The Biggest Source of Confusion and the Unknown
If college admissions process is a mystery to you, then you are not alone. Every year millions of students apply to colleges--all over the world--hoping to get into the college of their dreams. Many are smart and have the ability to do the required course work. Most of them fail to get into a top school.
The number of applicants keep on rising, but the number of seats haven't increased, at least in the top schools. The truth is that many of these smart students are not really competitive for the top universities, like the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Caltech and MIT.
There is a big difference between the ability to do the work and actually getting in. This gap between ability and acceptance is the biggest source of confusion and unknown for college admissions.
And this is the bad news for many smart, accomplished students. They have good grades, they are smart, they have extracurricular activities, and they are ambitious and want to do the work, both at getting into their dream colleges as well as doing the work in college. But students and their parents ignore the odds and hope they can get in.
Ask the Right Questions
What should they do instead? The first step is to ask the right questions. Most people ask, "Can I get into ______?" That is the wrong question! The right question to ask is, "Am I the best student in my class?"
What do you mean by the best student? It is not just grades. It means both grades and challenging coursework. Have you taken the most rigorous curriculum available at your school? That means math, science, history/social science, English, and foreign language—all four years, and going to the highest level available in each by the time you are a senior. And you need to get A’s. Not A-‘s. Not a combination of A’s and B’s. Just A’s.
Standardized Test Scores Expectations:
The next question to ask is, “Are my SAT/ACT scores as strong as my grades?” For Ivies and similarly selective places like MIT, Caltech, and Stanford, that means a minimum composite ACT of a 34. Of course, getting a 35 or 36 is even better. On the SAT and subject tests, it means shooting for a 750 or higher on both sections and on all subject tests. And on AP tests, it means primarily scores of 5.
You may think this is crazy. These are almost perfect scores! Yes, they are. The fact is that students around the world are getting such scores--and they’re all in these applicant pools. That is the reality.
Extra-curricula Activities Expectations:
Most students ask, "am I involved in the right extracurricular activities?" The answer is not straight forward. The secret is that there is no right or wrong answer. Yes, you do not have to take several activities, or be on the debate team, or club president. Whatever you do, you have to ask the question, "Can I quantify it?"
By now you should have gotten a sense of how the admission committee thinks. They want the top performer in every arena. You may protest, but that is a fact. It is like in sports. Nobody protests that, so why protest in college admissions?
The next question is, "Do I excel at what I'am doing outside the classroom?" Just showing up is not good enough. They’re looking for evidence of strength in your areas of interest. As part of your application, you’ll be required to tally up your participation by hours per week, weeks per year, and years of involvement. Admissions officers are looking for evidence of deep commitment to your extracurricular activities. Don't try to fool the admissions folks. They have seen thousands of applications and many of them say the same things. Also, just joining clubs for the sake of joining is not going to fool them. They know that this is a ploy and there is no real commitment.
Are you a leader? The most selective colleges are looking for significant leadership roles and there is no one type or position that will guarantee acceptance. Again, do not become leader for the sake of becoming a leader. It also depends on your area of interest. If you have no interest in French and becoming editor-in-chief of the French club magazine or starting a French club won't make the difference. Find out what you want to do in college and then start doing it. If you are interested in computer science, start programming and then teach programming to other high schoolers and maybe even teach it online! Create an app that people want to use, etc.
If the above sounds too daunting, and for most students it is daunting, focus on other schools. There are many fine schools that you can get admission into. Find a school where you can thrive and don't go just for the name brand and reputation.
1. Look Beyond the Top Schools
The acceptance rate at top colleges is very low. The Ivy Leagues and other top schools are only admitting 5-10% of applicants. However, the number of seats in the top 100 schools have increased. Check out our blog here for more details. There are even A grade colleges for B grade students! Check out blog here for more details.
2. Consider Community Colleges
As the cost of colleges rise, community colleges are becoming an attractive alternative. You can go there for 2 years and then transfer to a great school and still get a four year degree from the great school! You can cut 50% off your expensive college costs. Also, community colleges generally have better teachers. Professors who teach at community colleges primarily focus on teaching, while regular college professors are mostly interested in research, and grad students are doing a lot of the teaching.
The top schools are looking for top achievers. Yes, there are often exceptions. Maybe your neighbor's kid went to an Ivy League with an ACT score of 32. That always happens, but you cannot plan on exceptions. Understanding your competitiveness will give you more focus on which colleges to apply. If you want more guidance, we would be happy to help you in your quest for finding a college that will fit you best. Just let us know.