A quetzal, resting in splendor.

A quetzal, resting in splendor.

Subject: Quetzal!!!

For a long time, my mom and dad wanted to see a quetzal. When they finally saw one in Costa Rica, my mom sent me an email with the subject line "Quetzal!!!" and the above picture attached. As you can see, the quetzal is a great bird -- not just a very good bird like an...I don't know. I'm not a birdwatcher. I have no examples of very good birds. All I know about birds is that the ones outside my window chirp when the sky starts to lighten around 5:30 a.m., and then I wake up, and then they stop, and then I am still awake.

The Quetzal Problem

On some level, we all like to think of ourselves as quetzals: great, rare, special. This is the quetzal problem. To succeed with college applications, you can't just assume you're a quetzal. You have to think of the college's perspective. You have to ask an uncomfortable question: From the college's perspective, am I a great student or "only" a very good student?

This is rarely a fun question. When I discuss this with families, I usually end up doing gentle reality checks for very good students who think they are great students. But it must be done. If you're a very good student who mistakenly thinks you're a great student, you're going to limit your college options. Instead of applying to just 1 or 2 ultra-selective schools (the purple stars on the Essaywise College Map), you'll apply to 4 or 5.

That means you won't have given enough time and energy to researching and applying to your target and safety schools. If you take this road, you might be setting yourself up for a disappointing spring: rejected by the ultra-selective schools and accepted by a few target and safety schools you didn't spend much time thinking about and, now, don't really want to attend. So no, asking the "very good or great" question isn't fun, but yes, you still have to ask it.

Very Good or Great?

Before we get to answering this question, let me lay out my assumptions:

  • You have no "hook." If you don't know what a hook is, please take a minute to read my How to Apply to Stanford post. If you do have a hook, then good news -- even if you're a "very good" student, you might have a reasonable shot at those ultra-selective schools.
  • Yes, you're smart. I mean, we all know an SAT score of 2300 is better than a score of 2100, but what's the difference, really? One is 99th percentile, and one is 96th percentile (Source). Both students can do the work at an ultra-selective school.
  • But if you have no hook, small differences in numbers matter. This is just my intuition. Put yourself in the admission officer's shoes. Suppose you're filling one slot with an applicant who has no hook. If you're choosing between two candidates with similar quality letters of rec, essays, and activities, why would you choose the kid with lower numbers? I don't think you would.

To help you assess yourself honestly, I present you with this nifty infographic. I don't claim it's scientific, but it does reflect my own experience in working with both "very good" and "great" students.

Now What?

It might turn out that you're not a quetzal after all. That's fine. Maybe a little disappointing, but it's better to figure out you're "only" very good now than later, after you've submitted your applications to a bunch of ultra-selective schools. If you're a very good student, yes, take your shot at 1 or 2 ultra-selective schools, but load up your list with some schools with acceptance rates in the 15-30% range, too.

Quetzals are not the only birds in the jungle. You don't have to be a quetzal to take flight.

Good luck writing!


I have a B.A. in English from Stanford and a J.D. from Harvard. I hate seeing stupid mistakes. I hope that by writing my thoughts down, I can help you make good decisions that give you more options.