By Jan Kerchner, MBA CEO,
The College Blueprint, LLC
The Ivy League - In reality, the term began as a way to name a football league. Yes, that’s right. It was a football league composed of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth and Brown. These are some of the oldest and most competitive colleges in the United States, but let’s not lose sight of the other amazing colleges that are not included in this “league”, such as Stanford, Berkeley, William and Mary, and Vanderbilt, to name just a few.
Although many of us wish there was, there is no formula to gaining admission to the Ivy League or other very competitive colleges. The key to admission is to find your passion and pursue it. Be authentic. Be a remarkable student of excellence. While this might sound very unspecific, stick with me and by the end, you will get the idea.
The key factors considered in the admissions decision are very similar regardless of how competitive a college might be. The top admission factors usually include GPA, rigor of high school courses, test scores, essays, letters of recommendation, and demonstrated interest, or in my terms, passion. The selection process typically begins by evaluating a student’s metrics or statistics, the GPA and test scores. Of these two, the top factor in college admissions across the board, year after year, is the student’s GPA. College admissions officers see this as an indicator of how the student performed academically over an extended period of time. It is proof of the student’s ability to sustain a high level of academic performance. This is the first hurdle the student must clear to remain under consideration.
For competitive colleges, the applicant pool is typically filled with many students with very high GPA’s. This indicates to colleges that the student is serious and passionate about doing well in high school and wants to learn for the sake of learning, not just to gain an extra point on their GPA for an AP class.
Coupled with the GPA is the rigor of the student’s high school curriculum. They want to know if the student challenged himself/herself by taking the highest level of courses available at the high school. For the most competitive colleges, students need to be taking a number of courses at an advanced level. This demonstrates the student’s passion for learning, their ability to do well in a high level course, and their passion for studying the subject or subjects they intend to study in college.
The next factor, standardized test scores, is the leveler and is the second major hurdle a student must clear. It basically compares a student’s mastery of academic material, writing and mathematical ability, and critical thinking skills with the other students who are applying to the college. Most applicants to competitive colleges have very strong test scores and once a student has cleared this hurdle the colleges will begin to look deeper into the application to discover who the student is and why the student should be admitted.
After evaluating the student’s metrics, and the college admissions officer is comfortable the student may be able to handle the rigor of the college’s academic curriculum, they now want to know-Who is this student as a person? What have they accomplished beyond a strong GPA and test scores? What do they believe in? Who are they and what are they going to contribute to our campus and eventually, to our alumni body? What are they passionate about?
Several years ago, a student of mine became passionate about curing mesothelioma, a fatal disease with which her father had been diagnosed. She was passionate about pursing ways to cure it. From this passion, she raised $80,000 for research, met with senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill, spoke at an International Symposium on Mesothelioma in Washington, DC, served as an Intern for the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, and established a Breath of Hope Club at her high school. This is passion. This was noticed in her application and this student was admitted to Harvard. Yes, she had great grades and test scores, but what made her a remarkable student of excellence was her passion and what she did with it. The student was able to demonstrate her passion through her resume, college essay, and letters of recommendation. These are the differentiators.
Most students applying to competitive colleges provide well-written essays. The key to a GREAT essay is for it to reflect the student’s voice, personality, passion, and impact, not the voice of a teacher, essay coach or parent. It needs to show the student is a standout person of excellence who has pursued their passion. Admissions officers have read so many essays that they know when a student’s essay has been edited and reworked by an adult, counselor, teacher or essay coach.
Letters of recommendation written by teachers provide colleges with the insight to what the student is like in the classroom, the extent to which the student is respected by the faculty and provides indicators on how the student might contribute to the college classroom.
Letters of recommendation for successful students applying to very competitive colleges may have statements such as “This student is one of the most qualified students I have taught in years,” or “This student raises the most intriguing questions and has made significant contributions to our school” or “I highly recommend this student for admission, above all others”. For a teacher to write these statements, the student must have demonstrated intellectual curiosity, asked provocative questions, served as a leader and positive influencer and be of very strong character. The student must impress the teacher with their genuine passion for learning, character and leadership. If a student has a passion for learning and is of strong character, all of this will come naturally to him or her and this is a student who may be a strong candidate for a very competitive college.
Above all, the key differentiator in the student’s application is the action they have taken to pursue their passion or passions inside and outside of the classroom. For the Harvard student, she pursued her passion for finding a cure for heart disease in a number of remarkable and different ways. Another student with whom we worked, was conflicted about what he wanted to study in college. He thought it was business but had interests in other areas too. He decided to explore every option from marine biology to film to business. This young man continued to pursue his passions in very remarkable ways until he had a direction. He had both Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania (Penn) pursuing him and in the end, his heart and soul belonged to Penn. In this case, he was not sure of what he wanted to study but he did know he was passionate about several things. He pursued each one and through the process of elimination, landed on his major and achieved admission to several Ivy League caliber colleges.
