There are no guarantees in the college admissions game, especially at name-brand institutions like those in the Ivy League. Not everyone is going to gain admission, even if, as I noted in my previous post, they meet the top benchmarks for acceptance: stratospheric test results and transcripts. 34,295 students applied to Harvard for the Class of 2018, and only 2,023 (5.9%) gained admission. Harvard could easily fill a second class that’s just as qualified with students from the “no” pile.
So how do you improve your odds of admission with such a super-competitive applicant pool? Since I only attended an Ivy League school, Harvard, for summer debate camp, I am hardly the expert here. Thus, I turned to a former Yale University application reader, and specialist in college admissions counseling. Here’s a paraphrase — with my advice sprinkled in — of what the good doctor ordered:
1. Start Preparing As Early As Possible
Colleges look at all four years of high school grades, courses and extracurricular involvement. They want to know that students are challenging themselves each year, and deepening their involvement in activities that interest them. Or, as I routinely tell high school students (not that they listen), college admissions teams want to see that you are a master of one thing (in my case, it was policy debate), not a jack of all extracurriculars. Sustained extracurricular involvement over all four years of high school is, thus, mission critical. Colleges, like marriage prospects, like future employers, want to see that you’re committed to your interest.
However, please don’t get involved in an extracurricular activity because you think it will “look good” on your college application. Get involved in a project or activity that deeply engages you. If that’s football, or chess, or the math club, or theater, or social work of some kind, it’s all good. The main thing is passionate commitment. Remember: elite colleges are not asking you to be “well-rounded.” They are looking to build well-rounded classes around a pool of world-class specialists.
2. Take Harder Courses With Each Advancing Year
This one is a no-brainer. Just as college courses are designed to get more rigorous and intense with each passing year, so too should your high school courses. As I noted in my previous post, Superhuman High School Transcripts Are Key to Ivy League Admission, colleges want to see students taking harder courses each year on an upward grade trend so they can tell if you are prepared for a heavy college course load. So, take the most challenging courses you can find at your school or nearby community college. And work hard to get the best possible grades in these college-level courses.
3. Essays Matter: Don’t Slack On The Common App
Highly selective institutions, like those in the Ivy League, ask supplementary essay questions in addition to the main Common Application essay. For example, Brown and Columbia ask variations of the “Why This College?” essay. These supplemental essays are very important because they are often school-specific and act as a way for the college to get to know you better. It’s important for students applying to any selective school, let alone the Ivies, to submit well-written, compelling essays that convey their voice, interests, who they are as a person and student, and how they would contribute to the campus community. Generic pabulum about how much you admire your wonderful grandma isn’t going to cut it.
I would add that just as in the job market, elite institutions, like elite employers, want to know that you’ve done your homework on the school, what it is about, and how you specifically fit into its mission (both in the classroom and out). However, please don’t make this stuff up. This is why it is so important to know what you want out of college before you even apply. Instead of forcing yourself into what the college wants, find out what you want first. That will make answering college-specific questions easy and natural.
4. Boost Your IQ (Interest Quotient): Demonstrated Interest Matters
With more students applying to more colleges than ever before, colleges are having a difficult time predicting yield, or the percentage of admitted students who end up enrolling. Colleges, especially highly selective institutions that might be battling against one another for highly qualified applicants, want to admit students who genuinely want to attend their specific school and are, thus, likely to enroll if admitted. Because of this uncertainty and the pressure to manage yield, more colleges are considering demonstrated interest — the level of interest students have shown in their specific school — to predict who is most likely to enroll and who isn’t. Things like visits, contact with the admissions office, interviews, applying early, are all considered elements of demonstrated interest. Applying in the early round, in particular, is one of the best ways for students to demonstrate interest, as early decisions are binding (meaning a student must attend if admitted) and single-choice early action prevents a student from applying to another private institution until they receive a decision from the first school.
Early admission rates at Ivy League schools can be much higher than the regular admission rate. For example, for the Class of 2018 Harvard admitted 21% of applicants in the early round, and with an overall admit rate of 5.9%, that means Harvard admitted just 3% of applicants from the regular admissions pool. So, boost your IQ, and dramatically improve your odds.