The College Application “Spike” Is Dumb. Now What?

How to be admitted to top universities, the better way.

Photo by Kirsten Drew on Unsplash

To preface, this is the continuation of an article I wrote about a year back, titled “What Is A College Application “Spike” And Should I Have One?”. It remains to this day my most visited article, likely due to PageRank placing it as a top search result.

Thanks, Google.

It’s no secret that I detest the term “Spike,” enough at least to write a 6-minute article about it (read that piece first if you haven’t yet). In my view, it’s a horrifically misused term co-opted for anything and everything considered “significant,” from research to publishing papers to winning tournaments to playing at Carnegie Hall.

Sure, if doing great things is a spike, then having spikes is great — but so often it becomes a way to hyper-focus all activities solely on the field one wishes to study, ignoring “little” ECs for singular gambles into restrictive high risk/high reward ventures.

Even the name, “Spike,” rather than “Spike(s),” suggests the ideal way for the average candidate to be admitted into a university is to complete one particular, perfect moonshot, which will somehow on completion conduct absolution on one’s past sins and “spear them up” into Ivy League heaven.

That’s right, a lifetime of abject mediocrity can be salvaged. Finally earn the love of your parents and that elusive green light shining at the end of the dock.

Just pay us, a dodgy service with questionable sources and unverified consultants, for our online workshops and opaque 1-on-1s.

It’s only $45,000, after all — imagine how much more your child will make as an Ivy League graduate.

The issue with attacking an established belief is that I will be asked to present an alternative. If a “Spike” is an incorrect way to view one’s extracurriculars, then, critics demand, “What do you have instead?”

To be frank, I don’t feel qualified enough to give an answer that works for every single student.

I’m not an admissions officer, just a college undergrad — attempting to create a “theory of everything” which sums up the admissions process into a single set of directions is impossible, and attempting to do so would make me no different from the “application gurus” I disparage.

Any strategy which works for all necessarily is too broad to be specifically applicable. Certainly, there are plenty of such “universal truths” — talk about yourself, be descriptive, avoid complicated metaphors, look to the future, cultivate an identity, write with maturity — yet those do not represent the step-by-step instructions or “secret tricks” readers wish to see.

However, I will admit there are still can be some benefits to reading about college admissions advice (you are still here, after all). Taken with a grain of salt, the unique opinions and perspectives provided can give greater insights into how one's peers and the applicant community itself view the overall admissions process.

For the group who understands the inherent flaws of giving specific advice broadly (and who also know that I possess no real qualifications), I will present not only a strategy that I believe to be healthier than the “Spike” but is easily adapted from it and still maintains some level of metaphorical similarity.

But before that, let me tell you about the fundamentals of college applications, starting with the sell.

I go over the full concept of selling yourself in an application in a different article, posted whenever time allows — for the sake of brevity, here’s a quick summary:

  • Universities look for many different types of people to round out their ideal image for next year’s student body.
  • While basic requirements (such as knowing student will not fail all their classes) need to be met through GPA/tests, everything else is subjective.
  • Your job is to sell yourself as representing a certain identity inside of that idealized vision — or being so outstanding they create that niche for you.
  • To do so, you’ll need to first find what aspects of your character and profile, figure out how it “fits in,” and then devise a corresponding sell.

I understand that very few high schoolers have had professional experience selling any product or service at all, let alone one as abstract and confusing as their own skills, character, and personality as a complete package colleges wish to “purchase.”

However, this ability is crucial in all stages of life, from acing a job interview to getting extra grant money from the dean to chatting up that cute stranger at the coffee shop. Knowing who you are, understanding how your unique set of traits, skills, and life experiences can be presented in a riveting manner that promises to bring value to anyone you engage with — that will make you stand out anywhere.

I view college admissions through the lens of the salesperson, and that’s where a lot of my criticisms of “Spike” arise from. A single, risky gambit on something as important as college admissions feels out of place for the majority of applicants. Ignoring anything non-career-related limits creativity and intersectionalism presented in your sales pitch, turning it into a pure comparison-by-numbers (substitutable good). Viewing elite admissions as a trophy threatens to make the accepted lazy and rejected miserable, ignoring college’s true value as a tool to get ahead, not a final destination.

Regardless, if you’ve made it this far, you likely agree with my views on a “Spike,” and it would be unwise for me to spend any more time bashing it. With our sales lens, let us transform the buzzword into a new, actionable plan as promised.

Ready for it? Here it is.

A trident.

Your previous “Spike” is now only one part of a multi-pronged attack. Each tine should be a different field or subfield, backed by a long staff of core accomplishments, it must be wielded by a person — you — who possess strong character, useful skills, and complete experiences. Combined, the Trident and its wielder will be impossible for anyone to ignore.

Let me break down the metaphor for you by first listing out what is wrong with the “Spike,” and how the “Trident + Wielder” method addresses them.

Problems with “Spike”:

  1. Puts too many eggs in one basket — what if your one, risky push fails?
  2. Tricks students into believing things like GPA are non-essential.
  3. Convinces students to be “locked into” a single field or subfield.
  4. Forces people to “discover and love your passion” at literally 14 years old.
  5. Places elite colleges on a pedestal without ever explaining why.
  6. Stresses a single achievement over the person achieving it.

Summed up: myopic. The Olympic athletes and Nobel winners that advice is based on don’t require “Spike” or any college application advice at all — what “average Joes” need is not “become the best programmer in the world or a pulitzer prize winner to get into harvard lol” — it’s actionable, simple transformation of the mix of interests they currently possess.

Also, universities don’t pick your club or organization — they pick you. Readers are in the business of judging students for admissions, not between different COVID charities abandoned the moment applications are submitted.

