With admit rates now well under 10% at the U.S.’s top universities (in 2014, Stanford, Harvard and Yale admitted 5.7%, 5.9% and 6.3% of their respective applicants), students, families and counselors are increasingly concentrating on perfect GPAs and heavy course loads when preparing applicants for “the elites.” Academics absolutely matter, but they are part of a far broader approach that many of these universities take in reviewing applications. While leading public schools often are legally required to admit students with the top grades in the state, elites often rely on a “holistic” review of a student’s entire secondary school experience, leaving thousands of valedictorians and salutatorians out of the final acceptance pile.
To ree-nvision yourself (or your student) as an elite school applicant, take a thorough and honest accounting of these seven areas:
- Academic “Index.” For those schools that still consider standardized test scores in the admissions process, your GPA often is calculated in combination with your Math and Reading scores from the SAT or the ACT. That combination yields your “index,” a score that sometimes offsets slightly lower GPAs with higher test scores and vice-versa. The higher both are, absolutely the better. However, at many elites, you will find students with lower GPAs than may ever be accepted at a state school with strict class rank requirements. That can be due to test scores but more often is due to a combination of the remaining items on this list.
- Academic Course Load. Elites pay close attention to how rigorous your courses have been in relationship to the course offerings at your particular high school. If AP Calculus is offered, and you stopped math at Trigonometry, that could affect your review negatively. If AP Calculus is not offered at your school and you stopped at Trig, that will have less impact – but if you took the initiative to take Calculus at a local community college, that strengthens both your course load AND your sense of initiative.
- Academic Curiosity. This is a critical component of admissions at many leading schools. They want to know what you will do with the world-renowned resources they will be placing in front of you as an accepted student. The greatest indicator of that is what you did with the resources in your school district as a high school student. Did you only do what was assigned to you, perhaps with some extra credit? Or did any particular subject or topic excite you enough intellectually to inspire independent pursuit? If you worked with a teacher or other expert to further your understanding of an academic field, that’s something to share in your essays – but it’s also what will set your extremely vital teacher recommendations apart.
- Sustained Commitment. Students often are encouraged to be “pollinators,” sampling all possible extracurriculars at school and dabbling lightly in each. While that offers terrific exposure to new areas and people early on in high school, at some point, it’s important to commit longer term to a single journey of exploration and growth. Do you have 2-3 years of evolving engagement in a single activity or organization (e.g., sports, journalism, service, etc.)?
- Demonstrated Excellence. Your long-term commitment also ideally shows mastery in at least one arena or skill set as you enter senior year. At what do you truly excel in a challenging field, from robotics to basketball to debate and more? Always seek ways to demonstrate the level at which you are performing in your area of greatest passion (contests, competitions, presentations, etc.)!
- Active Leadership. Another critical area to assess and share is your engaged participation in, and ultimate leadership of, an organization, team, movement or other group of individuals. This shows growth, confidence and initiative, all strong characteristics for applicants to any college, frankly.
- Community Service. In addition to the above ways that you’ve expanded your own expertise and possibilities, elite schools will respond to the real ways you’ve made the world better for others. While participation in occasional community clean-up days or trips with service groups is important (and appreciated by your community!), what have you done – with the resources you have access to – to singularly improve the world around you? Your service history is a special combination of your academic understanding, sense of commitment, confidence, initiative and demonstrable excellence that is unique to you and your journey.
Whatever grade you’re in, if you are considering applying to some of the nation’s top private universities, take a deep inventory of where you are right now and what you can do from here in relation to these seven areas. Please also know that the steps above are a powerful blueprint for an extraordinary high school experience and will prepare you for your best-fit college, regardless of where you ultimately decide to go.