make sure your grades are high enough to have your application even considered, if they’re looking to be below the upper quartile for the university, or if you’re a pure academic applicant.

Perhaps @jamie.beaton or could expand on this, as they have more experience in this area. I can only speak for the single school I applied to and got into.


@harrymellsop summarised this very well for Stanford.

In general, extremely academically qualified with average ECs and leadership is going to open more doors than being a weak student with outstanding ECs and leadership HOWEVER beating the ‘relevant’ average criteria for a specific university then having exceptional ECs and leadership is more powerful in many instances than extremely academically qualified with average ECs and leadership.

For nearly all universities, there is an academic bar. That bar varies (and is always higher for an international student than a domestic student). When you look at average statistics, these are calculated with 85% of the input being American kids and 15% being international usually so you, usually being international, are going to need to at least try and hit the averages. Also, be aware that the ‘relevant’ average will change based on your race - if you come from a minority background i.e. Maori, Pacific Islander, African American, the average is overstated. if you come from a Chinese background, the average will be understated.

If you are an athletic applicant, the bar will be lower. One of my friends who is literally the world champion in their specific sport got into Harvard with an SAT score of 1640 out of 2400 (in the old system). That’s the lowest score I’ve ever head of. However, athletic applicants generally want to be within 1 standard deviation of the mean of the school. Reach out to me at for specific data insights in the schools you are considering.

I would also add that Stanford, in particular, for example is a school that particularly loves outstanding ECs and leadership. Some schools like Harvard or MIT, historically place substantially more emphasis on academic performance.

I’d note that the relevant academic bar sits within the context of your local environment, just as much as international averages. Outperformance within the context of your school is paid closed attention too - if most kids at your school take 4 A Levels and you take 10 A Levels, you will stand out. If every kid takes 2 A Levels and you take 5 A Levels, you will stand out. If no kid at your school has taken Arabic because it isn’t offered and you self-study it, it will mean a lot more than if your school has a strong Arabic program and it is pretty common from applicants from your high school.

@henry_woohoo Work hard on the academics and push yourself hard with strong support where required to get above those ‘relevant averages’ and then you can let your ECs, leadership (and hopefully essays!) help you shine.

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It absolutely depends on where you apply, and @harrymellsop is totally on point with the sentiment that “the most selective colleges seem to want people who are going to excel in their chosen field, change the face of their field, or indeed change the face of the world. This is often not (but sometimes) the people with the best SAT scores or GPA.”

Also consider the role your recommenders will play in how your overall profile shakes down. Do you have a teacher who can tell a specific story about how you thought creatively about a problem, or perhaps demonstrated some exceptional leadership skills or strategy in a collaborative learning endeavor? Selective colleges are looking for team players who will be able to enhance the school community (and later society in general) with skills that go beyond what is reflected in grades alone. As a former teacher of 11th graders in the US, I wrote many, many recommendations for kids applying to very competitive schools. I had many students who perhaps got an A- in my class who I could speak about much more emphatically than others with A+'s, simply due to their abilities to ask questions, lead group projects, and proactively participate at a high level. Those stories speak volumes about what a student’s overall vibe is like, and that becomes very important when admissions officers are looking at two similarly achieving kids in terms of grades, scores, and impressive resumes.

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