Admissions Info

Cracking Admissions to the Most Selective Universities

Everyone's dream is to gain admissions to the IvyLeague schools like Princeton or Harvard or similarly selective universities such as MIT OR Stanford.Out of the 3500 accredited universities and colleges in the United States of America, only 30-40 universities can be classified as “highly selective”. 

Highly selective universities have acceptance rates of below 10%. Therefore, schools such as Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, etc will fall in this category.

Overall, here are some numbers:

  • There are 3500 accredited universities and colleges in the United States
  • 100: # of colleges with acceptance rate less than 30%
  • 61: # of colleges with acceptance rate less than 20%
  • 22: # of colleges with acceptance rate less than 10%

So, it is obvious that there will be a lot of competition to get admission in these colleges. However, it gets worse before its gets better.

Selective Colleges Are Becoming More Selective

Acceptance rates are at a record low in US colleges like the Ivy league, Stanford, MIT and many other institutions. Here is the percentage of students that were and will be accepted over the years at Ivy League, Stanford and MIT :

MIT and Stanford acceptance rate
Acceptance rates
This is a graph of acceptance rates from Class of 2021 vs Class of 2022

As you can see, the acceptance rates have gone down over the years and might continue to do so.

How do the Application Process Works?

I probably will need to write an entire book (I probably will someday) to explain this question in detail. In interest of time, here is the heh level gist:

Most schools use a process of “holistic review” in which individual officers assess every part of the application. There is no algorithm to determine who is accepted or rejected. Most schools read every single page from every single student. Thus, regardless of your SAT/ACT score, your application will be reviewed. 

How it works :

  1. You submit your application 
  2. The admissions office adds it to their pile of applications 
  3. The applications are separated (mostly according to the region); each admissions officer receives one region 
  4. That officer goes through all the applications and selects a handful that they like 
  5. All these applications are taken to the admissions committee where the final decision is taken. 

There is a person on the other side of the application, if you don’t impress them, they won’t advocate for you. Thus, if you don’t make an impression on the admissions officer who is assigned to your file, he/she will not take your application to the committee and as a result you will not be admitted. 

In 2018, the UCLA admissions office read approximately 14,70,000 pages of applications. Most schools have one officer reading thousands of applications. Last year, in 2018, 1 admissions officer in Boston University was appointed to read applications from Connecticut. Boston University received over 60,000 applicants last year. 

Thus, your application will be approximately 13 pages long, and it will be in a stack of applications as tall as a 20 - floor building. In general, you will be compared to all the applicants from your region, and that is your competition. Therefore, if you don’t stand out you will not be remembered by the admissions officer. 

So, How do you stand out?

So, if there are so many applicants and all of them have great applications, how do you make yours stand out?

Since, the application is reviewed from a holistic point of view, we have a few factors that are combined on the chart below – 

letter of recommendaitons

This chart displays all the factors needed for an impressive application. Everything around the chart shows where all these factors are found on the application. 

1. Academic Excellence

The primary criteria always is academic grades. If you do not have great academics, it's nearly impossible to get into the top universities. The following is what I mean by strong academics:

  • School Grades - Are you in the top decile of your class? Do you have perfect or near perfect grades(A) in almost all subjects
  • Course Rigour - Did you pick the harder courses available to you? Example: Math or Computer Science is seen more favourably on your  transcript that a business management subject.
  • Standardized Test Scores - Standardised Tests like the SAT, ACT and SAT Subject Tests play a key role in the entire admission process.
  • Honor Courses - Did you take and do well on honor level courses like the Advance Placements (APs), Olympiads or the AMCs.

All of these are combined and considered for academic factors. Although all your grades are important, but the strength of your curriculum is given higher considerable importance over your admissions test scores. Getting a high score will give you a chance of getting in but it does not guarantee admissions. Academic excellence goes far beyond grades and scores. It embodies educational growth and potential, intellectual curiosity and vitality. Therefore, all the other factors along with a good score will make your application impressive. 

Academic excellence is crucial – above everything else, colleges are academic institutions. They want to see that you work. Part of the job for an admissions officer is to see if the applicant will fit in the college, if they will contribute in the classroom and if they will make a positive change in the college environment. These are a few things that they expect students to do - 

  • Take advantage of resources like writing centers, labs, seminars, study abroad opportunities, etc.
  • Have and express your opinions in the classrooms.
  • Contribute positively to the classroom and academic community.

What does a strong Academic background look like?

  • A student that has an average score of 90%
  • SAT score in the range of 1520 – 1600 or an ACT score in the range of 34 – 36
  • Took the most challenging AP classes at school
  • Works on a research project 

All these factors together would contribute towards academic excellence.

2. Initiative and Impact

Your application needs to stand out within the crown of applications that it’s placed in. There are some colleges such as Stanford where the application reviewers will mark an application as “Standard Positive” despite the good academic record of that candidate. It is done mainly because the profile of such a student does not have anything special that makes the resume unique. To get selected to highly selective colleges like Stanford, it is not sufficient just to be good academically. 

To stand out, look at INITIATIVE and IMPACT as two areas  that make your application positively different than others.

