Acing Your Application

There are 37,000 high schools in the United States. That means 37,000 valedictorians a year, or two-and-a-half times the number of open spots at Ivy League universities. So it’s no surprise that those colleges turn down perfect-on-paper students all the time.

“In fact, colleges are proud to say, ’We rejected a thousand students who had perfect scores’,” says Bev Taylor of the admissions coaching firm Ivy Coach. It boosts a school’s rankings in the press and its allure as an elite institution.

If not perfection, just what is it that elite colleges want to see on a college application? Firms like Ivy Coach ($46,000 for the unlimited service, or $950 an hour) and IvyWise (from $1,000 and up) have made a business out of answering that question.

These firms walk students through all the tricks of the trade, from who should write their letters of recommendation (junior-year teachers of core courses like English and math) to how many extracurricular activities students should have on their résumés (fewer than you might think).

“Not everybody needs an independent counselor,” admits IvyWise Chief Executive Katherine Cohen, “but it is essential to get some kind of advice. Hundreds of thousands of students are getting little to no counseling.” The ratio of high school seniors to on-staff high school guidance counselors in the United States is about 500 to one, and most counselors don’t focus exclusively on getting kids into college.

The most important thing applicants can do on their own is research the schools they are interested in. What academic programs are particularly strong? In sports, where does the school excel, where does it want to get stronger and what have its recruiting patterns been recently? A nationally ranked tennis player would normally have a distinct advantage at a school that is actively recruiting for its tennis team. But an admissions office that gave its tennis coach four-star players the year before will not be very interested in an applicant’s tennis ability in the current year.

The interview process varies from school to school as well, and it can be either informational or intended to evaluate the student. Some small schools like Bard College require interviews, but New York University doesn’t even offer them, says Cohen. “The smaller the school, the more important the interview.” Students should practice for evaluative interviews and consider skipping optional interviews if they don’t come across well in person.

Another consideration is the oft-neglected field on the application labeled “Possible Area of Academic Concentration”–a student’s intended major. The most common answer to this question is “undecided,” and while joining the ranks of the undecided may not hurt an applicant, it won’t help either. If a school has an unusual or new major, it’s probably looking for students to fill it, so expressing interest might tilt the scales in a student’s favor. Conversely, applicants should avoid listing a school’s most common majors (English and psychology usually rank near the top), as this could lower their chances.

There will always be some elements beyond the applicant’s control: underrepresented minorities get an edge at most private colleges in the name of diversity, many universities give legacies a boost, and at a number of top schools, females outnumber males, putting them at a disadvantage in the application process.

But there’s plenty that applicants can control. Perfect test scores may be out of reach, but a student can still create the perfect application.


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