As a high school student, your career can seem impossibly far away. But for
those considering an academic career, the road to success starts in high
school, where the focus should be on preparing yourself for college. Your goal
should be to give yourself as many options as possible.
What are colleges looking for? Generally they will consider:
- Grade Point Average (GPA)
- Extracurricular and volunteer activities
- Standardized test scores
- Letters of recommendation
- College essay
There’s no way around it: to get into a good school, you have to earn high
grades. Keep in mind that all grades are not made equal. An “A” in an
Advanced Placement (AP) class is usually given more weight by an admissions
board than an “A” in a standard high school class. When you have the option,
take more advanced classes in those subjects you are strong in.
There is a popular myth that colleges are looking for students with laundry
lists of extracurricular activities. That’s not necessarily true. Colleges want
to see that you can sustain a long-term commitment, and they want to see
evidence of your leadership ability. Choose one or a few extracurricular or
volunteer activities that interest you and excel at them.
Some students familiar with Ayn Rand’s ideas or who are aware of ARI’s campaign
against “mandatory volunteerism” may wonder if volunteering is appropriate.
There is nothing wrong with donating your time per se. What Objectivism opposes
are programs that force students to volunteer, and the self-sacrificial
justifications offered for these programs. It is ethical to volunteer provided
one does it for selfish reasons. For instance, a student interested in
veterinary medicine may very selfishly choose to volunteer at an animal clinic
in order to test his interest in the field, learn more about the work or simply
to experience the joy of helping animals. In fact, volunteering in the field
you plan to major in is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to that
Applying for College
So you’ve earned high grades and excelled at one or two extracurricular
activities. But when it comes time to apply for college, there is still a lot
left to do.
Your high school probably has a program to guide you through the application
process. Take advantage of the resources your school offers. But don’t wait to
get started. You will improve your changes of getting into a good school by
During the application process you will need to:
- Determine which colleges to apply to
- Take any required standardized tests
- Compile letters of recommendation
- Write your college essays
- Complete the applications
We’ll look at each of these in more detail in a moment. But first, it’s
important to acknowledge that the standards for getting into college are not
always rational. There are real problems with standardized tests like the SATs,
to cite just one example. It may be tempting to rebel against seemingly
irrational requirements, but that temptation should be resisted. Accept them as
hurdles you have to clear in order to achieve your long-term goals.
Determine which colleges to apply to. There are many factors relevant to
deciding on a college: location, cost, size, etc. But from the standpoint of
pursuing an academic career, look for a school that is strong in the area
you’re interested in. For example, if you plan on pursuing a degree in
philosophy, look at schools with prestigious philosophy departments. (If you’re
not sure what subject you want to major in, look for a university that is
strong in a broader area, such as the humanities or the sciences.)
There are a variety of Web sites, books and magazines that rank schools
according to every imaginable criterion, including by department. Some of
them can be found in the Other Resources section of this Web site. Students
enrolled in ARI’s Objectivist Academic Center (OAC) can also consult
professional Objectivist intellectuals for advice.
You should start thinking about which schools to apply to during your junior
year. By the start of your senior year, you should have a good idea of where
you want to apply.
How many schools should you apply to? Most counselors advise applying to at
least six: two “stretch” schools (top-tier schools you’re less likely to be
accepted to), two schools where you stand about a fifty-fifty chance of being
accepted, and two “safety” schools (lower-tier schools where it is highly
likely you will be accepted).
Once you decide which schools to apply to, take note of each school’s
application requirements: Which standardized tests if any does it require?
How many letters of recommendation? Do you have to write a college essay?
It’s also helpful to use a calendar to track the application deadlines for
Take any required standardized tests. Most schools require you to take at
least one standardized test, such as the SAT I, SAT II or ACT. Be sure to take
these early. It is usually advisable to take them multiple times starting in
your junior year and sometimes even earlier. If you have trouble with
standardized tests, there are a number of training programs and self-study
courses that can help you raise your score.
Compile letters of recommendation. Over the course of your time in high
school, you should have developed relationships with your favorite teachers and
the people who supervise your extracurricular or volunteer activities. These
are the people you should approach to write your letters of recommendation.