INITIATIVE means the areas or subjects that you have shown a keen interest in and done something tangible in. Even if something might seem small or inconsequential, it always has a potential to make a significant difference not just to your life but also to your application. 

The examples of initiatives taken by some of my students that made a tangible difference to their applications are the following:

  • Writing a research paper, publishing it, and promoting the same in the form of a book or article on the area of their interest.
  • Development of a completely new course at the school level on a niche subject.
  • Starting a whole new business venture and making it successful.
  • Running a blog successfully on the internet, monetizing it, and earning huge income from it.
  • Participating in various coding competitions and winning awards in the same.
  • Doing a summer internship in some reputed organization.
  • Leading a sports team and winning many competitions.
  • Participating in school level play completion and winning the same.

INITIATIVE will be gauged by the application reviewer to differentiate the potential candidate from other candidates. Here, it will be checked if the achievements you have been significant enough to make an impact. The examples of impactful activities are mentioned below for your reference.

  • Winning an award for writing a book. This achievement was acknowledged by some authors and they called the student for the interview to discuss the subject in more detail.
  • The research paper of the student was published in a renowned magazine or journal.
  • The student-built a successful business on his own and later expanded by hiring more employees.
  • The student has won national awards on photography.
  • The student has collaborated successfully with some nonprofit organizations and helping them in reaching out to more underprivileged people by building an application.
  • The student was picked up by a team of scientists who had come to his school to hire some talented students for the project they were working on.
  • The student has organized fundraisers for nonprofit organizations.
  • The student has participated in a play during school days and his work was appreciated by a renowned film producer and gave the student chance to work in one of his films. 
  •  The student has built a scientific device that has eased human life and he has received a patent for the same.

3. Diversity and Focus

Diversity is something that sets you apart from the rest. It is anything special about you that brings a unique perspective in a classroom and in your dorm. Diversity is something that will help you stand out. 

Some examples of diversity would be :

  • Things that you cannot control – Race, ethnicity, religion, etc.
  • Unique academic interest ( any unique course that is offered in school that others are not participating in)
  • Unusual extracurricular activity – like starting your own non-profit organization
  • Uncommon achievements – publishing work of your own if you are a writer

As we have mentioned before, you should pick one or two activity/activities and excel in that. (application persona)

What does Diversity and Focus combined look like on your application?

  • A unique academic interest
  • Conducting experiments at home and being curious in general
  • Working at a place that is related to your field
  • Start science programs or clubs and increase the members
  • Team leader for any project

4. Personal Statement/Essays

Your College Essays,  and in particular your Personal Statement, talks about you – the real you and not about your grades and such other statistics about you. It is the single document in your application that communicates naturally without putting down cold figures by which you can be assessed. This is the only route available to you to speak to the college admissions staff about yourself so that they see you as a person and not just someone with a bunch of numbers.

The personal statement connects the dots in the application. Connecting the dots is the second most important step, because it creates a picture of who you are and what you have to offer. Colleges look for 3 things in your essay – honesty, specificity and eloquence.

Colleges want to know more about the applicant, they want to learn about the applicant beyond their grades and extracurricular activities, and essays help them with that. The best way to get a clear picture of the student’s goals, achievements and character is to hear it directly from the student. The most efficient way to write an essay/personal statement is to write information that is unique – something that cannot be found anywhere else on the application.

Most of my students spend hundreds of hours trying to boost their school grades or SAT/ACT scores, or racking up internships or activities, but only spend a few hours on their college essays. This is where they go wrong.

5. Codification

Codification is a way to present information on your application about yourself in a constructive and clear manner. For example, how would you show that you are good at Math?

  • Obtain strong math scores on SAT/ACT and transcript
  • Work as a math tutor
  • Conduct math research
  • Win math awards

These are good ways to show colleges that you excelled in this field and are interested in pursuing it further.

In conclusion, SHOW don’t TELL.

Codify experiences – Take something you really enjoy, your passion, interest or hobby and turning it into something tangible that admissions officers will understand and value.

extracurricular activities for admissions

Take an action on your interest, either by creating something unique or develop a skill that allows you to be compared to other applicants.

6. Personality and Character 

Finally, don’t forget to be likeable!

  • Be someone who the admissions officers will like, or even your classmates and professors will like 
  • Be someone who would be a pleasure to room with or have a class with
  • Be someone who cares about the world and community

All these combined together will create an impressive personality and will encourage admissions officers to choose you. It will give them confidence that you will fit in their university culture. 

Some negative traits to avoid :

  • Arrogant
  • Entitled
  • Privileged
  • Selfish
  • Dishonest
  • Inauthentic

In short, when it comes to getting into the most selective universities like the Ivy Leagues, you need to develop a spike(apart from acing your academics).

So, what is a spike? A spike is “what sets you apart from all other applicants. It goes against the spirit of simply being well rounded. By nature of being unique, you don't fit in with all of the other well-rounded applicants; you do something that truly stands out in a meaningful way. It’s another way of saying while other applicants will go for the average, you aim for the amazing. 

But how you do you go about developing your spike?Here are ways to do that: 

IVY league admissions

Therefore, it has gotten harder to get admissions in colleges but using all these resources makes it easier to form a good application that will give you a fair shot at getting admission.