Of the approximately 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the U.S., only about 50 of them are considered highly selective. These are schools that typically admit fewer than 25% of all their applicants. To determine a college’s degree of selectivity, one needs to know the number of students who were admitted in the most recent class and divide that by the number of students who applied. The smaller the percentage of students admitted, the more selective the college. For example, to form a freshman class of 1,310 students for the Class of 2013, Yale University received 26,000 applications and admitted 1,951 applicants, making its application-to-admit ratio 7.5%. However, as applicant pools (the number and quality of the applicants) change each year, so does a college’s degree of selectivity. To form a freshman class of 1,320 students for the Class of 2012, Yale admitted 1,892 of the 22,813 applicants who applied, making the admit ratio for that year 8.3%.
When competition is as keen as it is with these highly selective colleges, all factors play a role in the admissions process, but the two most important factors continue to be exceptional academic and personal accomplishments.
The best predictor of academic success at college is academic success in high school. Along with grade point average and the intensity of high school courses (including honors and advanced placement classes) are rank/deciles and standardized test scores (SAT or ACT, subject tests, and APs). The competitiveness of the high school and letters of recommendation from guidance counselors and from the teachers who know the student the best are also considered highly significant academic factors.
Nevertheless, all too frequently we hear stories of how valedictorians with perfect or near-perfect SAT scores may just not be special enough. When these students are denied admission, it is often because their application (essays, personal statement, activity sheet, interview, and letters of recommendation) makes them come across as if they have achieved a level of entitlement, and consequently they may come across as pompous, arrogant and one-dimensional.
So, Who Gets In?
What is it that these most prestigious colleges are looking for when they admit their applicants? For the most part, admissions counselors from highly selective colleges are looking to form well-rounded classes. In their quest to do this, they’re seeking students who have a level of uniqueness and who show a depth and breadth of academic as well as extracurricular accomplishments and talents.
In the land of highly selective college admissions, what is the profile of the student who is considered “talented”? These are students who throughout high school have engaged in activities to enhance their skills in one specific area. Such students may be talented in athletics, fine arts, leadership, or the performing arts (music, theater, or dance), or they may be poets, journalists, great debaters, computer wizards, or math or science researchers.
But having a talent is not enough. The most attractive candidates are students who have made it clear to the college that they intend to contribute their talent to the campus community. The student body president needs to make it clear on his application that he intends to continue to participate in student government while in college. In a similar manner, through his future participation as a college varsity athlete, a swimmer may talk about his hope of one day competing in the Olympics, a musician may reflect on her ultimate aspiration to play at Carnegie Hall, a thespian may discuss his dreams of performing on Broadway, a dancer may have a goal of one day joining the Joffrey Ballet, and a science researcher may dream of winning a Nobel Prize. Wherever their talent lies, students need to know how to market their talent in the college application process.
Through high school transcripts, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, essays / personal statements, activity sheets and interviews, students who have demonstrated intellectual curiosity, personal initiative, and those who have made an impact on their school and community will have a much greater advantage in the highly selective college admissions process. Students need to be who they are, but they also need to work at making a difference!
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-Bev Taylor, Founder of The Ivy Coach