These are the real, actual College Admissions tactics we used to get four friends accepted into highly competitive colleges and universities. Nowadays it takes more than nearly perfect: grades, SAT/ACT scores and a high class rank to get accepted into elite colleges or the Ivy League. Here’s how we did it.
In full disclosure, we started late. The eleventh hour. My daughter was just a few weeks from beginning her Senior year of high school before setting foot on her first college tour. (I don’t advocate starting late like we did.) Thankfully, her academic and extracurricular history of the prior three years had laid the groundwork for elite college admissions. Nevertheless, even for the strongest of candidates, the odds of admission at Ivies should be considered daunting.
The good news is that this article can help anyone trying to gain college admissions to any university. But as most people already know, for a reasonable shot at the Ivy League or elite colleges like Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago or Swarthmore, students should already: rank highly in their class, have a track record of acing the most challenging courses available to them, and have fairly high scores on standardized tests such as the ACT and the SAT. (Legacy status or being a recruited athlete provides some flexibility, but you’ll still need academic credentials showing a track record of success with rigorous courses.) That’s just the baseline to be in the running. So please don’t believe anyone who tries to sell you a “sure-fire, can’t miss, 100% proven” way to gain college admissions in universities that reject over 90% of applicants. That’s simply not possible. Nevertheless, there ARE ways to significantly increase the odds of getting into an elite college.
Admissions Officers Said
In meeting with admissions officers from Princeton, Yale, University of Pennsylvania , Stanford and Harvard, they all confirmed that every year they reject dozens of Valedictorians with 4.0’s and perfect SAT scores, while admitting thousands of students without perfect stats. So what makes the difference? And why should you care about getting into an elite college or an Ivy anyway?
Surprisingly, this was a question I had to answer for my own daughter. For the longest time, she was extremely reluctant to discuss, think about, or plan anything whatsoever to do with college. Her older brother is a good, but less-academically accomplished student (who actually wound up with a full ride to the State University, but that’s another story.) He had been more malleable about his own college admissions process two years prior. Granted, he did not particularly want to spend his time touring colleges either, but he was willing enough to comply – if for no other reason than to keep the peace.
Not so with his little sister! By the end of her Junior year, she had visited zero colleges, had not opened any college recruiting emails nor read any of the college brochures that came daily in the mail.
The summer before her Senior year, I finally put my maternal foot down.
“In a few weeks you’re supposed to start applying to colleges! And you haven’t even looked at any of them. By this time next year, you’ll be packing up to move! You’re going to have to start considering schools…RIGHT NOW!”
Her reply was, “Some college will accept me somewhere…and what’s the point of Ivy League anyway? I doubt we can even afford it. Plus, I’m sure I’ll do well in any college I go to.” She said it calmly, in a completely matter-of-fact tone.
That’s when I realized she had spent entirely too much time in slower, lower Delaware. It’s a wonderful, safe place to grow up, but she had evidently received very little exposure to the academic benefits available in the outside world.
That was disturbing…
And it was also largely my fault.
So my husband and I discussed the feasibility of allocating some of our discretionary income for college tours over the summer. (And make no mistake, she did not want to go, vociferously exclaimed how college tours would be a torturous waste of time and money.) Nevertheless…I persisted. However, given her reluctance, we decided to try to at least make college touring more like fun for her.
College Visits & Tours
Our first visit was relatively close to home. We visited Penn and brought along her 14-year old sister for moral support. By the grace of God we had the most amazing tour guide known to man, and had the opportunity to speak privately with an equally wonderful Penn admissions counselor after the information session. My daughter loved the school. Loved The University of Pennsylvania. Loved the city of Philadelphia. Wanted to go there. Said she didn’t need to see any other colleges. She was done.
I loved it for her too, but she truly knew nothing about academic advantages beyond Delaware. There was literally a whole wide world of academia she had no experience with. So I scheduled a college tour of Princeton with one of her best friends. They both loved it, but she still loved Penn more. And her friend was still set on Stanford. A few weeks later, bringing her younger sister along again, we went up to Yale. This would be our biggest test yet, because my daughter was still a reluctant participant in all of this. Furthermore, she also had an on-campus interview scheduled. So we stayed at the nicest hotel in New Haven, The Study at Yale and ate at restaurants recommended by locals. I tried to make it into a mini-vacation. Although she really liked Yale, and seemed to do well in her interview, she still liked Penn better. However, we learned some invaluable tips about elite college admissions at the info session at Yale regarding her college-specific essays.
Early Decision & Restricted Early Action
A few weeks later, with her close friend (the one from the Princeton tour) we attended an Exploring College Options seminar in our area. It featured information session presentations by admissions officers from: Duke, Georgetown, Penn, Stanford and Harvard. By then, my daughter had made her decision. She wanted to go to the University of Pennsylvania, and her friend wanted to go to Stanford. These are girls who are ranked 1 & 2 in their high school but it’s a new high school with no college admissions track record. So we stayed late talking to the admissions counselors from their favorite schools, (Penn and Stanford.)
