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Admission to a Selective College or University


There are many ways in which colleges and universities select students. Each school has its own standards and processes. As such, there is no substitute for a dialog with the college admissions office of those schools you are interested in. It is essential that you understand what each of your prospective colleges is looking for from their applicants. Also, by way of definition, typically, a college or university is defined as “selective” if fewer than 30% of those applying are offered admission.

Getting into a selective college is a lot like getting a job

It’s very unlikely that you would get a job in this day and age by merely mailing in an application. However, many students expect to get into college this way…and it’s often a fatal mistake.

Typically, when you apply for a job you’ve done some homework to understand the company, its products, its competitors and its position in the industry. Only then do you prepare and send in a resume, typically with a cover letter explaining why you are the person that company should hire. Later, you follow up on your resume and schedule an interview to sell your particular skills, experience and abilities relative to the needs of the employer. These same steps need to be taken in applying to a selective college or university.

Each college or university has a unique personality…and their goal is to match the personality of the student to the school’s personality. You need to help them do this.

Selective colleges and universities like to keep an eye on their ratings. One of the important ratios used in these ratings is the percentage of entering students who stay and graduate from the particular college or university. This is an indication that the student has made a good choice and fits in well at the school, and that the school has made a good choice by admitting this student in the first place. However, getting this match right is very difficult for the admissions staff if all they have in front of them is a Common Application.

Determining the student’s personality

First, the student needs to understand his or her personality, strengths and weaknesses, learning style, appropriate social environment, and appetite for risk. An easy way to do this is to ask three friends and three relatives or neighbors who know you well to write down three things that come to mind when they think about you. These should be mailed or emailed anonymously to the student’s parent. Mom or Dad can then summarize the data and give the summary to the student (your friends and relatives will be more comfortable doing this if the student doesn’t know who says what).

Determining the college’s or university’s personality

Understanding the personality of the college or university is a little more difficult. There are several ways to accomplish this: 

1. It is hard to convey to a school that you are seriously interested in them if you never set foot on the campus. Visit the school and take the tour (after you've done a couple of practice tours at local colleges and universities so you know what questions to ask). But don’t stop there! Walk around on your own. Spend time in the campus bookstore, student union, cafeteria or local Starbucks talking to students. They will be glad to help you because they were in your shoes just a few years earlier. You want to ask open-ended questions, such as:

  • What makes ABC College unique? 
  • What traits define ABC College? 
  • What sort of person excels at ABC College? 
  • What do you like best about ABC College? 
  • How did you choose a college to attend? 
  • Why did you choose to attend ABC College? 
  • What was the process you went through to get admitted to ABC College? 
  • How has your perception of ABC College changed since you’ve been here? 
  • Why should I decide to attend ABC College? 

  Be sure to write down the responses…you will need this information in the future.  (Note: If your schedule allows, try to avoid scheduling an interview the same day as your campus visit. At a minimum, take the tour and walk around the campus before the interview. It helps to have time to digest and distill the information you gleaned…and to prepare responses to questions in the interview that effectively match you to the school.)

  Spring break is a great time to visit campuses. Most colleges have their break the first or second week of March…and high schools typically have their break the last two weeks of March. You want to visit the campus when college is in full session in order to understand the personality of the college (this is hard to accomplish on a weekend or during the summer). It’s never too early to start visiting campuses to “put your toe in the water.” Don’t wait until the end of your junior year or the fall of your senior year!

  You should consider talking to the department chair if you have an idea of what subject you want to major in. Many times this person can influence the admission decision. If you’re interested in sports, try to schedule some time with one of the coaches.

  2. Senior weekends are another way to find out a lot about a college or university, although you can probably only do one or two of these, so use them wisely for schools you’re truly interested in and perhaps are taking a second look at. And go prepared. The student should have done their homework in advance and have prepared some questions. Parents should have discussed with the student what they want to get out of the experience…and then reflect on this when the student returns home.

  3.Talk to students who graduated recently from your high school and who are currently attending the colleges or universities that you are considering. Your guidance department should be able to give you a list. If you’re a senior, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations are a great time to have a face-to-face conversation with them. If you’re a junior, you can do this over the summer (but get the list before school is out).

  4. Attend college fairs and talk to the admission staff or alumni at the table. You should have done your homework on the particular college or university before coming to the college fair and have prepared some questions (some of the questions in #1, above, might be appropriate). If you do go to college fairs, look the college rep in the eye, greet them formally with your name and a firm handshake. Most importantly, get the rep’s name and email so you can follow-up.

