If you want the type of college diploma that will prove to the world your superior intellect, you must first convince the admissions office of a college that gives prestigious diplomas that you deserve one.
Clearly, the easiest way to get into the Ivy League, little ivies, Stanford and other highly selective colleges is to be superior. "Every fine college and university is looking for what we call D.I.B.s -- those with 'demonstrated intellectual brilliance,' " says Michael Carey, assistant dean of admission at Amherst College.
"These students are usually eccentric. They're computer wizards, they've read Dante in the original, they know all there is to know about the wolf population of North America," Carey says.
James H. Rogers, director of admission at Brown University, calls these students the "scholars" and they are the first to be accepted during the college admissions process. "If you have a true scholar, someone who has pursued an academic area to extraordinary levels, that person will be accepted even if he or she is asocial," Rogers says.
If you're just a bright 17-year-old who has trouble mastering Space Invaders, hasn't read Dante even in translation and knows nothing about wolves except there's a family by that name down the street, do you have a chance to get into a name college? Yes, if you meet some basic academic and extracurricular requirements. However, those requirements are tough. With a few exceptions, successful applicants to the country's most prestigious colleges must have math and verbal scores of 650 or above on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests and be in the top 10 to 15 percent of their public high school classes -- or top half of the class at a rigorous prep school.
"A lot of our students think you have to have discovered the cure for cancer or built a computer from scratch. That isn't so," says Sommerville Parker, assistant headmaster at the Landon School, a Bethesda prep school. He cites the recent case of a Landon football player, a student council president, and the editor of the school newspaper. All had good, if not brilliant, academic records. Two got into Yale and one into Harvard.
Since there are not enough D.I.B.s to fill the freshman class of any top school -- a good thing, too, college admissions people say, as they genuflect to the god of "diversity" --the bright, active high school students are the majority of the toughest schools' applicants and matriculants. Although there is no secret formula for being one of those chosen, there are ways to increase your chances of getting into a very selective college, say the people who should know:
Take the toughest courses in high school you can. You'll be a lot better off getting B's in advanced placement chemistry and English than A's in courses such as "The Soap Opera as Cultural History."
"We look carefully at the quality of the school program and we expect students to take a rigorous program junior and senior year," says Amherst's Carey. "Any successful candidate will push him or herself especially hard in the last two years," adds education consultant and former Princeton University admissions officer Howard Greene. "Don't take less challenging courses to get A's. Colleges are howling at secondary schools about students not being prepared because of the freedom they have in selecting courses. When colleges see a student has good test scores they look to see if a student has taken the best his school has to offer."
Show consistent effort in an extracurricular activity. On application forms, colleges leave a daunting amount of blank space for students to fill with outside interests. But don't join every club in your school in order to look impressive. You won't. Colleges don't want club-grubbers; they want students who can commit themselves to doing one or two things well.
"We're looking for long-term, well developed interests," says Worth David, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale. "Those interests can vary widely, and can be something the person won't necessarily pursue at Yale. For example, someone who has exhausted the possibilities of the 4-H Club in his home state probably won't pursue that in New Haven. We're looking for a high level of energy, a willingness to take risks and commit oneself seriously to something. It can be conventional, let's say a cross country runner without enough talent to do it at the college level, but we make the assumption that the student will do something with that energy here."
Brown's James Rogers agrees. "We're not concerned about the volume of extracurricular activities, we're concerned about the depth. One successful applicant went to a nursing home to read to her grandmother several times a week over several years. After her grandmother died she continued to go to the home because the other people there looked forward to her visits so much. She showed a social concern and commitment. But she also was not any academic risk."
Take as much care as possible with your application. Even if your grades and scores meet the standards of the college, don't dash off a half-baked essay. This is your chance to tell Harvard why you should be among the 17 percent of applicants it takes.
Says consultant Greene, "A well presented application is becoming more important. Every application is read by two or three people and more and more it is used as a way of screening out. It can really make a difference among equally outstanding applicants. For that reason I discourage students from the buck-shot approach of applying to 10 or 15 schools that some parents encourage. It makes it harder to write well and with insight about yourself."
Though colleges ask for short essays on a variety of subjects -- from an intellectual activity that's been particularly meaningful to what you've done during the summer -- it is standard to have a major essay of up to 500 words that will, as Princeton asks "Tell us more about yourself as a person."