Both girls decided to apply during the Early Admissions period for their top choice. Which was extremely wise. The admissions rates for Early Decision at Penn and Restricted Early Action at Stanford are up to 4x higher than during regular decision. DISCLAIMER: even in the early pool, less than 1 out of 5 early applicants are accepted. (And many of those acceptances are the recruited athletes and individuals with legacy connections.) Consequently, admission odds are never “high” for anyone. That withstanding, the Early Action/Early Decision odds are more likely than in regular decision – when as few as 1 out of 20 applicants are accepted.
SAT Scores & Final Touches on Essays
Throughout the fall, both girls continued to study online with Khan academy linked to their College board accounts. And they retook the SAT as many times as they could to keep increasing their scores. They both had a tutoring session with a math teacher to get personal strategies to work more quickly on the math portion of the SAT. And they both attended a Scholarship Shark workshop to help them craft compelling college essays. None of this was expensive. The math teacher refused money. Khan Academy SAT prep comes free with the SAT, if a student chooses to use it. And the Scholarship Shark seminar was under $100.
The “Safety College” Tours
Her friend’s mother and I got together and decided to take the girls on one last tour to visit safety schools. And with the help of a deep discount online deal, we even stayed in a suite at the swanky Hotel DuPont! It was going to be a combination of a mini-vacation with college tours and a girls-night-out, with a fabulous Sunday Brunch at a nice hotel. We visited Swarthmore College and Lafayette College. Both excellent schools that the girls have the academic credentials to consider relative safeties in terms of college admissions – but ONLY if they applied as Early Decision II. (ED2)
Consequently, if they did not get accepted into Penn or Stanford, (and frankly, odds were high they wouldn’t) they would be free to apply to Swarthmore or Lafayette in time for their January 1, ED2 deadline. These are both Nationally-ranked, exclusive, very hard-to-get-into schools where Early Decision (ED) significantly increases admission odds. Last year Swarthmore accepted 34% of their ED applicants vs 10% of their Regular Decision (RD) applicants. Lafayette accepted 49% of their ED applicants vs 26% of their RD applicants. In other words, 1 out of 3 Swarthmore ED applicants are accepted vs just 1 out of 10 RD. And nearly half of Lafayette ED applicants are accepted vs just a quarter in RD. So clearly, at these particular schools, odds of acceptance are significantly better by applying ED or ED2 for qualified applicants. If accepted ED, they would be bound to attend, yet providentially, these schools are absolutely fantastic and affordable.
Who Can Afford This?
I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room yet. And that is the cost. These elite schools and Ivies can easily represent more than $250,000 over four years. Her friend’s Mom is a single mom, and we are a family with six children. (Four of whom will be in college at the same time by 2019.) So suffice it to say, none of us has a quarter of a million dollars set aside for the higher education of one child. Fortunately, elite colleges have a provision for that. Every college I have referenced in this article meets 100% of demonstrated need. WITHOUT the need for student loans nor Parent Plus Loans. This works out to be far more affordable than most State Universities – even for upper middle class families with typical assets.
Ivy League and elite colleges have billions of dollars in endowments in their coffers which they use to offset the financial needs of their students. These colleges are usually free for the lowest income students, they’re affordable for middle income students, and even fairly wealthy students often qualify for some need-based aid.
Why Ivy League or Near-Ivies?
Their retention rates, on-time graduation rates and average starting salaries are significantly HIGHER.
Their class sizes, average student loan debt and post-graduation unemployment rates are significantly LOWER.
Furthermore, if you can get in, cost should not be an issue. (And if it is, file an appeal.) Prestige aside, these are just a few of the reasons why getting an elite college or an Ivy League education remains in such high demand.
I am happy to report that both girls were accepted to their dream schools. (Stanford and Penn.) After several days of shock and celebration, they refocused and decided to help two other girls who are equally brilliant and accomplished get into their dream colleges to. They figured my 2 out of 2 track record with admissions can’t be that bad. However, their friends would now need to gain admission in Regular Decision, where they would be competing against as many as 40,000 applicants for as few as 1500 spots, sometimes less. In the end, one of the RD girls got wait listed at almost all the Ivies and Stanford, but accepted into: Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Duke among other schools. (She chose Duke.) The other girl got denied at every Ivy but accepted into Drexel, University of Delaware and Penn State among other schools. (She chose UD.) It was evidently nearly impossible for even strong students like them to get accepted into most of the Ivies during RD.
What Exactly is Our Winning Strategy?
We started with the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges issue. (I upgraded to the Premium subscription) We compared each prospective college’s enrolled students statistics with their friend’s stats, making sure they were within or above the prospective college’s range. Then by taking a look at the NPC (Net Price Calculator) on each college’s website, we further refined their lists by suggesting they only apply to schools that were also a good financial fit. Getting into a “dream school” that you cannot afford is no dream – it’s a nightmare. Avoid the nightmare of crippling debt or scrambling at the last minute to find a college you can afford. If you take just one thing from this article, let it be this: your real dream college will be both an academic fit and a financial fit.
