College Pete

What does it take? (and is that even the right question?)

What does it take? (and is that even the right question?)

I am often asked what it takes to get admitted to a top college. For the 13+ years I’ve been working in private practice in higher education, my answer has remained essentially the same. And no, it has never been to bribe, cheat or otherwise game your child’s way in.

That said, I’m a parent too, so I do appreciate the question! And I promise that I do answer it below (with 5 VERY specific strategies).

But first, with my higher ed consultant hat on, I have to tell you why I really don’t love this question in the first place. It’s because it assumes that a top college is the right option for everyone. It’s not. Take the Ivies even. Is the rural New Hampshire culture at Dartmouth the same as the cool urban vibe at Columbia? Ah, no. It’s true that both of these Ivies are ‘top’ schools, but I believe they’re not the right ‘top’ schools for every Ivy league caliber student. Makes no sense when people brag that they got into every Ivy – so what? They’re all very good, but all very different – not all are appropriate for every candidate.

I subscribe more to the school of thought that there is a unique set of competitive colleges for each child, based on their unique academic bona-fides, interests, career aspirations and yes, the school’s ability to meet your family’s financial needs sans debt.

In the right competitive environment for your child, so-called top college or not, your child will thrive both while at school and in life after school. The ‘top college’ label is pretty arbitrary anyway- driven by factors that are, frankly, easily manipulated by savvy higher ed marketing pros. You ever notice that every few years a new subset of hot ‘top colleges’ emerge?  I’m sure you can name a few schools that used to be ‘write your name on an app and you’re in’ that have recently caught marketing fire, gotten hot and have become the next ‘top college’ that everyone thinks they have to go to. I know many parents who have shaken their head (and sometimes their fist) at me when I give them the single digit admit rate and subsequent top ‘rank’ of some of the so-called ‘safety’ schools on their kids’ initial lists.

It’s ridiculous the lengths that people have gone to in pursuit of admissions on behalf of their child to a ‘top’ college. And while the Rick Singer Operation Varsity Blues case is the exception and not the rule (and soon to be a Lifetime TV movie…NOT starring Felicity Huffman), the case does reflect our society’s insane obsession with admission to prestigious colleges and universities – above all else — not to mention the disparities between the elite wealthy and the rest of us.

But this blog isn’t about social commentary, it’s about what your child should be doing in high school to yes, help them get into the best college for them… but equally important… to help ensure that they’re developing the non-cognitive skills that will prepare them to succeed when they get there. You know, self-reliance, work ethic, resilience, time management, problem-solving, self-advocacy, etc.

So many parents (and kids) focus only on the ‘getting in’ component of admissions – but that’s just the BEGINNING of the higher education process, not the goal. Your child’s success (in every aspect) is the goal.

Nevertheless, I did promise to share the top 5 critical components of competitive college admissions. And so, without further ado, here they are. Certainly it takes more than these 5, but you need this at a minimum:

1. Take the most challenging courses that your school offers that you can still do very well in. More than just doing well, taking rigorous courses and challenging yourself by doing well in them, helps to show that you actually care about your studies. I often hear students balk at what they’re being taught in school instead of embracing whatever knowledge they could be learning. Ever hear your kid say things like, “When am I going to need this when I’m older?” Or, “Why do I need algebra?” Or even, “why do I need to know about cumulus clouds?” The sentiment being expressed is, “What I learn in high school is useless for my future.”

Granted, the US high school curriculum could be revised and made more useful and relevant to the 21st Century, but the sentiments expressed above don’t demonstrate such a great attitude towards your studies. The top schools want students who not only care about school, but who also demonstrate their academic interest not just in their results (or grades), but in the manner in which they get those results – which is to say with effort, pride, and curiosity.

Conversely, it does not serve your child’s purpose to have them load up on a bunch of APs, barely get by in them, barely pass the AP exams at the end of the year, just because you think it’ll look good on the college transcript. It won’t. Take the classes that challenge, and then do well in them.

Also, competitive colleges look for a progressive pattern of challenge and success throughout high school… so don’t drop off in 12th grade and still expect to be considered as highly as your peers who continue to seek rigor.

2. Do as well as you can on the SAT/ACT. OK, this is the master of the obvious. Lets face it, for applicants who are seeking admissions at the ‘top’, as in highly popular, highly rank-conscious, selective schools, the scores (along with the transcript) will matter. They will be part of that first sort (a cut which most of the applicants you’ll be competing with will likely make). Even many colleges with less rigorous admit rates covet the students with the highest scores. They do so for a number of reasons, not least of which is reported scores (for Fall matriculation) are a factor in how the national rankings are determined. They may blah blah blah about “holistic” admissions, and in many cases they will take a holistic approach by weighing other factors more heavily, but for the most part one must have top scores for entry to the elite schools. Hence the importance of test prep for all – but that’s for another day.