Pursue your passion for academics, learning, and a cause you believe in. Be a remarkable student of excellence. Even if admission to an Ivy League caliber school eludes you, you will be prepared for the road to admission of an amazing university where your future will be launched.
Jan Kerchner has an undergraduate degree from The Pennsylvania State University and an MBA from Cornell University. She has a Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA and is a Certified Educational Planner. She is the founder and CEO of the College Blueprint, LLC, an educational consulting firm serving the Irvine community for 18 years and a recipient of the 2017 Irvine Excellence Award for College Counseling.
GPA is the most important factor in the college admissions process. One way to improve your grades is to know your preferred learning style. Each learning style has specific strategies which can be helpful to assist you in learning material. Take a look below and see if you can figure out YOUR learning style. Once you have done so, we encourage you to utilize some of these strategies while studying for your classes.
Visual Learning Style
These students learn language skills by sight, mainly by reading and watching. They tend to be fast thinkers, to gesture freely while talking, and to communicate very clearly and concisely. They learn well from demonstration process – they must see to understand.
These students are able to understand material when they’re able to see numbers written. Alike with visual language students, they must see to understand, learn best by reading and writing, and tend to be fast thinkers.
Auditory Learning Style
These students learn best by listening. When studying, auditory learners listen to podcasts or video blogs that include various information pertaining to a subject. When recalling information, they are quick to remember specific phrases and statistics they heard during a lesson or supplemental study resource. They are normally very attentive listeners, and actively participate in conversations.
These students are better with numbers when they can hear them spoken. These learners listen to statistics several times over in order to fully understand the information they’ve been given. They’re especially interested in visualizing numbers based on how the statistic or math problem is explained.
Kinesthetic Learning Style
These people are feeling and touch-oriented, good at hands-on tasks, good linguists, and very sensitive to others' feelings. They learn best by doing and moving. Good ways to learn are through hands-on projects or experiments, writing down the information that they’re provided, and applying it to real-life situations. They may have difficulty sitting for long periods of time.
Individual Learning Style
These students prefer to study on their own. They are diligent and focused, and are most productive
when in a quiet, individual setting. These students often perform well under test-taking conditions.
Group Learning Style
These students learn best by interacting with a group. These people benefit greatly from the environment of a classroom, and do best when they’re able to interact with classmates. Communicative activities allow them to feel comfortable, and group members facilitate their learning capabilities.
Expressive Learning Style
Oral Expression Learner
These students usually do well in speech classes. Oral Expression is the means by which a student
presents their thoughts through speech, and they learn by applying these strategies to classroom
material. They are able to convey their thoughts clearly by way of speech. They often learn best by
creating presentations for their classes.
Written Expression Learner
These students are often very confident in expressing themselves through writing. They are very thorough writers, and this translates into their learning. They read diligently, and will re-read several times until a topic is crystal-clear. They can spend hours rewriting notes and summaries while studying for a test, yet this dedication will earn them excellent grades.
Tindall, L.W., et. al. (1980). Puzzled about educating special needs students?: A handbook on modifying vocational curricula for handicapped students. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Vocational Studies Center, University of Wisconsin
Several times each month we will be sending short informative articles addressing college planning topics. Our hope is that you will find them to be a quick way to stay current on timely admissions information. Feel free to pass them on to friends and family members. Additionally, if you have topics you would like to see us include in future issues of Expert Insights, please let us know. We would love to hear from you!
Summer Experiences & Programs
During the summer months, there are countless interesting and unique opportunities to pursue as a high school student. Going to the beach, hanging out with friends and sleeping-in are an appealing part of summer. But make sure you balance your free time with positive activities that will allow you to learn, mature, and gain more independence and experience as you prepare to apply to college.
Colleges LOVE to see that a student has taken the initiative to participate in enriching and meaningful experiences and summer is a great time to do this. Your time does not need to be spent at a program on a college campus. While these can be very good, it is most important that your experience demonstrates your interests and passions.
If your interest is in the sciences, you might spend several weeks in a laboratory working under the mentorship of a respected faculty member. If you are interested in animal science, how about volunteering to work at the local SPCA or Pet Adoption Center? Interested in being a doctor or a lawyer? Ask if you can shadow your family physician for a few weeks or offer to volunteer at City Hall. If writing is your interest and passion, start a blog. Get creative!
If you are unable to participate in a lengthy summer program, look into building your community service hours through volunteering in an environment where you will grow and learn. Aside from volunteering, there is always the option of taking a class at your local community college.
You will never regret pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, but you will regret not taking advantage of opportunities at this time in your life. Summer presents an opportunity to grow and gain new experiences. Take advantage of it!