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What Top Ranked Schools Want To See

This week, I attended a National College Admissions Counselor’s organization webinar focused on applying to the USNWR 20 top-ranked colleges.


I’ve often expressed that the rankings are flawed. While some of my students apply to these schools, I honestly state that it’s a statistical anomaly if a student is admitted, and denied students must know that the denial has little to do with their qualifications (assuming they had the rigor, GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars required) and their ability to be successful at the colleges. It’s simply that too many qualified, full pay applicants apply as well as the institutional priorities that drive the admissions process.


What’s not surprising?


Students must have the highest possible rigor, GPA, and test scores (if submitted).

Life experience counts most, and a unique background can help as well.


Top 20 colleges want to see a growth mindset.

Academic curiosity (something I’m always harping about) matters as much as high grades, being a self-starter and a confident learner.


What matters academically?


Evidence of leadership in innovative research and teamwork. Princeton, in particular, prefers extensive research (one summer is usually not enough) and a strong graded writing sample. Getting published and showing you have really learned from your project matters. Students set on the Ivies are encouraged to seek out and apply to research programs and projects.


Take academic risks.


Even if you don’t have a major, express your identity and interests. A story was related about an Ivy admit who had not technically done research, but was a committed birdwatcher who accumulated her own data.


When you write the Why Us? essay, it’s preferable to have a major. Be able to answer: What are you looking for? What do you hope to accomplish? Where would you be if you could go anywhere in the world? Show the ability to connect to what you want to study.


What other skills are crucial?


Be a critical thinker and a strong, thoughtful communicator. Know yourself well enough to relax and have strong interviews. Extracurriculars should be sincere and focused on serving the community.


Reach for the Growth Zone...and show integrity.





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