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For decades now, competition for places at prestigious US colleges has been fierce, and the odds are not in most applicants’ favor: In 2014, New York times You mentioned that elite colleges reject up to 95% of the applications they receive. According to the latest report published by AP News, the proportion of students accepted has continued to decline, reaching astonishing low levels in the last year due to the pandemic as many schools have adopted test-optional policies and some students have postponed their admissions for 2020.
Courtesy of Next Admit
Despite the depressing statistics, groups of American teens are spending years shaping themselves into ideal candidates by stuffing their resumes with extracurricular activities, taking the most challenging classes and studying for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.
Furthermore, those with the financial means and knowledge often hire application consultants, whose fees can start at $950 per hour, per CNBC. And the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal proved that some wealthy parents are willing to go so far as to secure an acceptance letter for their children.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, the SAT’s place in college admissions was called into question before the pandemic. And as the Covid-19 virus puts more stress on an already flawed system, thoughts of change have turned into temporary – and then permanent – realities. The University of California system, for example, suspended its testing requirements before getting rid of it permanently. Other major colleges and universities have followed suit, at least for now, which begs the question: Is the tide changing, albeit slowly? And if some of the hallmarks of college admissions fall by the wayside, what will take their place?
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“Everything is rooted in the narrative you tell through your app”
At least one thing is becoming clear: more and more, what matters is to look at the entire candidate. Gohar Khan, CEO and co-founder of university consulting service Next Admit, notes that with the pandemic-induced shutdown of some testing centers, it is the “intangible” admissions process – such as essays and interviews – that is most likely to make or break an application.
“It’s all rooted in the narrative you tell through your app,” says Khan. “I’ve read hundreds of college articles, and the approach a lot of students take is, ‘You’ve done a great job. That’s all I did. That is why you must accept me more than the thousands of other students who come to you.
“The technique that helps the most sometimes is when students embrace the little elements of their lives,” Khan continues. “So, instead, it can be effective to think about the morning car rides to school–incorporating humor, being a bit casual, being soft.”
Although Khan is well versed in the college admissions process now, he had to discover a lot of things for himself as a low-income first-generation student coming from Title One School who received supplemental financial assistance from the government. “I totally remember the admissions process because it was hard,” Khan says. “I applied to a bunch of Ivies and had to stay up late for several nights, fill out my applications, and google what the various admission policies and terms meant. I ended up getting six apples. It was a surreal experience since I didn’t know what to expect. And I had such limited information and guidance. My advisors didn’t know much about Ivy League admissions either. They were like, “You have to work hard and be smart to see how it works.”
Khan’s decision came to MIT, Stanford and Yale, and he eventually decided to attend MIT because he wanted to study computer science. Last June, he graduated from MIT with a double major in computer science, economics, data science (considered a major in the school), and business analytics.
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“I wanted to take advantage of technology to help make the consulting process more affordable and more efficient”
During Khan’s sophomore year at MIT, it was his younger brother’s turn to go through the admissions process. Mahad Khan gained early admission to Yale University via Questbridge, a non-profit organization that connects first-generation and low-income students with partner colleges and universities, and eventually chose to attend Harvard University. While helping his brother, Khan noticed something about the admissions counseling giants, many of which had been in the game for decades: They were shockingly out of sight, relying on poorly designed websites (reminiscent of those ‘from the early 2000s’, Khan says) and little or no presence on social media. On top of that, it was expensive, with some charging upwards of $1,000 an hour for selective services or as much as $5,000 – $10,000 for more comprehensive packages. Khan saw a clear opportunity to turn things around – and used his background in computer science to do so.
“I wanted to leverage technology to help make the counseling process more affordable and more efficient,” says Khan. “This is where the idea for Next Admit really originated from.”
But Khan’s creation of his TikTok account, Essence’s Guide, in June of 2020 – at a point during the pandemic when many were turning to the addictive social media platform – would lay the foundation for Next Admit’s success. Until September of 2020, Khan’s approach to content was relatively straightforward: covering tips for the admissions process or how to tackle specific essay questions. Khan’s early videos did well, gaining around 30,000 followers in that period, but he was convinced he could expand his creativity and do more.
“All of my content is really rooted in a story now… the idea is to root TikToks in emotion”
Khan came up with the idea for “tabletop” videos that he continues to show on his account today; As the name suggests, the camera focuses on a table top, where Khan displays images while explaining a particular topic. Khan also noted that his audience – just like the admissions officers who read applications – were thirsty for the storytelling aspect that brings such content to life. He replied this way.
“All of my content is really rooted in a story now, or I’m trying to cement it into a story,” says Khan. “People will move on to something that’s just like,” Here are five tips for applying to college. It’s kind of boring. Instead, I’d open up, “I know you’re probably staying up quite late on several nights, trying to figure out this admissions process…” And with that hook in place, tell them exactly how I made it through.”
Though for the record, “they’re not all that bleak,” Khan laughs. “Some are humorous, and more playful, but the idea is to root my TikToks in emotion, and that really helped, along with the high-quality audio and visuals.”
Khan’s follower count skyrocketed, and he used the oomph to launch his Next Admit website in October 2020. Today, Gohar’s Guide has 1.1 million followers on TikTok and nearly 60,000 on Instagram, and his top video has racked up over 10 million views. Topic? Harvard University received a record 57,000 applications for its class of 2025, resulting in the lowest acceptance rate ever.
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College admissions may be more competitive — and in flux — than ever before, but Khan is poised to continue democratizing the process, challenging the interconnected, out-of-touch status quo that has defined the industry for decades. Next Admit has launched a free tool that allows applicants to scan their university essays to be read by an AI-powered algorithm that provides instant feedback.
“I was expecting to graduate from MIT and quit as a software engineer or do something in computer science,” Khan says. “But now I am a full-time influencer and running my own company. I never expected the opportunities I had in the last year, but I am so grateful for them.”