How To Get Into Amherst
April 16, 2019
How To Get Into Amherst
It’s finally spring, which means that -- at long last -- admissions decisions have been released from colleges and universities nationwide. As predicted, acceptance rates at most highly-selective institutes dropped once again. If you want to get into top liberal arts colleges like Amherst, the competition is tougher than ever.
So, to all the rising seniors (and ambitious underclassmen) who are preparing their applications to top-tier colleges and universities, I offer you a word of advice: instead of thinking about all the schools you’ll apply to and the one million essays you’ll have to write, try to take things one step -- and one school -- at a time.
Among the top liberal arts colleges, this past cycle, Amherst College accepted 11% of its applicant pool, the most selective year in its history. The profile of the admitted students has gotten more competitive, with admissions officers taking note of the sophistication of admitted students’ understanding of worldly issues. Strong grades and standardized test scores are not enough. This might have you wondering how to get into Amherst.
While it’s certainly true that the ever-increasingly hyper-competitive nature of the admissions process can feel utterly insurmountable, hope is not lost. In fact, the distinct, annual lull of this post-notification period strikes me as an excellent opportunity for reflection and planning. As an alumnus and Former Admissions Officer from Amherst College, I hope to give you some practical and strategic tips on how to get into Amherst. .
1. Fit, Fit, Fit.
I’ve often told my students that if they’re applying to every single Ivy League institution, they haven’t done enough thinking about FIT. There’s such tremendous diversity among those eight institutions, I can’t imagine that a single student would be a good fit at all of them.
It’s no surprise that schools are looking for particular kinds of students whom they anticipate will socially and academically thrive within the context of their unique environment. Liberal arts colleges like Amherst each have their own personality. Instead of trying to mold yourself into the kind of student who would be a good fit at a particular place, do the opposite: think about what unique attributes you already bring to the table, and research a range of schools that you suspect would appreciate those attributes.
For example, when wondering how to get into Amherst, don’t forget, Amherst is a liberal arts college. It does not view itself as a pre-professional institution. The curriculum, much like Brown’s, is entirely open, which means that there are no distribution requirements that you’ll have to fulfill over the course of your four-year residency. Read between the lines: Amherst is not looking for single-minded, career-oriented students. If you know right now that you want to become a structural engineer, a neurosurgeon, or a management consultant, and have no interest in pursuing courses outside of your intended discipline, Amherst is probably not the right college for you.
Are you a little bit intellectually quirky? Are you considering structural engineering but fostering a deep passion for medieval literature? Are you interested in neurosurgery but also destined with an underlying passion for women’s and gender studies? Do you envision yourself reading theoretical physics on your lunch breaks at McKinsey? If so, Amherst might be the school for you.
2. Letters of Recommendation are KEY.
More so than almost any other document that comprises a college application, letters of recommendation can make or break an Amherst applicant. Let me explain.
Amherst features an average class size of 19 students, which means that you will be participating in classroom conversation, whether you’d like to or not. It’s simply part of the small college culture (Harkening back to FIT: if this doesn’t sound like something you’re excited about, perhaps Amherst is not the right choice for you). No one can better attest to your classroom contributions than your high school teachers.
Furthermore, the letters of recommendation are the only components of your application materials that you -- most likely -- will not have seen. You will not have control over them. You will not have the chance to edit them or show them to your friends for feedback. This makes them especially trustworthy and important.
Go to office hours. Try to avoid smarminess. Attend with the intention of getting to know your teachers as humans and educators. You don’t have to talk about in-class material. Where did they grow up? Go to college? What did they study? Start a habit of raising your hand in class. Help out students who are struggling around you. Be a helpful and welcoming presence in the classroom. Ask challenging questions. Engage in healthy debate with your classmates. The better your teachers know you, the more detailed letters they will be able to write.
Although these are small, seemingly intangible things to focus on, they add up over the course of your high school years. You are unlikely to see immediate results derived from this sort of preparation, so you’ll just have to trust me: it’ll all be worth it if the accumulation of your hard work results in an Amherst acceptance!
3. Showcase an Exceptional Extracurricular.
Amherst takes supplemental materials very seriously. If you are a student with exceptional talent in one or another realm of extracurricular engagement, I strongly encourage you to submit evidence of your talent. While these supplements will not compensate for low grades, easy coursework, or low test scores, they will help distinguish your application from others, especially if you demonstrate leadership and tangible achievements.
The Amherst College supplemental essay actually asks you to expand on a particular extracurricular activity or experience that has been particularly significant to you in 175 words. Use this prompt to showcase your talent or passion, and how you might continue this at Amherst. Portray how you have changed the game with this activity - whether you started a club, created opportunities for others who enjoy it, or excelled at it in competitions. If you founded your school’s jazz club, talk about how you hope to learn from musicians at Jazz @ Amherst. If you were the editor-in-chief of your school newspaper with a passion for politics, write about how your experience might help with their student run political review, The Octagon Papers. Show the commitment, growth and impact you’ve brought to your passion.
Moreover, you can expand on your skills in your field of interest by taking advantage of the three types of additional supplements that you’re able to submit, all of which figure differently into the admissions equation.These are:
If you are an artist, use the arts supplement option to your advantage. Arts supplements are literally sent to Amherst arts faculty with expertise in the area. They are then independently rated, and sent back to the Office of Admission. If you are given a high rating as a musician, dancer, actor, or visual artist by a faculty member, it is significantly advantageous for you in the admissions process. On the flip side, if you’re not too serious about your music, art etc., don’t try putting something together just for the sake of submission. The application pool will be top-notch, and professors only want to be reviewing materials of serious applicants! Choose a piece of artwork that you believe showcases your talent the best and defines you as an artist.
Amherst recently opened an enormous new $242 million science center. For years, they have been trying to increase their research footprint. Show how you’ll help them do that with a research supplement. To submit a research supplement, you simply need to upload an abstract of the “significant” work that you’ve been involved with. The keyword is significant here. A paper-mâché volcano project isn’t going to cut it.
When brainstorming how to get into Amherst, keep in mind that the school is trying to build a picture of the contribution you’re likely to make if you come to campus. If you’re submitting a research supplement, it’s best to emphasize your scholarly inclinations in other parts of your application: activities lists, essays, and descriptions of your future plans.
Athletics are huge at Amherst. Amherst has one of the most competitive Division III sports programs that exists, regularly winning national titles in hockey and basketball, among many other sports. The athletic recruiting process is long, complex, and particular to the sport that you play. If you’re a super athlete and hoping to compete in college, your first step should be talking your high school coaches. They should be able to give you more information about how to proceed.
If you have specific questions about certain athletic programs at Amherst, you are also encouraged to reach out to Amherst coaches via email. Unlike the arts and research supplements, the athletic recruiting process involves direct communication between your high school coaches, the Amherst coaching staff, and the Office of Admission. Your role in portraying your own talent as part of the Common Application process is comparatively minimal.
Just like with any other college, there is no single component that guarantees your admission to Amherst College. When tackling the question of how to get into Amherst, think about whether the school is a good fit for you, and how you can portray this to the admissions officers. Play to your strengths, boost your extracurriculars, and talk to your teachers and counselors. Remember that showing evidence of your talent rather than just writing about it in the Common App can only boost your chances. If your application paints you as an intelligent and driven leader, you could be well on your way to an acceptance letter from one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.