  5. Attend visits by college reps to your high school. Be sure to do everything in #4, above, and sit up straight in the front row and take notes. The rep can tell if you’re interested! Listen for information about the college or university’s personality.

  6. Many times your high school counseling or guidance staff will have personality
 information about a particular college or university.

  7. www.CollegeProwler.com provides extensive qualitative and quantitative information about almost every selective college in the US. 

Here are some examples of the factors that comprise a college’s personality:

  • Dedicated to excellence 
  • Not as pretentious as an Ivy League school or major university 
  • A student body very involved in campus activities 
  • Professors are involved with students both academically and socially
  • Excellent relationship between the students, administration and faculty 
  • Students have a voice in everything that happens on campus 
  • Great sense of community on campus 
  • Wide variety of student-led activities on campus…and you are encouraged to start new activities 
  • Class size is small so that all students can actively participate in the education process 
  • Not a big party school…students make their own fun on campus
  • Emphasis on diversity 
  • Emphasis on student research 
  • Emphasis on global vision...international activities are encouraged   

Keeping your name and interest level in front of the colleges and universities you are interested in

Once you understand who you are and the college’s or university’s personality, the next step is to start communicating with the school and reflect a match between the two personalities. If your personality doesn’t shine through in your communications with the admissions rep, your essay and your interview, your chances of being accepted at a selective school will be diminished.

It’s essential you keep your name and interest level in front of the college or university as much as possible. This is particularly important in the month prior to the admission decision (for regular admission, this is typically February). 

Assuming you obtained the email address of the admission rep when you were at a college fair, the college rep who visited your high school, or the admissions rep you met when you toured the college, you want to communicate regularly with the admissions office. It is essential that you demonstrate an understanding of the college’s personality in these communications…and reflect your personality.

Here are some “excuses” to communicate with the admissions rep:

  • After initially meeting the admissions rep, thank them for their time and answering your questions. Be sure to show your understanding of the school…and why you think there is a good match 
  • When your application is complete 
  • When you get your first quarter or semester grades in your senior year 
  • When you are coming to visit campus (try to make an appointment to see the admission rep you’ve been in contact with) 
  • When you win an award 
  • When you get your ACT or SAT scores 
  • After you have visited campus 
  • After your interview 
  • When you get elected to a leadership role in an activity or sport (be sure to tell your goals for the organization under your leadership) 
  • When you determine the school is your #1 choice 
  • What you learned from a senior weekend visit 

Normally, all email communications are stored and included in your college admission file. As such, avoid telephone calls…the information will be lost.

When the college admission rep comes to your high school 

This is a chance to make a lasting impression. The night before meeting with the admission rep, do a little homework about the college on the Internet and prepare a few questions. You should wear some nice clothes to the meeting and arrive 5 minutes early. Greet the rep with a firm handshake and look him/her in the eye as you introduce yourself. Tell the rep a little about yourself ("I'm a senior honor student and heavily involved in the student council and play soccer.") If you've already met the rep at a college fair, remind them of the fact: "Hello. I'm Bill Smith and we met at the Wilson High college fair last month." 

Sit in one of the front rows (or if you're in a circle, directly across from the rep), sit up straight, be attentive, and take notes. At the end of the visit, thank the rep for coming to your school and tell him/her you appreciate the information that was provided. Don't just get up and walk out of the room. 

Be sure to get the admission rep's email address during the visit and send him/her a note that evening (when you are still fresh in the rep's mind). Try to relate your personality and high school experience to what the admission rep told you about the college during the meeting (which is why you want to take notes). 

Are selective colleges and universities just looking for grades and test scores?

No. Typically, grades and test scores are only a portion of the equation.

While on the topic of grades, it is important that the student take a challenging course load (some honors and AP courses) and have A’s and B’s in those courses. Selective schools look at these courses as college level material, and high grades in advanced courses will help the college or university feel more confident that you can produce similar results if accepted.

State schools tend to use test scores in their initial sort, more so than grades, because it “levels the playing field”. However, private schools tend to rely more heavily on grades than test scores. Ideally, the student will have high test scores and high grades, simplifying the decision for the admissions office.

Consistency of grades or steady improvement is essential. If you had a bad semester, an explanation is warranted on the application.

In addition to the match between the student’s and school’s personalities (discussed above), selective colleges and universities are looking for extracurricular activities, an essay that reflects the student’s personality, diversity, an adventurous and open mind, and a person of character who shows the prospect for continued intellectual development.