How “Trident” fixes these:

  1. Three or more different projects — if one fails, swap it out.
  2. GPA is one of many core skills demonstrating broad proficiency.
  3. Forces students to explore multiple interested subfields.
  4. Does not lock people into a single passion they must worship.
  5. Having skills and being able to sell yourself supports you your entire life.
  6. A weapon is only as good as its wielder. Execution and identity are key.

Let’s break apart the parts of the Trident so we can analyze how it all comes together:

Tines — A tine is a sharp point on a trident, and it represents a stab made at fulfilling a specific niche. Preferably, it incorporates an interest you have, a skill you learned, and a character trait you represent.

Example: Mike used his skill in website design, the character traits of creativity and humor, and his interest in poetry to create the annual “Worst Opening Sentence Competition,” a popular online tongue-in-cheek contest to create a deliberately bad sentence to begin a novel or work of fiction.

“Spikes” can easily be transformed into Tines — they are both tapered barbs, after all. What frees the applicant is the knowledge that you don’t need to be №1 in the world or meet some arbitrary bar of “success” in order to qualify as a Tine. Mike still can submit his website to competitions or measure # of daily visitors on some online leaderboard, but the key is that he doesn’t have to.

If it represents you, was built from skills you learned and is something you are proud of, it is a Tine. Having around three of these in different subfields or, even better, occurring at intersections of them, appeal to the maximum potential audience of application readers without overwhelming them.

Staff — If you have several activities in different fields, the common criticism is that they may seem scattered, which increases the difficulty of creating a central theme. This is a fair point.

However, I’d like to put forth the notion that it’s easier to create a central theme when all your activities are about a single field simply because you’ve heard it many times before — that is to say, it is generic.

Not to rag on “Spike” any longer, but how many high schoolers on LinkedIn try to make it big with a “poverty alleviation organization” or some broad-stroke social justice program? Sure, we know what their deal is immediately, and writing a mediocre essay about their trials and tribulations, along with the importance of their prevalent social issue, is quite straightforward.

So what? Does that make them stand out?

Your central theme should be unique. The tines will help, with each activity being based on a founding principle — curiosity, creativity, humor, kindness. A theme should move past the actions themselves and go forward in time — why did you do what you have done, and how will that desire manifest itself in the career choices you make and the person you will become?

Example: Mariam is an adventurous person. She enjoys rock climbing with her mother and uncle on weekends and hosts fantasy D&D campaigns on her YouTube channel, CrucialRepresentation. Mariam’s confidence and charisma lead her to pursue an active role in environmental conservationism, speaking up at town halls and state assemblies. She is led by a guiding belief that the world we envision in our hearts (and on the D&D board) can be achieved in reality, if only we try hard enough.

Wielder — This one is all you. How well you write, how well you compose narration. Diction, syntax, and vocabulary are important. A deft stroke of humor can win over admissions officers sick of reading the same bland tropes for 8 hours a day. The final execution is a test in storytelling, of presenting your narrative in a way that sets you apart and humanizes you in the eyes of the reader.

Here’s a quick lesson on how the application review process goes at most universities. An initial reading by one or two people will determine whether you are qualified for admissions or not. If so, it passes to the Committee, where your case is presented in front of a group of other admissions officers. Usually, a majority vote means admission, while a minority vote means waiting list or rejection. Publics will likely have fewer steps in the process while low-application-number privates will have more.

Regardless, you want the admissions officer to be your lawyer. They want to be on your side — give them ammo to fight for your acceptance. This is where deft execution matters. The “fun” supplementals, the “why college” essays, the strange one-liner responses, and the letters to your roommate. Show some character, personality, product/market fit. Present yourself as someone the admissions officer can’t wait to meet on campus this fall.

Example: Abhinav decided to include a story about his childhood experience with the YouTube channel “Percy Jackson Puppet Pals,” humorous parody skits which inspired his current interest in video production and showbiz. Making the topic one of his supplemental essays, its lighthearted tone is a perfect place for Abhi to brag about some awards his short film just won.

Whew, that was long.

A few Tines, attached to a Staff wielded by you — I admit, “Trident” isn’t as simple as “Spike” — but that is the point, isn’t it?

Holistic college applications aren’t, and likely will never be a solved equation. All we can do is build more complex models which approximate the system better (and at least I’m not selling an online course on this) or create rough guidelines that promote heuristic learning.

But does “Trident” actually work?

What is your definition of “work?”

I’m not an admissions officer — it is already bad enough that I give such a specific strategy after criticizing those who do so.

There is no one “true” strategy for having strong extracurriculars — just as “Spike” will never come up in any official text, “Trident” will, too, never be extolled as the end-all-be-all by admissions officers.

Perhaps “Spike” worked for you — if so, by all means, don’t let me take away your victory. I present this strategy as an attempt to make admissions strategies more comprehensive, an (admittedly vain) attempt to stem the involution and rat-race I see resulting from clout-chasing, and as a healthier way to view a process that should build the applicant up, not break them down.

If you’re overwhelmed, I understand. Elite college admissions for the sake of prestige is pointless and ridiculous, and it’s easy for people to be caught in a hurricane of misinformation and rumors, surrounded by fanboys seeking to be admitted to a university for no particular reason past appeasing their own ego.

Stick with doing what you love, and you will likely never go wrong.

Oh, and take it from the man himself:

“Where others like being specialists, I like being a generalist.

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A collection for Kevin Fang’s college applications, essay advice, scholarships, and personal anecdote blogs without any advertisement or promotions.

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Kevin Fang

Kevin Fang

to write is human; to edit, divine | kevinfang.tech

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