Our next step was to set about reworking their essays, emphasizing what is unique, captivating and absolutely extraordinary about each applicant. **This may be the most under-appreciated, vital aspect to the college admissions process.**
Our Four Case-Study Applicants
For example, one of the girls had literally saved the lives of two small children while working as a lifeguard. She considered it simply a part of the job, (which it is) however it is also unique, and it’s extraordinary. There was potential to compose a gripping essay about having a life in her hands and the subsequent emotions when she safely returned them to their parents, alive and well. The initial drafts of her Common App essays had made no mention of this whatsoever. The only clue to this hidden gem was “Dual-Certified Lifeguard” listed under activities in her Common App. Not surprisingly, she very nearly omitted one of the most unique and differentiating things about herself from her application. And that oversight would have probably cost her the offer of admission.
Each applicant is unique. The key to college admissions can often be in making sure that what’s extraordinary and unique about the applicant shows in the application. Take heart, even if you cannot think of a single thing that is noteworthy, uncommon or compelling about yourself, may I suggest you have someone else tell you? It’s possible it’s such a familiar and commonplace aspect of your life that you’re literally blinded to how awesome, unique and extraordinary it is.
One girl had far lower SAT scores than the average at the colleges she was seeking admissions for. So we suggested she explain her circumstances in the Common App supplemental essay. (She has a two-hour commute, spending four-hours a day changing buses getting back and forth to school. Yet she has perfect attendance along with a 4.0 GPA. While other students did SAT Prep, she was riding buses – with no wifi!) It never occurred to her that her annoyingly-long commute reveals one of her biggest strengths! (Hint: it’s perseverance and dedication to her education.) She hadn’t even thought to mention it anywhere in her application. In the end, it wasn’t enough for any Ivy admissions in RD, but it was enough for some very good schools and merit scholarships which brought the cost of college for her family down to four-figures. (Less than $10,000 out-of-pocket per year)
One girl’s application emphasized her service to the community made more effective via her celebrity as world champion martial artist.
The other girl has spent a lifetime successfully overcoming congenital hearing loss. (She reads lips, is captain of a two-varsity teams, won a beauty pageant and is also Valedictorian.)
See what I mean? Think hard about what’s absolutely extraordinary about yourself. Then make sure to write about it in your application. These four girls could have easily submitted applications that included the fact that they are: “A lifeguard, or a martial artist, or a student with a High GPA/despite-low-test-scores or a Valedictorian” – yet none of those facts alone would have effectively conveyed what is truly outstanding about each applicant. Hopefully I’ve made this point clear. If you’re looking for Ivy admission, make sure your most outstanding, noteworthy, uncommon achievement shows clearly throughout your application.
Lastly, make sure the essays are a pleasure to read? Get the admissions officer’s attention from the beginning with the strongest, most engaging part of the essay, right from the start. Make them want to keep reading. (That’s another tip.) We were also careful to list the girls accomplishments and extra curricular activities on the Common App with accurate descriptions in descending order of importance. We made sure their college-specific essays were incredibly specific for that particular college, then we checked everything for grammar, punctuation and accuracy.
Including that something extraordinary can really make a candidate stand out. Don’t overlook that? This is largely where the saying: “You have to win a Nobel Prize or cure cancer to get into an Ivy nowadays” comes from. That’s obviously an exaggeration. But you’ll be better off by highlighting what’s differentiating, unique and extraordinary about yourself in the application.
Now that their final college admissions results have come in. I can attest that unequivocally, two elements can torpedo hopes for Ivy admissions. The first seems to be trying to apply in the RD pool when only 1 our of 20 applicants are accepted. GPA, ACT scores within the median are not going to cut it anymore in RD. She got waitlisted at almost every elite school. Consequently, Early Decision, Restricted Early Action, or Single Choice Early Action are the way to go if your stats are within their median when you apply. A bit of encouragement, the girl who got into Stanford did so with SAT scores at the lower 25th percentile. However she applied in the Early round and was truly exceptional in every other way and was from a small state that doesn’t send a whole lot of qualified Stanford applicants in the early round. The girl with the long commute and relatively low SAT scores was not accepted into any Ivies nor even Swarthmore ED2 nor Lafayette RD. Meaning that a glaring weakness in an application cannot always be overcome by the strength of everything else. And finally, our celebrity martial artist although she did get in at an Ivy, after some soul-searching she realized she felt more at home in the highly ranked elite college, Duke. In the end, all the girls are happy and where they feel they should belong. In closing, if you’re serious about beating the odds and getting in at an Ivy or elite college:
- Know what you’re doing.
- Know your strengths.
- (If you don’t – collaborate with others who do.)
- Showcase your strengths!
- Aim high – a bit higher than you think you can reach.
- Apply Early Action/Early Decision/Restricted Early Action or SCEA
- Line up a “reach-safety” school with ED2 options, + few REALLY-SAFE safeties – just in case.