I entitled this article “Getting into the college that’s right for you” instead of “Getting into the college of your choice” because the two are not the same thing. Furthermore, the college that turns out to be right for you when you look back over your life may well be different from the one that you thought you wanted as an eager 18 year old.
The tragedy of current college admissions is that colleges are asked, in addition to providing education, to provide a sorting mechanism. The admissions process supposedly identifies, not just people who should attend certain “select” universities, but also people who should be hired for the better jobs later on.
However, a study by a former president of Harvard might take some of the pressure off: He studied the subsequent careers of students offered admission at elite universities, but chose to go elsewhere. It seems that these refusniks do as well in later life as graduates of the elite universities! In other words, a student’s preparation for college, rather than the particular college attended, is the thing that is correlated with subsequent success. So, if you are a serious applicant to a highly selective university, you’re already a winner! However, what matters is not getting in to a particular university, but what you do when you get there.
It follows that the important thing about choosing the school that’s right for you is simply whether it does indeed feel “right” to you. Are you there because of parental pressure, because of an attempt at “gilt by association”, or because it truly is an expression of who you are? What highly selective universities (or at least the one that I interview for) really look for is not the applicant with the most highly burnished resume, but the applicant who is truly passionate about what they do. You had better believe that professors at selective universities are passionate about what they do, and they wouldn’t want to bother with any other kind of student.
Once the above is understood, then there is a universe of possibilities. At one point, I applied to be a professor in the math department of the University of New Mexico, only to discover that I was one of 1200 applicants! In other words, smart professors can be found outside of the Ivy League!
That said, if you STILL insist on a diploma from a highly selective school, here are three things you can try:
1. Apply as a transfer student. Any school has an attrition rate – people transfer, drop out, flunk out, get sick, get abducted by aliens, etc. So even the elite schools have to accept transfers from somewhere, and the relative size of the applicant pool may well be smaller than for spots in the incoming freshman class. Furthermore, you will, presumably, have compiled an excellent record at another, lesser school (If not, you shouldn’t be “trading up” in the first place!).
2. Start taking courses at your chosen school as a non-degree student. Again, if you do well, you can make a powerful case to the admissions department for your admission as a degree student. You will also have good recommendations from professors AT THAT SCHOOL. Of course, it is not so obvious what to do if you DON’T do well, which is why this is a high risk strategy!
3. Especially for graduate students, but might work for undergrads: Find some professor at your chosen school with whom you want to work. Contact that professor directly and explain your interest. Most professors worth working with have a bunch of ideas that are waiting for exploration, but nobody has had the time to look at – until you come along. Obviously, your mentor-to-be will be thrilled by your offer; not so obviously, you have shifted the problem of getting into his program from your shoulders to THEIR shoulders!