Tips for Getting Into the Best Colleges

There is a lot of misinformation about how the most highly-selective colleges evaluate potential students.

Colleges select applicants by one of two basic methods. State and local universities use a “simple” method, focusing on SAT (or ACT) scores and grades. Although applicants are required to write essays, those with high scores are often selected without intense scrutiny of their essays. Particularly for in-state applicants, it’s purely a numbers game.

The most selective colleges use a “holistic” approach, looking at all of an applicant’s qualities. This is why Stanford, which has no athletic scholarships, has won the Director’s Cup as America’s best athletic university for an astounding 19 straight years. Highly selective colleges look at the whole person, not just brain function.

Almost all highly-selective colleges evaluate applicants in three areas: academics, activities, and personal qualities. They use grading sheets, with objective criteria, to assign a numerical value to each of these attributes. After grading each attribute separately, they assign one overall grade to each applicant. This “first read” is used to separate those who will be considered from those who will not. After preliminary meetings to narrow the field, colleges collect additional information to differentiate between the applicants.

Perfect SAT scores and perfect grade point averages do not guarantee admission to any college. If an applicant’s scores in the other attributes are low, the applicant will not be considered. Conversely, if the test scores and grades are imperfect, high scores in the activities and personal attributes can give an applicant a superior overall grade.

Many families, especially Indian-Americans, focus too much on grades and testing and not enough on activities. Activities include extracurriculars, athletics, community service, employment, and family commitments. Applicants are not expected to be superior in all forms of activity. Rather, selective colleges look for the highest levels of achievement in one or more activities. They seek quality, not quantity. Nobody’s perfect, so colleges seek indicators of success and are less concerned about things that one does not do well.

Yet, for all applicants, the most difficult attribute to score is also the most subjective: personal qualities. How does an applicant present personal strengths? It’s difficult to do convincingly in an application, because applications are biased presentations. To evaluate personal qualities, highly-selective colleges look first to teacher and counselor recommendations, then to admissions interviews conducted by college alumni.

Although many people believe that great essays make the difference in the college admissions process, essays are not independently graded, but rather are used to support the criteria used in grading the three attributes. However, because of the timing of admissions meetings, interviews – which are usually conducted after the “first read” – can be a most important differentiator between candidates.

Along the same lines, students should make an effort to get to know well the teachers and counselors who will write recommendations on their behalf. By the junior year of high school, students should be practicing for the SAT, preferably with an experienced tutor. Starting as early as the freshman year, students should keep notes of all of their activities (in and outside of school), including the details of what they actually do in the activities.

Most importantly, applicants to the most selective college should understand, and direct their efforts towards, the grading rubrics of the college admissions offices.