Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Get Accepted into Highly Selective Colleges

Last month my homeschool support group had a workshop on Selective College Admissions by Richard Bowden, the executive director of the Summer Science Program (SSP). The SSP is a college residential summer enrichment program for gifted high school students to engage in top-level scientific research. Thus, not only does Bowden lead a selection process that is similar to those of the top colleges (they typically receive applications from only the very top high school students, and accept only 13% of those), most of the SSP students go on to the most selective colleges (in 2010, 80% of the 68 SSP students enrolled in either Ivy League colleges or in Stanford, MIT, or Caltech).

The following are some highlights from Bowden’s comments:

Why Apply to the Most Selective Colleges?
Here are what Bowden says are good reasons to apply to such schools:
  • You have a particular passion for that college and/or its programs
  • These colleges have large endowments, and so can be more generous with financial aid
  • The student body is made up of high achieving students, so you will be going to college surrounded by other smart, motivated, hard-working students
  • The alumni network can be valuable
  • Why not? Bowden suggests that if you are interested and think you have at least a shot, you might as well apply to one or two of those schools and see what happens

Bad reasons to apply to these colleges are:
  • You are applying for the status of these types of colleges, not because you are really motivated to be challenged at that level
  • Your parent(s) went to that college
  • Your parent(s) want you to go that college

Some General Advice about Applying to College
  • The process should be driven primarily by the student, NOT the parents
  • Bowden recommends the Princeton Review’s Cracking College Admissions as an excellent resource for information on applying to college.
  • Start early. For example, Cracking College Admissions has guidelines for what you should be doing for each year in high school (that is, starting in 9th grade).
  • Don’t apply to 20 different colleges. It is expensive, time consuming, and the colleges can see that you have applied to many colleges. Applying to lots of different colleges leads the colleges to believe that you don’t really know what you want and are just applying all over, rather than having figured out what colleges are a good fit.
  • Try to see things from the perspective of the college admissions staff. You are likely to be more successful if you are coming from what the college needs/wants, rather than from what you need/want.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself about getting into a highly selective college. You don’t need to go to an expensive, big name college to get an excellent education.
  • Don’t take it personally. If you receive a rejection letter, remember that the college is evaluating your application, not you. There is a difference, because your complex and rich personality can never be reduced to even the most extensive college application.
  • Realize that because of the vast numbers of applications involved, for many students it is largely a matter of luck whether you did or did not get in.

So What Do These Highly Selective Colleges Want Anyway?
Bowden reminded us that each college admissions staff person at top colleges typically reads and considers over 1,000 applications. What is going to make that person read your application and say “Wow! I want this student to come here!”? According to Bowden, there are basically two things these colleges want to see for a successful application.

The number one thing is Excellence. As Bowden put it, these colleges are looking for students who have “academically plastered the ceiling.” That is, they have taken advantage of every academic possibility, gotten straight A’s (or close to it), and made it look easy. They have taken as many advanced classes as possible (for example, calculus is practically a requirement to get into somewhere like MIT or Caltech), and still have time and energy left over for sports, community service, and other extracurricular activities.

Bowden said that colleges continue to stress that test scores, such as the SAT or ACT, are not the biggest factor, but don’t kid yourself--the colleges do look at them and they are important in the overall selection process. Test scores are particularly important in the case of applications from homeschoolers, because colleges are looking for some external evaluations of the students. This can include SAT/ACT scores, AP or SAT subject matter tests, grades in classes taken at community colleges or other outside educational providers, etc.

On the other hand, Bowden states that the colleges do take into consideration the life circumstances of the applicants when considering their performance. Students who come from a more challenging background--for example, those born into a non-English speaking family or one with no college graduates, or someone whose socio-economic level is such that they had to work long hours to help support the family--can have a less perfect GPA or test score. However, students from well-to-do and educated families who have attended private schools all their lives had better maintain a pretty-close-to-the-top level of academic performance.

But outstanding academic performance is not enough for these colleges. The second thing the college is looking for is something about you that is Extraordinary. Your application must demonstrate there is something about you that is deep, valuable, and unique--something that you, and you alone, will bring to their freshman student mix. Colleges look for students who have discovered their passion and have explored and committed to that passion in a meaningful way. Also, colleges like signs that you have grappled with and overcome adversity in some way. It doesn’t have to be a socio-economic and/or poor family background factor, although those can be strong ones. It can also be dealing with health or learning issues, challenging yourself to your limits in some way (academically, physically, psychologically, etc.), or mastering the subject or activity that DIDN’T come easily to you. Ideally, this kind of thing will be reflected not only in your information about school and extracurricular activities, but also in the personal essay you write for your application.

For those of us homeschooling, Bowden said that this is an area in which our kids could have an advantage. The flexibility of the homeschool schedule opens up opportunities for our students to be involved in internships or important projects, etc., in a way that students who are in school all day just can’t do. So homeschooling teens should make sure to take advantage of that to take on something personally meaningful and significant to them that will help their application stand out!

Finally, Bowden pointed out that this overcoming obstacles and/or significant accomplishment has to be something “real” for the student. The idea is not just to have something that looks good to colleges. The real value of taking on a challenge and overcoming it is that students grow and become better, more mature people. The fact that they are better people makes the college want them, not the project per se. And even if they don’t get into a top tier college, they still have created value for themselves through their personal growth. This is an area, Bowden warns, in which parents can either help or hinder their students. It is great when parents support their children in taking on meaningful and calculated risks. Some parents, however, try to protect their children from these kinds of things--which can be scary and painful to go through--and thus rob them of an opportunity to grow.

What About Letters of Recommendation?
Another component of the application packet are letters of recommendations from an adult outside the family who knows the student well. Here, Bowden had a quote that was probably my favorite line of the evening. When talking about these letters, Bowden stated, “They can’t be just good. They can’t even be glowing. They have to be INCANDESCENT.” So pick the people who write your letters of recommendations carefully. Bowden suggests that you ask them if they can write you a strong recommendation, and give them a way to decline if the letter is not going to be... incandescent. Also, make sure to include letters from different perspective--that is, not ALL academic references or ALL extra-curricular references.

There were many other little tidbits and pieces of advice given over the 90 minute workshop, but those were the major categories we covered. It was really a wonderful session, because it is so helpful to hear this information from an insiders perspective. I found it so valuable that I asked Bowden’s permission to post a synopsis of his comments on the web for others to read as well, which he graciously provided.

Many thanks to Mr. Bowden for sharing his expertise with us all!

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