By Jacob Kirn
It’s now easier to get into most American colleges than it was 50 years ago. Still, it might be time to panic, or at least start writing one hell of an admissions essay. At places like Columbia, Harvard and MIT, acceptance rates have never been lower, hovering at 6 to 9 percent. It’s no surprise, then, that the application process begins long before senior year for many New York area high school students hoping to gain admission to the most prestigious universities.
It’s important to get involved outside the classroom early, as the eight Ivy League schools, along with top liberal arts institutions like Williams and Swarthmore, place significant value on extracurricular activities. But not too many. (One student hoping for admission to Cornell listed 17 activities in a recent post on College Confidential, an online forum where parents and students discuss the college application process.)Admissions officers say that rather than becoming a member of every club at their high school, students should seek leadership roles in a few projects they’re passionate about. Better, perhaps, to show you’re capable of sticking with something for a meaningful stretch. After all, how much time could our Cornell hopeful possibly devote to marching band, softball, swimming, student council, Future Business Leaders of America, National Honors Society and a fine arts enrichment program, just to name a few?
Standardized tests like the SAT are usually first taken during junior year. And while their importance is sometimes downplayed, the reality is that top schools rarely accept applicants without top scores. At Columbia, the middle 50 percent of admitted students scored about a 2200 on the test last year, or better than roughly 95 percent of all test takers. It’s no longer just the Ivies that look closely at these scores. At Amherst College in Massachusetts, a leader among liberal arts schools, mean scores of accepted students have risen to over 2100. Many students look to for-profit classes and tutors to help raise scores. So many, in fact, that it’s now a $2.5 billion a year industry. While the value of these resources is debatable, there’s no shortage of available help: look no further than the College Board, the administrator of the test, which offers many classes and books to help students prepare.
Though without top scores, grades, or eye-catching accomplishments, students sometimes still manage to sneak into top schools. They master the timeless art of the essay. They write about themselves (in their own voice); focus in on a narrow topic; and, above all, remain genuine. Don’t make anything up. (No “life-changing events” unless they really were). Really, there’s no one way to thread the needle. There’s no exact path to a dream school. Yet thousands of students obsess over every detail, anxiously awaiting the day in March when the acceptance letters arrive in the mailbox, or, increasingly, the inbox.