When you approach them, don’t be afraid to ask them what they will say about
you. If it’s not unequivocally positive, find another person to write the
Good letters of recommendation should reflect the writers’ personal knowledge
and high estimation of you. Make this easier for them by giving them your
transcripts and a short biography. Be sure to remind them of your outstanding
achievements—don’t assume they will remember.
Start early. Give each person at least three weeks to write the letter of
recommendation, and let each know when your deadline is. Each school has
different instructions concerning the format of letters of recommendation. In
many cases colleges will not accept a letter of recommendation unless it was
mailed directly to the school by the letter’s author. In such cases, give
each person writing you a letter a stamped, addressed envelope along with
your transcript and biography.
Check in often (but not too often) to ensure they send your letters. And
check with the schools to ensure the letters are received.
Write your college essays. Most colleges ask for a college essay, either
on a pre-assigned topic or one of your choosing. Since most colleges do not
interview prospective students, this is the only opportunity for your
prospective school to get to know you.
Your essay should tell a story that brings out your unique identity in a way
that will make prospective colleges want you as a student. You want to convey
that you are committed, passionate and thoughtful. You want to highlight for
the admissions officers why you are right for their school—and why their
school is right for you.
Keep in mind that this is not a place to showcase your interest in
Objectivism—just as it would be inappropriate for a religious student to
highlight religion’s role in his life. Your job is to demonstrate to the
admissions officers what you can offer their school, not propagandize for
Spend a lot of time on your college essays. Think them through, work on them,
perfect them, and edit, edit, edit. If possible, show them to a teacher
or adviser you respect who is willing to provide you with honest feedback.
Complete your applications. Fill out the application for each school
carefully, neatly and submit it on time.
A brief word on college tuition. The issue of how to pay for college is
enormous and outside the scope of this Web site. However, one issue that often
concerns students interested in Ayn Rand’s ideas is the propriety of accepting
scholarships. She addresses that question in her essay “The Question of
Scholarships,” reprinted in The Voice of Reason. Her view,
in essence, is:
There is nothing wrong in accepting private scholarships. The fact that a
man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help
him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or
prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to
accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance. . . .
A different principle and different considerations are involved in the case
of public (i.e., governmental) scholarships. The right to accept them rests
on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was
taken from them by force.
The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as
he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism.
Those who advocate public scholarships have no right to them; those who
oppose them have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral
contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.
I’m interested in studying Ayn Rand’s books and ideas in college. Are there any universities to which you recommend I apply? Are there any schools where I can study under Objectivist professors?
While there are many ways to learn about Ayn Rand’s books and ideas in college, the most important consideration in choosing a school is how well the school will prepare you for your future career. In some cases, you will be able to find well-ranked programs in your field where you can work with Objectivist scholars. (Visit anthemfoundation.org for more information about where to find Objectivist academics.) But in many cases, the best programs will not have Objectivists teaching at them. Moreover, the fact that an Objectivist currently teaches at a school is no guarantee he will be there a year from now. For these reasons, we do not recommend choosing a school on the basis of your desire to study Ayn Rand. (An extensive discussion of how to choose a college can be found at aynrand.org/education_academic_intellectual_careers.)
Instead, if you are interested in studying Objectivism and in having regular contact with other Objectivist students and teachers, consider applying to ARI’s Objectivist Academic Center. This distance-learning program offers an in-depth, systematic study of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Courses are taught by ARI fellows and outside Objectivist professors, and can be taken as an adjunct to your regular course work. More information can be found at objectivistacademiccenter.org.
Once on campus, you may wish to join or start a campus club dedicated to exploring the work of Ayn Rand. Campus clubs are a great way to find like-minded students, make friends and learn more about Ayn Rand’s ideas. You can find more information at aynrand.org/education_campus_index.
The Ayn Rand Institute offers a number of resources for high school students
interested in Ayn Rand’s ideas and considering an academic career. Please note
that, except for our essay contests, students who are under eighteen years of
age need parental permission to participate.