Getting into a great college or university with a good reputation is more difficult than ever. These institutions are very selective, as they accept a very small fraction of applicants each year. This is especially true with Ivy League institutions and their equivalents, such as Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Duke, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago. However, even selective liberal arts colleges are getting more difficult to gain admission to, and they include Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Colby, and Williams Colleges. Even institutions that were considered “safety schools” by many college-bound students 10 years ago have become increasingly selective, due to a significant increase in applications to such institutions. It’s true that such colleges want excellent students who are also very involved outside the classroom, but even a perfect SAT or ACT score, placing in the top 3% of the graduating class, or multiple leadership positions won’t guarantee you the magic fat envelope from your dream school. There are other factors that can lead to being admitted or rejected.
Academic success is important to admissions committees at highly selective colleges, as they want student who are considered able to handle the heavy workload. As they want disciplined students, they will take a good look at the high school transcript. The high school transcript contains all you high school courses since freshman year, your grades in these courses, and your GPA and class rank, if any. Many times, the transcript also contains your standardized test history, such as PSAT, SAT, and Advanced Placement scores. The transcript is submitted with a statement of recommendation from a school official, usually the guidance counselor, college counselor, or dean.
Get great grades, but in the most advanced courses offered at your school. In other words, don’t plan on padding your transcript with easy courses such as typing, basket-weaving, or shop classes just for the sake of earning an easy A or A+. If your school offers honors and/or Advanced Placement courses, by all means take them, and take as many of them as you can handle, as colleges prefer good grades (at least a B or B+) in advanced courses over A’s and A+’s in far easier courses. In addition, ask your teachers about independent research or independent study projects, as completing such projects signify academic initiative on your part, as you will be doing substantial independent work in college. In some cases, you will be required to do a senior thesis to graduate or receive honors in college. Take at least three levels, preferably four, of the same foreign language (Level 3 or 4), as top colleges highly recommend, if not require, foreign language proficiency, and such institutions often have a foreign language requirement to graduate. This is especially true for those considering majoring in international relations, foreign literature, and, of course, foreign language. Take some art, music, and/or theater courses too, as they recommend them.
Do excellent on college entrance exams, usually the SAT (Math, Critical Reading, and Writing), but some take the ACT. Standardized test scores serve as a common yardstick between schools, as an A in one course or one school is not necessarily the same as an A in another course or another school. Admissions committees give standardizes test scores significantly greater weight than classroom performance as measured by GPA and/or class rank. They often use formulas when combining standardized test scores and class rank in assessing an applicant’s academic capability, sometimes known as the “Academic Index” or AI. Thus, it may be possible to compensate for a slightly sub-par class rank with a very high SAT score, or vice-versa. Many colleges require you to take 3 SAT II’s if you take the SAT, and I strongly recommend it to increase your chances of admission. Start taking the SAT and/or ACT sometime in your junior year, but no later than October in your senior year or September if you want to apply as an Early Action or Early Decision candidate, as it takes time for scores to reach schools and colleges. As for SAT II tests, start taking them upon completing courses you are doing well in, as they only require 3 SAT II scores. Of course, depending on the program or major you are applying to, you may have to take certain SAT II tests. In many cases, you can receive a waiver or credit against certain college requirements by scoring high enough on the appropriate SAT II tests. Good scores on Advanced Placement (4 or 5) and International Baccalaureate (6 or 7) tests frequently translate into college credit, and if taken before the start of senior year, will look very favorable on your application, as they will see that you are eligible for credit based on your scores.
Get good recommendations, and ask for them EARLY. Colleges usually require either two or three from your instructors. Get to know your teachers well enough so they will be able to write a comprehensive and positive recommendation for you. Don’t wait until a month or two before the admissions deadline because teachers can be swamped with requests for recommendations during that time. In addition, if the instructor tells you that a certain college won’t be appropriate for you, don’t have him or her write the letter. The same goes for lukewarm and otherwise less than enthusiastic recommendation letters. Preferably, ask for recommendations from instructors who teach whatever courses you are doing well in and from subject areas that you plan on studying in college.
Although academics are important in gaining admission to an excellent college, they are not the be-all and end-all, as selective colleges desire well-rounded students and/or a well-rounded student body. Experiences outside the classroom, or extracurricular involvement, are important. Someone who, despite perfect grades and scores, is not very involved outside the classroom will probably not be admitted. However, a lackluster academic record cannot easily be made up for with a slew of extracurricular and leadership experiences. Examples include student government, athletics, community service, internships, part-time jobs, and studying or otherwise traveling abroad. Document these activities on your resume and send that resume with your application.
However, although extracurricular involvement is highly beneficial, don’t just hop from activity to activity as a member, as it sends a signal of lack of commitment. Selective colleges want students who are committed to their studies and activities, and failing to make a significant positive contribution or earn a distinction will not be looked upon favorably. That being said, being elected to or appointed to officer status in a club or student organization is a big plus. In addition, be involved in activities that you truly want to be involved in, which are activities that you truly enjoy. Don’t just join a team or club because it may increase your chances of getting into a good college, as it can backfire, as colleges want students who are truly and sincerely involved. Also, if you are genuinely involved in and committed to a student organization, club, or sport, you can expect your advisor or coach to write an excellent recommendation on your behalf.