Selective colleges and universities want to see depth of involvement in two or three activities...so the quality of your involvement in the activity is more important than the number of activities. Students should be able to describe what they learned and accomplished in their activities. Colleges like students that worked together to achieve a goal, improve a situation, or make a difference...and gained some depth of experience in the process. Having balance in your activities is also important. It would be better to have one community service activity, one in a field of your interest, and one sport rather than three sports or three community service activities. Activities that take place outside of high school (i.e., church activities, scouts, interest groups, community service groups, etc.) should certainly be included in your application.  Keep in mind that selective colleges are looking for a well-rounded applicants...not just busy students.

Demonstrated leadership in an activity is a definite plus (but expect to get questioned about your goals for this organization and the results achieved when you interview). Colleges are always looking for students with leadership experience for the hundreds of student organizations on campus.

Colleges are also looking for diversity among students. As such, ethnicity can help you. Most schools strive to have a student body that reflects the makeup of the population at large. Geographical diversity is also important to many colleges and universities…so living in a location where few of their students live will help you (the opposite is also true...if you come from an area where the bulk of the school’s students come from, it’s harder to get accepted).

If you have special talents and skills, they can help you in the admissions process by separating you from the other applicants. Don’t hesitate to put a DVD containing an example of your special talent or skill in with the application (be sure to reference this in the application and put your name on the media). Individual honors or awards can also help differentiate you from other applicants (you should not include team or group honors/awards unless you are applying for a sports scholarship). Being a recruited athlete is a very important factor. Work with your coaches, the athletic department and the guidance department to make sure that you are being “showcased” to schools that are looking for your skills.

According to "USA Today" (9/22/11), 24% of selective colleges check Facebook, MySpace, Google+ and other social networking sites to understand the student's "digital personality". Students should clean up their pages prior to mailing applications and think about whether everything on their pages is something they want the admissions staff to see. Likewise, student email addresses should not be off-color, vulgar, or in bad taste.

While many selective colleges like to see the offspring of their alumni attend their school, it is unclear whether this is a significant advantage in this day and age. The same is true of family finances. Being able to write the tuition check (as opposed to applying for financial aid) is unlikely to assist you in the admission process…unless you want to go further and fund the construction of a new building on campus!

Finally, it’s essential that the entire application is prepared by the student…and that the application genuinely reflects the student. 

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) surveyed many colleges and universities (including, but not limited to, selective schools) in 2007 about what were the most important factors in the admission decision.  Here's the list they came up with, in order of importance:

  • Grades in college prep courses 
  • Strength of curriculum 
  • Admission test scores 
  • Grades in all high school courses 
  • Essay or writing sample 
  • Class rank 
  • Demonstrated interest (the fact that you really want to go to that particular college or university and are likely to enroll if accepted) 
  • Counselor recommendation 
  • Teacher recommendation 
  • Interview 
  • Subject test scores (AP, IB) 
  • Extracurricular activities 
  • SAT scores 
  • State graduation exam scores 
  • Work experience 

This would suggest grades, test scores, essays and demonstrated interest are the most important factors in being admitted to college (but keep in mind this research was conducted across all colleges and universities...not just selective schools).


The purpose of an essay is to add some qualitative information about "you" to the application. Consider this important question before you begin the application essay writing process: What do you want the college to know about you that they can’t find out from your application, transcript, recommendations, and list of extracurricular activities?  Essays need to reflect the student’s passions, accomplishments, challenges, aspirations, and personality. Many times a selective college or university will provide a topic to write on…and the challenge for the student then becomes how to cleverly reflect “you” in the essay. “Canned” essays and verbiage from the Internet or from a book will risk a rejection letter because the admissions staff can easily recognize them. The same is true where parents write the essay for the student. Remember, the admissions departments in these schools read, literally, thousands of essays. They know what’s real! 

The essay should clearly convey why you want to go to college...and specifically this college. As such, one essay does not fit all colleges. Be careful to fully answer the question or address the subject if you're given a specific topic. If you get to choose your topic, select an experience that changed your perspective, led to a deeper meaning, or taught you an important lesson. Don't select a topic that is controversial and could offend someone.

Some common mistakes include using words inappropriately (big words don't make an essay better), using clichés, repeating information from elsewhere in the application, gimmicks (too much creativity is not a good thing), starting with a boring introduction, omitting a strong closing statement, and writing about the college's prestige (the essay is about "you"). 

Keep in mind that the average "read time" for an essay is two minutes. It may be longer if you are able to keep the reader's interest, have a logical flow, and "you" jump off the page. Test your essay! Have your parents take it to work and let some people that don't know you read the essay for 2 minutes. What does it reflect to them? Is that what you intended?

Here are some excellent suggestions on writing essays:

Is an interview necessary?