The good news for those who may struggle with standardized testing is that many great colleges truly do take a holistic approach, while others offer TEST OPTIONAL admissions. And we’re talking some great colleges, like UChicago, Wake Forest, NYU, George Washington, Bucknell and several other smaller colleges considered “most competitive”. So when it comes to the tests, just do your best and know that there is a great college for you regardless of the result. And remember, you are not defined by your score. Period.

3. Get involved. I think those two words probably best summarize what the admissions world refers to as “extra-curricular activities”. Do stuff! (OK, those two words may summarize it, too). Involvement (and the depth of it, in particular) matter because it speaks to the type of committed contributor you’ll likely be on their campus (and as an alum). If you’re an athlete then join a team and play, either at school or on a club team in your community. If you’re into theater then perform, whether in school or at community theater. If you’re into serving the community then serve, either with a school club, for a cause you care about, or at your place of worship. Whatever you’re into, embrace it and make it count. And if you can’t participate because of your family circumstances – perhaps you need to work or babysit for a young sibling – that’s OK too! Those activities count – and show maturity and commitment that will also garner a college admissions office’s respect. Bottom line is if you’re college material then you should be able to find something to do that is greater than the self. Participate.


Don’t spend all of your time sitting on your butt and staring at a screen all day (swipe-refresh, swipe-refresh), worried about and following what your online “friends” are up to; or sitting in a dark den and playing video games from wake time to bed time; or watching Netflix in your dark bedroom for hours on end. These are activities that I heard one admissions rep describe as “Couch”, as in, “Don’t do Couch”. I take my fun and relaxation very seriously, but top colleges want students who are mentally and intellectually engaged with their curriculum, with fellow students, and with the community at large. So do less Couch, and get involved.

4. Put yourself in the position to warrant good teacher recommendations. Competitive colleges want teacher recommendations, and the more competitive the school, the more emphasis that is placed on these recommendations. You can’t control what your teachers write, but you do have some influence. The best way to do this is to first follow item #1 above in its entirety, including the part about embracing your academic studies. Your best teacher recs may or may not be from classes that you aced through with a high A. School is about more than just getting an A – you should actually be learning something. But it should also be about learning to love learning. Be the kind of student who is the reason why your teacher decided to become a teacher in the first place. Show that you care – about the subject matter, your fellow students, and yes, your teacher. Once your teacher says “yes, I’ll write it”, explain to him/her why you chose them. Recall with them examples of times in their class where you distinguished yourself – either in a class discussion, on a project, or while studying a particular unit. A great teacher rec will share a specific story about you, the student. Help your teacher tell that story.

5. Write a great personal essay. Oh sure, Peter, you make that sound so easy. Actually, it isn’t, but it may be the most important differentiator in being admitted or denied. Writing a great essay may be the hardest part of all of this, but it’s super important. “So, what am I supposed to write about?”, you may ask. Answer: What do you want to write about? This is your chance to express yourself, to tell your story (No, don’t narrate your 17 years in 550 words). Write from the soul, find your voice and have fun doing it. If you do that, you’ll like your essay. Unlike your transcript and test scores, the essay is the artistic and expressive part of your application. It’s what gives your application its unique signature. Nobody else should be able to put their name on your essay. Your essay is yours, your story. So embrace it and own it.

So there you have it. Of course, it takes more than just following these rules to get into a ‘top’ college. Let’s just say these are the “minimum requirements.” Granted, if you are a legacy, or the child of a big donor, or a recruited athlete, then it clearly boosts your chances so that you can have perhaps lower scores or some other blemish on your overall application. Not all admitted students are perfect in all 5 areas above. In fact, perfection is the exception. Regardless of who you are, when the admit rate is below 15% or even below 10%, it’s competitive! While this is hard for some parents to accept, sometimes your student just doesn’t measure up to the extremely competitive pool of applicants. Or, you’re not a legacy, a big donor, a recruited athlete, a racial/ethnic minority, or some other factor that might give you an edge. Or maybe you never bothered to have any interaction with your admissions officer whatsoever (I’m talking about students interacting, not parents!). So you forgot, or neglected, to address the human element.

For most students, and in most cases, college admissions is more art than science. There are many head-scratching cases out there (“He was denied at Michigan but admitted to Johns Hopkins?!?”), and there is plenty of nuance. Which is why going about this alone can be risky – not to mention super-stressful on your family.

To really maximize your child’s chances of admission, it helps to know where you stand and to then take the necessary steps to maximize your opportunities so that your child has the best possible application. If you do that, then you’ll land in the right place.

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