Athletics are highly recommended, especially interscholastic varsity sports. If you do extremely well in a particular sport, many colleges will recruit you and/or otherwise give substantial incentives for you to matriculate at that institution. However, Ivy League institutions do not give athletic or any other merit scholarships, only a substantial admissions advantage. Good performance in varsity sports in particular greatly increases your chance of admission, as colleges need student-athletes.
If possible, study or otherwise travel abroad in the summer or, less often, during the academic year. Good colleges look for students with a wide variety of experiences, and this is especially true if you plan on majoring in international relations, art history, history, and foreign language or culture. If your high school doesn’t have any provisions for study abroad during the academic year, you can study abroad during the summer through an outside program or you can go the prep school route, but be prepared to pay lots of money. However, you can also earn foreign language credit, particularly if you study outside an English-speaking country.
Search for and enter scholarship contests and competitions, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars Voice of Democracy essay contest, the Intel Science Talent Search, formerly known as Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and the Siemens Competition, formerly known as the Siemens Westinghouse Competition. If you do very well and win a prize, you can add that to your extracurricular record and have a significantly increased change of admission, and not to mention become tens of thousands of dollars richer. Generally, the more you win from such contests, the greater the likelihood of your application making it into the acceptance pile. A simple internet search will bring you many contest opportunities, but you can also ask your instructors or counselor.
If you start a business during your high school years and do well, include it on your resume, as it will impress the admissions committee.
Finally, you have grades and scores well into the 90th percentile, are very involved in extracurricular activities, and may have traveled overseas, but that’s not yet enough. The essay and interview are important. Applying for college and getting admitted tends to be like applying for a job and getting hired, as an interview is often required. Not everybody who applies will be invited or otherwise contacted for an interview.
The essay is an important part of your application, and that’s not just because you will be writing many essays throughout your college career. You can discuss your favorite extracurricular activity, your favorite hobby or hobbies, or your last trip to a far-off destination. Sometimes, you may be asked to picture yourself at age 50 or why you want to go to a particular institution and what contributions you will make there. Don’t forget to discuss what you learned about whatever experience you write about. In addition, before submitting your essay, read it over and edit as appropriate, as spelling and grammar mistakes will most likely land your application into the reject pile.
If the admissions committee is initially impressed with your application, they will have you interviewed. Most of the time, you will be interviewed by an alumnus of that institution, who will not know much about you. Sometimes, especially if you live close to that institution, you may be interviewed there, or, in exceptional cases, by the director of admissions himself or herself. Whoever the interviewer may be, the guidelines and expectations are basically the same, as he or she will assess your promptness, personality, and interests, among other attributes that cannot be put on your transcript. If your interviewer is unimpressed, it will hurt your application or even send it to the trash bin. Anyway, here are some tips to do well during your interview:
*Arrive on time, or better yet, early. NEVER arrive late or failure to show up without advance notice. If you can’t make it there, call in advance to reschedule your appointment. If you can’t show up for your interviewer on time, it may be doubtful if you can show up to class on time.
*Wear a suit or other business attire. NO T-Shirts, flip-flops, bare midriffs, sneakers, etc, otherwise you’ll be regarded as unprofessional.
*Don’t make one-word responses. That can be a sign of lack of interest, or outright lying, a red flag for the interviewer.
*Discuss your favorite activity, and spend at least several sentences on it.
*Don’t talk about taboo subjects or mention things that your parents will not approve of.
*Discuss current events if asked. Interviewers are turned off by students who, despite very high grades and scores, don’t know what’s going on in the world.
If your family is not wealthy, don’t worry about your chances of being admitted. This is because college admissions for US Citizens and Permanent Residents, is need blind. In other words, your admission will not depend on your ability to pay. Selective institutions give out substantial financial aid. In addition, students from modest socio-economic backgrounds are not expected to take part in expensive private lessons or schooling. In other words, the lower the socio-economic background, the lower their expectations of you, in the interests of socio-economic diversity. In addition, preferential treatment is given to members of under-represented minority groups, legacy applicants, and recruited athletes.
Do well in all of the above and you will have a good chance of being accepted into selective colleges. Good luck!
College Board, The Official SAT Study Guide. New York: College Board, 2004, 889 pages, $19.99.
Greene, Howard, Matthew W. Greene. Greene’s Guides to Educational Planning: Making it Into a Top College: 10 Steps to Gaining Admission to Selective Colleges and Universities. New York: HarperCollins, 2004, 512 pages, $16.95.
Hernandez, Michelle A. A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Paperback). New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1999, 288 pages. $14.99.
 Initially stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, then Scholastic Achievement Test, then just SAT. http://www.collegeboard.com.
 Stands for American College Test. http://www.actstudent.org.
 Grade Point Average.
 Children of alumni.