The Case For Spike Coaching

The Case For Spike Coaching

The Case For Spike Coaching 800 524 Lloyd Nimetz

This post is dedicated to answering the most frequent and the most important question that we get from prospective students: Why does The Spike Lab’s college counseling program focus so heavily on Spike coaching when other college counselors don’t?

The very best high school and private college counselors offer some form of the same college counseling service. This service includes helping students:

  • identify their college list,
  • choose and prep for standardized tests,
  • select the right classes, and
  • apply for the colleges — including essay support.

For example here are links to the program description of a few other well-respected private college counseling companies: Top Tier Admissions and Veritas Prep. They have slightly different approaches and explain their services a little differently, but they have a very similar service offering.

At The Spike Lab we do all this, but we also specialize in helping our students build their Spike. This post is designed to explain why.

The quick answer is because it has become dramatically more competitive to get into a top college and so the old way to counsel students isn’t enough anymore. Students need to differentiate themselves more to get into these schools. As seen in the chart below, over the last decade the number of applications these top tier colleges are receiving has grown exponentially but the number of spaces in their freshman class has remained almost the same. Therefore the acceptance rates have been dropping rapidly.

This increased competitiveness has lead to unprecedented selectivity. Top grades and standardized test scores are now necessary but not sufficient. In fact most students with perfect tests scores now don’t get into their favorite colleges; more than 69% of the applicants to Stanford in 2014 who had perfect SAT scores of 2400 didn’t get in (2014 is the last time they divulged that not-so-fun fact).

Richard Shaw, Stanford’s Dean of Admissions, recently said, “We are overwhelmed by the exceptional accomplishments of the students admitted to the Class of 2020. We believe these students will impact the world in immeasurable ways. Of course academic credentials are important, but we’re also looking for evidence that these young people have a passion and will bring something to our community that is unique.”

Top colleges like Stanford want exceptional students who they feel confident will:

  • add considerable value to their college community, and
  • go on after college to have a major impact on the world.

The best way to predict future impact — in the college community and in the world — is from past impact. That’s why a Spike in high school is so important to admissions officers. If they see that a student is able to accomplish great things in high school on their own, just imagine what would be possible with a Stanford education, network and credential behind them! Conversely if a student doesn’t have a Spike, then colleges admissions officers are less confident that the student will go on to achieve great things in the future.

One former Harvard admissions officer told me last year that they’re not looking for well-rounded students but instead they are looking to build out a well-rounded freshman class of students. In other words, they want students with a Spike in high school — deep achievements, knowledge and passion in a unique and interesting niche.

Numbers help elucidate this point so let’s use Stanford’s Admissions numbers as an example. As you see in the chart below, Stanford had approximately 44,000 applicants for only 2,000 seats (2,063 to be exact) — a 4.5% overall admittance rate*. 745 were admitted early. These are the metrics that people usually focus on, but they don’t tell the full story. What’s really happening is that Stanford’s admissions officers are first automatically rejecting a percentage of these applicants who clearly don’t make the cut — somewhere on the order of 10,000. These students are cut for a range of reasons. Their standardized test scores might be too low; their grades might be too low; their application might be poorly or incorrectly filled out; their english proficiency might be too low; or they clearly might not have enough extracurriculars.

* The total admissions numbers in the chart above are official numbers (rounded for simplicity), but we’ve made up the numbers for the other categories based on our best approximations. Please note that these categorizations don’t really exist in admissions offices. The reality is more complex wherein there isn’t such an absolute cut off between ‘strong’ and ‘spike’ applicants.

After a first read of all applications (on average only 15 minutes per application), the admissions officers then quickly select a small percentage of applicants who are ‘exceptional’ and put them in the “admit” pile (after a another quick review from the Dean), meaning that they will be accepted. These are the students who are academically strong but also have a Spike that makes them stand out from the other 34,000 applicants who weren’t immediately rejected.

Most applicants, 33,000 in this example, are not in this “Spike” category. The vast majority of the admissions officers’ work, from the time they receive the applications to the time they send out all the acceptances and rejections, is to figure out who to admit from this group of 33,000 students. They have a series of meetings usually called ‘committee meetings’ during which admissions officers present and debate each of these applicants and the committee makes decisions on who to admit and who not to.