An interview is often the best way to sell your personality, character and eager mind. If they are offered, interviews should improve your chances of getting accepted at a selective school.  Interviews are about YOU...not about the college.  You can read the college's website to find out about the college.

Like interviewing for a job, you will want to be well prepared. You must understand the personality of the college or university before you arrive for the interview. You need to be able to articulate why you want to attend that particular college (as opposed to a similar institution)...and why you feel you are a good fit.  Interviewers are looking for you to demonstrate creativity, responsibility, initiative, leadership, maturity, passion, insight, global vision, and good communication skills in your answers.

The worst thing you can do in any interview is give short "yes/no"  or one-word answers…remember, the interviewer is trying to understand who you are and how you think. Short answers only frustrate the interviewer.  If you face a question you can't answer, it's acceptable to tell the interviewer that you've never thought about that. 

Some students prepare a "resume" to give to the interviewer, highlighting the key points they want to make.  This can be an aid to the interviewer when he/she is writing the evaluation after the interview.

Someone who regularly interviews people as a part of their job, or a college admission consultant, might be a great help in developing your interviewing skills.  Perhaps a family friend or neighbor works in a large office with a personnel department and could arrange for some practice interviews.

You should expect questions such as:

  • What has been the most rewarding part of your time in high school?  Why? 
  • What has been the most challenging part of your time in high school?  
  • What would you do differently if you were going to attend high school all over again?  
  • What has been your greatest contribution to your high school?    
  • Describe an experience in your life that was a revelation to you. How has it changed your life?  
  • What activities, situations or circumstances in high school caused you to grow intellectually and emotionally?  What have you learned from your participation in high school activities? 
  • What are you passionate about?  Why?  
  • Are you intellectually curious? How has this impacted your studies in high school? 
  • What book(s) have you read recently outside of your high school course work that impressed you or changed your thinking? 
  • Describe your leadership experience in an activity or sport you participated in. What were your goals for the group and how were these realized/not realized? What would you do differently the next time in leading this activity or sport?  
  • How will you use these leadership skills at ABC College?  
  • What world, national, or community issues concern you? What actions have you taken to address those issues? 
  • How did you spend last summer? Why?  
  • If you could invent anything you wanted, what would you invent? Why?  
  • If you could solve one problem our world is facing, what would that be? Why?  
  • How would you describe yourself? How would your parents describe you?  
  • How has your high school experience impacted your thinking about world issues? Community issues?  
  • What achievements at high school have given you the greatest satisfaction?  
  • What do you expect to get out of a college education besides a degree?  
  • What does "being a citizen of the world" mean to you? How will attending ABC College help prepare you to become one?  
  • How has your experience in high school prepared you to be a student at ABC College?  
  • Why ABC College versus another similar college? 
  • What are your goals after college?  
  • Why will you be a good choice for ABC College?  
  • Why shouldn't ABC College admit you?   

Interviewing Tips:

  • Arrive early   
  • Greet the interviewer with a firm handshake  
  • Dress appropriately  
  • Use your best manners  
  • Be attentive...sit slightly forward  
  • Avoid slang 
  • Maintain eye contact  
  • Avoid yes/no (short) answers...but don't be verbose  
  • Be yourself...reflect your personality  
  • Find out as much as you can about the interview in advance  
  • PRACTICE (find someone who interviews candidates in their job or go on some actual job interviews)  

You should expect the interviewer to ask you if you have any questions...and you should have several questions prepared in advance.  Questions about something on the college's website are a good choice as they demonstrate you've made the effort to glean as much as you can about the college prior to your interview. 

Here's some great advice on interviewing:

Are recommendations important?

Yes! Ideally, these will reveal your personality and character, reinforcing your other communications with the college or university. Substance and depth are essential (not quantity)! This is one more "tool" the college uses to understand who you are.

Ask teachers and counselors that know you well if they will write a “strong recommendation” for you. You don’t want a "form letter" that regurgitates what the college already knows about you (colleges know when they get a "form letter" recommendation and it won't add much weight to your application).

You need to help the teacher or counselor prepare your recommendation by providing them with some background material about you, including your activities (in and out of school), your successes in high school, your personality, and your aspirations. You might want to ask the teacher or counselor to emphasize certain aspects of your background or personality based on your understanding of what the particular college is looking for.

It is important to request letters of recommendation well in advance of when you need them! Teachers and counselors need adequate time in order to write meaningful recommendations for a multitude of students.

Here's some additional information on letters of recommendation:

Should we employ a college admission consultant?