This is your chance to tell about a teacher who's made a difference to you or why that extracurricular activity you've so consistently engaged in has been important. Don't be cutesy and don't look for a gimmick; if you find one, it probably won't work. Also, don't overreach -- this isn't a Nobel acceptance speech, either. If after careful thought you realize you have nothing to say maybe you're applying to the wrong school.
There's not much the student can do about it, but college admissions officers also long for teachers who take care with their recommendations. "I applaud the teacher who can give us a little vignette about a student. The worst ones are those that are more general." says James Rogers. "Overall the system works. Students are shy and may not know what their real accomplishments are. But it's clear in the recommendations. The student who is very highly thought of is the one who just comes right off the page."
Given these general guidelines, there are, of course, other factors in the selection process that are beyond a student's control. Though colleges have vastly increased the numbers of public school students in their classes since the 1950s, it still helps to go to a good prep school. Private school students make up about 35 percent of the classes at selective colleges, while only 19 percent of those taking the most recent SAT attend private school.
"There are advantages to going to a good prep school," says Wellesley College's Director of Admission Mary Ellen Ames. "We know these students have been prepared well and have learned how to write. We can go deeper into the class rank at these schools. At public schools we know the cream of the crop can do the work, but we don't go as deep into the class rank; we're not sure what the classes mean."
There's also the matter of where you live. All things being equal it's better to be from Montana than Montgomery county. Colleges like to have geographical and socio-economic diversity. Because the vast majority of their applicants come from affluant suburban areas, they will look with special favor on someone from a different background. "We look for those students who come from homes whose values are somewhat different. For instance, we don't get enough applicants from rural America," said Rogers. "The real justification for a residential institution is the interaction between the students there."
It also helps to have well-educated parents. Most ivy- league admissions directors say that sons and daughters of alumni are given at least a slight edge in the entrance process. Wellesley, for example, uses a point system in rating applicants. Daughters, nieces and granddaughters get an extra point.
Green says these schools accept about 40 or 50 percent of their alumnis' children. "But that means about 50 percent aren't accepted. And it used to be almost automatic."
Being a superb athlete, male or female, increases your chances of getting a crack at the Ivy Leagues, whose coaches are out recruiting along with those from the Big 10. The stronger the athletic ability, the lower your grades and test scores can be -- within reason. These schools don't want their star athletes to flunk out during freshman year.
Members of minority groups have an advantage as well. "We look to how a student did within the context of his or her level of opportunity," says Yale's David. Greene says selective colleges will consider minority candidates with SATs in the 800s, far below the threshold of consideration for white, suburban students. "The big issue is the degree of emotional strength, the student's ability to deal in a white world under academic pressure," Green explains.
Then again, you can always take up an obscure instrument. "It's true, oboeists, bassoonists and harpists are in short supply. It's not so hard to find fiddlers or piano players," says Brown's Rogers. "I don't like it, but it's a hard reality. This is an institutional need."
If you are an exceptionally talented musician, unusual instrument or not, it pays to have your high school orchestra leader get in touch with his or her college counterpart. "Our symphony orchestra director is extremely aggressive at getting truly talented students," Rogers says.
Let's say you are a black harpist with 1400 SATs and a great backhand but you can't afford the $12,000 it takes to cover a year at Princeton. Should you bother applying? Absolutely. In spite of the recession and cut backs in federal aid, the most selective schools -- which are also the most expensive -- are the ones with the most scholarship money.
Most of them, for the time being, continue to operate on an aid-blind system. That is, the admissions committee does not know what a student's financial situation is when it makes its decisions. Therefore, don't expect to waltz in just because you can pay. Most of the schools have also traditionally said that any student accepted will be given the aid required to meet his or her "demonstrated need."
However, strains in the system are showing. Last year at Dartmouth a small number of student were accepted but told they could not be guaranteed financial aid. Weslyan has announced a different course, saying it will admit only as many needy students as the college's scholarship funds can support. Any students Weslyan would have admitted on merit but whose financial needs the college cannot meet will be denied admission. So far, however, their resources have proved sufficient.
Still, critics say they are concerned that worthy students won't apply because of financial fears. "We have restructured our literature to get the point across that people shouldn't make their decision about cost until they know what the cost is," says Rogers. "You must apply for financial aid to see. It's quite reasonable that the cost of the University of Maryland or the University of Virginia could be the same as Brown."