What To Consider As You Apply To Selective Colleges

 For students (and parents) who are aiming for the highest-ranked colleges and universities, there are some important details to understand:

  • Top Scores and Grades Are Mandatory: Students will need top grades in the most rigorous curriculum and high test scores (well within the middle 50% range of the college), but these are just the entry point—after all, everyone else applying also has top scores and grades. To get a second read, students also need a resume with significant depth. A good question to ask as a parent—what has my student done at the regional, state or national level?

  • Think Depth, Not Breadth: Unless a student is the next Michelangelo, being a Renaissance Man is not the ticket to an elite acceptance. Gone are the days where students can dabble in a number of activities, exploring a number of different interests equally. At elite schools, admissions officers are looking for applicants to have already found a passion—whether it’s debate or biology—and have focused a significant portion of their time at developing this passion (to have an obsession is a good thing in the elite college game). Students should also be recognized for their passion in some way at a very high level (state or national) or be able to demonstrate significant achievement (via awards or amount of money raised for a cause). It’s not enough to volunteer for 200 hours, for example. If service is a passion, having started a non-profit that can demonstrate significant impact is not too high a bar to set. If you are into robotics, leading your team to a win at the national FIRST Robotics Competition is a good goal. Writers want to show published pieces and/or awards. In short, students need to be able to develop significant leadership and recognition in a particular area--narrowing your interests and becoming a master at one of them is more important than having no clear focus across a broad number of interests.

    As explained by a Harvard alum, elite schools create well-rounded freshman classes made up of a wide variety of students with much more singular or narrow interests. WHAT you focus on is less important than HOW you have chosen to focus and drill down to explore your passion. An important takeaway is that students dreaming of Yale or Stanford should start early, so they have time to identify a passion and get their hands dirty exploring their interest. You will want to be able to demonstrate how multiple facets of your application support this focus. Read these stories of 12 Ivy-accepted students to get an idea of the types of stories, activities, and interests that have impressed admissions panels at elite schools.

  • It’s Harder for Girls: There is no way to sugar-coat this ugly truth: the acceptance rates for men at elite private institutions are generally higher than those for women (in 2014, Brown took 11% of male applicants versus 7% of female; Vassar had a 34% acceptance rate for men and a 19% acceptance rate for women). This is because girls are outperforming boys in high school (from GPAs to test scores) and are applying to college at higher rates. Since most schools want to keep a relative gender balance in each new class of freshman, girls are naturally facing tougher odds today.

    One final note: We understand the lure of the elite school—but we urge parents to understand the reality of the current admissions landscape and look at a wide variety of schools. We never discourage anyone (qualified) from aiming high--we love that!—but a narrow focus is also limiting. In his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put the whole crazy college ride in perspective:

People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates. For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.