“Consultants” come in many shapes and forms. They can be a parent, a relative or family friend, a guidance counselor or a paid professional. Regardless, it’s always great to have a coach. However, the role of a coach is to encourage, advise, and help the player reach their full potential…but the coach doesn’t play the game. 

So, if a consultant is going to assist and encourage the student to do the best job he/she can in preparing an application that genuinely reflects the student, then the consultant serves a useful purpose. However, if the consultant is going to prepare a “canned” application based on an interview with the student (and family), then he/she is doing the student a disservice…and the college admissions staff will likely see right through the application.

If a student has trouble with interviews, a consultant may provide significant value in helping to prepare the student for this uncomfortable experience.

Outside consultants can also take a lot of the stress and trepidation out of the college selection process…for both the student and the family.

What actually happens in the admissions department?

Admission reps (and in some cases alumni volunteers and contractors) are reading applications 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6-8 weeks. Typically, 20% of applications go into the accepted pile and 20% go into the rejected pile on the first pass. Most applications will end up in the 60% “maybe” pile. 

The odds are, therefore, that your application will end up in the “maybe” pile. That’s why it’s so important to have had an on-going dialog with the admissions rep…the admissions department will have a lot more material about you than just the application. You’ve had a chance to sell yourself in these communications and answer the question, “Who is this person and why should we want him/her in our college community?”

How many selective schools should be applied to?

Without a doubt, the quality of applications is much more important than the quantity. It’s better to do a great job on a few applications rather than hurriedly applying to a multitude of colleges and universities. Selective schools typically have 4-10 applications for each student they admit…so a poorly prepared application is almost certain to end up in the 20% reject file on the first pass.

A proven strategy is to apply to two or three “stretch” schools, a couple of “probable” schools, and a couple of “safe” schools…perhaps six or eight in total, but certainly not 15 or 20! Students are rarely happy with the results of the shotgun approach and, given that your goal is to demonstrate your REAL interest in the school, it is impossible to put the individual effort into that many applications. And, if you’re not REALLY interested in the school, why apply?

College Visits

College visits are essential to determine the personality of the school. These should not be rushed. Even though the formal presentation and campus tour might only be a few hours, you should plan to spend the day on and around campus talking with students. You will find them really helpful and very willing to answer your questions (they were in your shoes a few years ago).

After your tour of the campus is over, personalize your campus visit by meeting with a professor in the department of your intended academic major (of course, this will need to be scheduled in advance). If you are still in the process of deciding on your major, you may want to schedule meetings with several departments. These department visits are excellent ways to get answers to your specific questions, many of which will be beyond the scope of your student tour guide.

The only time to schedule a college visit is when classes are in session and the campus is full of students!  You are not going to get a realistic picture of the campus on weekends, holidays and during the summer.  Many high school juniors make campus visits during their spring break in March.  This works well because colleges typically take their spring break during the first half of March...while high schools are on break at the end of March (when colleges are back in session).

It's a good idea to make several practice college visits near home before you visit the colleges you are really interested in.  This will help you to develop your preferences and know what questions to ask during your real visits.

The following three websites provide some excellent advice for planning your visits:

7 Ways to Make College Visits More Cost-Effective

Campus Visit Checklist

Getting the Most Mileage Out of the College Campus Tour

What if I don't know what I want to major in?

In today's difficult economy, choosing a major with broad job opportunities is particularly important.  Many students elect dual majors in order to further increase their chances of meaningful employment after graduation. 

Here's a list of college majors with the best job prospects:

This is a list of the college majors with the worst job prospects:

Here's a list of the highest and lowest paid college majors:

Changing majors can be expensive if it results in additional courses or semesters of study.  Psychological testing services can help determine an appropriate field of study for students who aren't sure which direction their college career should take...and they are much more economical (typically less than $1000) than the cost of even one additional college course.

In the Chicago area, Career Vision (www.careervision.org) is an internationally recognized testing service with a program to help high school students (and college students) determine what careers they are best suited for.  This program tests both the student's aptitudes and psychological profile to help point them to a fulfilling and financially rewarding career in a job where they have natural abilities.  Once the career is determined, then a college major can be established and a college selected.  The cost of testing is typically less than half the cost of a single college class...and may save a change of majors (which typically results in a fifth year in college).  Similar testing services can be found in most major cities.

In summary…

  • Know who you are 
  • Truly understand the schools you apply to 
  • Visit the campuses of those schools 
  • Use your essay and other communications to show why you are a great fit at the school you’re applying to 
  • Apply to a reasonable number of schools, do a first class job on each application, and stay in front of the admissions department of those schools

This is a great time in your life—enjoy it!