There is a lot of information here but the important point to takeaway is that they are spending most of their time figuring out which 1,100 students out of 33,000 should be admitted — 3.3%. Obviously you’d much rather be in the first category where 90% of students get admitted.

This is why Spike coaching is so important. The purpose of Spike coaching is to get you from the middle “strong candidate” category in this chart to the top category where your probability of admittance is much higher. If you’re thinking, well that’s great, but I don’t think I can develop a Spike, then think again. It’s definitely not easy to develop an impressive Spike or else everyone would do it, but it’s actually much easier than most students think if you commit yourself to it and get support. In our experience almost all high-achieving students are capable of it with the right amount of time, discipline and support.

Why is The Spike Lab the first to do Spike coaching?

It’s first worth pointing out that most experienced college counselors are now recommending to students who want to get into a top college that they develop out a Spike — although they don’t call it that. I can’t tell you how many counselors have told me, “man, if my students had gone through your program before coming to me for help on their college essay, then my job would be so much easier.”

Other college counselors don’t do Spike coaching — yet — for a number of reasons. It requires developing a different skill-set and a very different type of program. In other words, Spike coaching is very different work than college counselors are accustomed to doing.

They usually come from the world of admissions and not the world of entrepreneurship. I went to Stanford Business School, founded four companies and worked in Silicon Valley where I lived through the emergence of startup incubators and the rise of executive and entrepreneurship coaching. (Fun fact: Coaching is now one of the most popular classes at Stanford Business School even though the class didn’t even exist a decade ago.) I had my own entrepreneurship coach at one point (who I highly recommend) and was selected to participate in two startup incubators/accelerators. More recently I ran a startup accelerator that coached education entrepreneurs from across the country. Two of my startups were successful and I’ve since sold them. My nonprofit has also been successful and is about to celebrate our 15 year anniversary! Therefore I was familiar with what a sophisticated entrepreneurship coaching program looks like and could call on advisors to help us build a world-class program that works for high school students.

I’m not sharing this to boast but rather to explain that although college counselors know that Spike development is important and although they counsel their students to find ways to be unique or exceptional, they haven’t had the expertise to build out this type of entrepreneurship curriculum themselves. The program is essentially a mini, private incubator for each student we work with and that very different from what college counselors have traditionally been trained to do.

There are two other reasons college counselors don’t do Spike coaching:

  • Most college counselors focus on all types of students, most of whom have no chance of getting into a top US College. It’s not a practical use of their time to develop out a comprehensive Spike coaching program for a very small percentage of their students.
  • Also most college counselors start working with students starting late in high school when the college applications start to loom heavy on the students’ minds. By the second semester of junior year — when most college counselors normally start seeing their students — it’s too late to start developing your Spike so once again it wouldn’t make sense to do Spike coaching.

The most compelling case for Spike coaching is that it works! Look around at people you know who got into most of their top choice US colleges. If you don’t immediately identify a Spike, then investigate a little more; they almost always have a Spike of some sort. For the ones that get into most colleges, it is not random. They get admitted to most of the schools they apply to because they have great academics and a Spike.

This topic is very personal for me because it is also my story. When I applied to college in 1997, I was in the “strong” category from the chart above. (Of course, I only realized that much later in my life.) I was towards the top of my high school class and captain of my soccer and hockey teams. I was well-rounded, but I didn’t have a Spike. As a result, I didn’t get into my top-choice college, Stanford. In 2006 five years after graduating from college, I applied to business schools and got in everywhere including Stanford and Harvard. My academics were similarly strong (although definitely not perfect), but the difference was that I had lived in Argentina after college and founded a successful non-profit organization called HelpArgentina. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my Spike, and it got me into all the top business schools. Part of the reason for founding The Spike Lab was because I wish I had known in High School what I know now, and I think all High School students and parents should have that information.

To conclude, it’s important to note that Spike coaching isn’t right for everyone. You need to already be a high-achieving student; you need to have a degree of self-initiative; you need to want take on something ambitious that your friends aren’t doing and your school doesn’t support. What you don’t need is to already have a clear Spike! Most students get scared to take on this challenge because it seems unattainable but in reality it isn’t. Like most of our students, you will probably not know what your Spike should be in the beginning and you will start small and build on it over time. Before you know it, you’ll have a Spike!