By Austin Curwen, Annapolis College Consulting

Highly Selective Admission FAQ

What is meant by Highly Selective Admissions? In the world of college admissions, “highly selective”  mean that these are schools that will turn down a vast majority of applicants, and these are schools that could easily fill their school (several times over) with qualified students from their applicant pool.  In terms of numbers, schools whose admission rates are in the single digits certainly qualify (Read: Ivies, Stanford, MIT, etc., etc.).

I will take this a step further and suggest that any school whose admission rate is south of 15% qualifies as a highly selective school.

What are Highly Selective Schools looking for? Having spoken with many admissions officers from highly selective schools, almost uniformly, these institutions have made it clear that they are in the business of changing lives and their institutional priorities are First Generation college students (i.e. students whose parents/grandparents have not attended college), Pell-Eligible student (i.e. students from lower-income families) and Underrepresented groups (i.e. students of color and historically marginalized groups).  The most selective schools are looking to become game-changers in their students’ lives and these are the applicants who are getting very close looks. But first and foremost, they need to fit the scholastic profile of the school and be prepared for this journey.

    1. In a recent interview with Dartmouth’s Dean of Admissions, we noted that the students who are selected have the course rigor and scores that show that they are ready for this highly-selective level of college. These students are already competitive at their own high school and on a national level.
    2. At this level, teacher recommendations are more important than ever. The admissions team digs very deep into what is being said about the student and their readiness for the university. A student prepared for a highly-selective college usually has outstanding teacher recommendations because they stand out at exceptional students in high school.
    3. Note that the essay will not make or break a student’s admissions, but it is clear when a student can communicate with a level of writing that is both that of a high school student and a curious scholar. It is easy to sort out a young writer that is ready for the rigors of the Ivies.

What’s the deal with grades and scores? All colleges will be looking at the basics like GPAs, class rank and standardized scores. Yes, I know a good deal of schools have moved to ‘test optional’, but very few have become ‘test free’.  In fact the student’s test scores are looked at in the context of the school and are where they test. In some areas, an average test score may be 800. The student at that school with a 1280 has an excellent score in that context.

For highly selective schools, applicants need an incredibly strong GPA, at least top decile of the class rank (and top five is better and valedictorian is better still).  By way of anecdotes, a few years ago, a highly selective college in the South did not accept any students with an A- on their transcript, and one in three students at a top UC campus was a HS Valedictorian.

Very high grades and submitted scores are required, but these will merely move a student from the general pile to the ‘to be closely considered’ pile.  Other things I will strongly recommend for students looking at highly selective colleges are a strong slate of AP classes, followed by either a 4 or 5 on the exam (preferably a 5).  In addition, actual college credit (with As) is good.  This could be Running Start, dual enrollment or summer enrollment.  In terms of summer classes, make sure these are credit-earning classes, vs. summer programs that many, many colleges and universities run and host for high school students, that are for enrichment, not credit. Likewise, all and any demonstration of academic challenge and/or rigor will help, and a very strong transcript with the most challenging classes and strong standardized scores (SAT or ACT, AP or IB score, etc.) will be read closely.

What are highly selective colleges really looking for? In my experience with these schools, they are looking for very high-performing students with clear demonstrations of talent and/or interest. For some students, this will be athletic, musical or artistic talent.  For others, it will be a clear track record of engagement with a local group or organization (church, youth center, animal shelter, local Audubon, etc).  In addition, don’t be shy about work and employment.  Entrepreneurship, organization and punctuality are all part of this package.

Too often, jobs and employment are overlooked in the name of chasing more eye-catching ‘hooks’ for schools.  Finally, a real ah-ha moment for me was at a conference where an Ivy League admissions director was asked about summer camps.  Their reply?  “I love summer camps!”  They are the perfect opportunity for high school students to test the waters of leadership, responsibility and creativity.  And summer camps are ubiquitous from local school districts, YMCA and church groups to sports and other activity camps, there are so many opportunities.

In addition to academic prowess and talent, schools are also looking for a fit.  One of my favorite former students had an experience between junior and senior year where they became very interested in the graffiti in the city where they lived.  This lead this student down the path of doing some significant coursework in their senior year about both the aesthetic and political aspects of this graffiti, along with a very strong interest in art history and cultural studies.  Following a meeting at a college fair with an admissions officer from a highly selective school, this student looked into the offerings at that school, applied and was admitted because of the very clear alignment between the student’s interest and the programs offered by the school.

So, what does this all mean for my student? In my work as a college counselor, I will never tell a student that they shouldn’t apply to a particular school because they won’t be admitted.  I have certainly told many students that a certain school was a reach and their chances of admission were slim, but that we would put forth our best effort on that application.  More importantly, all students should be working towards a balanced list of schools they are applying to.  At a minimum, for every reach or far-reach application, there should be the same number of match and likely schools in the mix.

With the students I work with, I want them to have multiple options of where they will attend and have done the research, they are excited about the possibilities all of their schools offer, and not have students in the position where they ‘left with’ just one or two options from their likely list.  That scenario reflects an unrealistic view of the college landscape and very poor planning.

Myth vs. Reality

Myth:  Isn’t there room at __________ for a ‘normal’ kid? (I get asked this all the time.)  No.  With levels of selectivity for the most selective schools in single digits, admissions committees make heartbreaking decisions and will readily admit that they read dozens of files of fantastic students who won’t be admitted.  The most selective schools could fill their institutions multiple times over with over-qualified students.  This is simply a very, very, very competitive environment.

Myth:  My student has a 4.0, 1600 on SATs and all honors classes.  They’re pretty much a shoo-in at (Ivy/ Stanford/ Vanderbilt/ Etc., Etc……).  No.  I have worked with students who have exceptionally strong profiles and I will comment to them that they will get a decent read by the admissions committee, but there are absolutely no guarantees, even for students who align well with institutional priorities (see #2 above).  An Ivy League admissions officer remarked to me that a very strong profile, merely ‘bought that student a ticket to the lottery’.  The simple assumption that- “If my student achieves X, they will receive Y” ignores the realities of today’s college landscape, especially with highly selective schools.  Anyone working in college admissions (on both sides) will counsel a good deal of research, identification and matching of interest and a balanced list that contains a decent slate of match and likely schools.

Summary:  Highly Selective Admissions are exactly that.  These schools are incredibly selective, well-resourced and offer a wide range of academic and extracurricular opportunities.  If you have a very, very high-achieving student, these institutions certainly merit a look, and at the same time, a student’s list should reflect a range of schools. In terms of being a fit, increasing studies indicate that being a bigger fish in a smaller pond is a better scenario for success at and after college.

For very high-achieving students, in addition to highly selective schools, half a notch below them are many excellent schools that will use merit scholarships to attract top students.  These students should also seriously consider selective programs (honors programs and honors colleges) at flagship state universities and at private universities.  Whereas highly selective schools use their financial aid budgets exclusively for need-based scenarios.  Also, programmatically, a good deal of highly selective schools fall into the liberal arts basket and state and private universities often have excellent professional and vocational programs (engineering, business, nursing, education, etc.) that many highly selective schools either don’t have or aren’t a focus of the institution at the undergraduate level.

To conclude, if a student/family is considering applications to highly selective schools, they should be considered within the college trinity of fit, admissibility and affordability.  In addition, highly selective applications should exist alongside a well-considered portfolio of other applications to match and likely schools giving your student multiple options they are excited about as offers of admissions begin to appear.