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.