Friday, July 6, 2012

What the Top Colleges are Looking For

Harvard. Yale. Stanford. MIT. Just the names of these colleges and universities conjure images of elite learning, rich traditions, and exceptional opportunities. Many people believe a degree from a highly selective school is the ticket to a successful, rewarding life and career; as a result, competition to gain admission to these schools is, to put it mildly, fierce.

If you apply to a school with an acceptance rate below 20%, your application will land in a pool along with those of thousands of other kids who boast GPAs above 4.0 and SAT scores that are north of the 2000 mark. Apply to schools with acceptance rates below 10%, and you're being considered alongside other kids who appear to be more or less, well...perfect.

So, assuming you've got the exceptional  grades and test scores to put you in the running, what else are highly selective colleges looking for in potential students? How can you start preparing to be a competitive candidate long before it's time to complete those applications?

First, recognize that there's no "formula" that will guarantee you admissions to a highly selective school. There is no exact science in college admissions; you can do everything "right" and appear to be a shoo-in for admission, then still be denied, usually for reasons you will never be made privy to. Remember what those incredibly low acceptance rates mean: Countless numbers of people are vying for a few hundred spots in the freshman class. Sad fact: Countless numbers of the most highly qualified students in the world will be turned away.

But if you want to be sure to give yourself the best possible chance at acceptance, it's helpful to know what the top schools are looking for in applicants.

* Commitment. Top colleges are looking for kids who are strong academically, but they also want to bring to their campuses interesting people who contribute to both the school and larger community. While it was once considered important for a candidate to be "well-rounded" and participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, schools now want to create well-rounded freshman classes full of students who have demonstrated exceptional commitment or talent in one or two areas. The definition of "exceptional commitment or talent" varies from one school to the next, but in general, the more selective the school, the higher the bar will be when it comes to evaluating extracurriculars and leadership. In other words, it takes more to impress admissions officers at Stanford than it does at, say, Syracuse. For example, while it's great to write for your school newspaper for four years, it's even better to serve as the editor, and even better still to win prestigious high school journalism awards.

* Leadership. While it can be difficult for colleges to assess (the rigors of, say, an elected position at one school being vastly different from that at another) leadership experience is still an impressive addition to your application. This can mean being president of a club, being a student body officer, editing the newspaper or yearbook, or spearheading a student-run community effort. Again, the more selective the colleges you're applying to, the more valuable it is to have high level leadership positions, even extending beyond high school to community, regional and state organizations.

* Community Service. Colleges like to see applicants who give their time and energy to help others and serve the community. Rather than volunteer once or twice a year at numerous organizations, find a project or cause that is meaningful to you and deeply invest yourself over time. Even more impressive, take on a leadership role in your chosen service activity and commit significant time to the effort.

* Part-Time Work. With busy school and extracurricular schedules, it can be tough to find time for a paid job. However, don't underestimate the value employment can add to your applications. If possible, try to tie your job to one of your extracurricular interests and work your way into a leadership role where you have the opportunity to supervise others. Working is also a great way to demonstrate your commitment to your education by earning money to offset the cost of college.

Admissions officers at highly selective schools are very forthcoming about the necessity of turning away many, many extremely well-qualified applicants every admissions season, and how difficult it can be for them to make these decisions. If you want to take your best shot at your dream schools, do everything you can to give yourself a competitive edge. Remember, though, that a rejection from the likes of Princeton, Dartmouth or Williams isn't a final judgment on your worth as a student or human being. If you get in, awesome! If you don't, cry for a day and then put it behind you. If you have a well-rounded college list and have applied broadly, you'll soon find yourself with acceptance letters from schools where you will be happy and receive a quality education that will serve you for the rest of your life.


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