Ivy League & Ivy+

by Ian Fisher from College Coach

There are 11 institutions that comprise the list of the most elite* colleges and universities in the United States, and it comes as no surprise that these schools get the vast majority of the press in the world of college admission. Every year, there are dozens and dozens of stories written about students applying to the Ivies, Caltech, MIT, and Stanford, and every year thousands more students enter the fall of their senior years with guarded optimism that they might be one of the select few chosen to attend one of these schools.

Despite the abundance of newspaper clippings on these Ivy+ institutions, I find that there are still significant gaps between what families think they know and what is actually true about the selection process within the walls of the committee room. Even putting aside the misinformation about hyper-selective institutions that you might hear from your neighbor’s aunt’s cousin, there is a relative absence of good information on what makes a competitive applicant to these schools, or how to engage the process thoughtfully and meaningfully.

Today, we aim to help close part of that gap. I spoke with the half-dozen or so colleagues on my team that have worked in admission offices at these elite institutions and asked them to help add some clarity to what has become an unnecessarily stressful, opaque process. Here is what they had to say.

Your test scores matter a LOT… and then they don’t

If you want to be competitive for an Ivy+ institution (barring Olympic-level talent) you need ACTs in the mid-30s or SAT section scores at 750 and above. Once you’re in that range, however, you’ve only earned a place in the conversation. You have yet to take a meaningful step towards being admitted.

One of my favorite resources to show students with aspirations for highly selective schools is admission data for Stanford. Here you can see, among other valuable pieces of data, that 10 percent of applicants to Stanford had a perfect 800 on the critical reading section of the SAT, but they were admitted at a paltry 12 percent rate. Similarly, 18 percent had a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT; just eight percent of those perfect scorers got in.

Understand that these schools make their final decisions on subjective factors like your extracurricular engagement, your letters of recommendation, and your essays. You need to have great scores to get in, but with so many other applicants scoring so well, great scores alone won’t come close to sealing the deal.

Your relationships are critical

Having an abundance of applicants who do well “by the numbers” means that Ivy+ institutions have the luxury of making all of their decisions on the basis of more subjective, qualitative factors. That’s why your impact on your community—your teachers, your school, your town—is so important. These institutions are looking for people who will graduate and change the world, and they mean that literally.

From the moment you start high school, find opportunities to build connections with others. Get to know your teachers, ask for help, and engage with them outside of the classroom. Talk with your school counselor about opportunities to engage the campus and your larger community. Identify needs that your school might have that you are uniquely positioned to address. Build coalitions of students who want to make an impact and use those groups to make your mark. Look out for others, demonstrate kindness, develop an awareness of your place and privilege in the world. This might make you a better applicant, but it will definitely make you a better person. You can carry that with you wherever you go to college.

There just isn’t enough room

When you put together your applications in the fall of your senior year, having done everything right throughout high school, you may be a wonderful, talented, eloquent, thoughtful world-beater. And you still probably will not get in. See this not as a reflection of yourself but of the competition you face—a reflection of the sheer volume of applications from across the globe that are submitted to these schools each year. One fact of life is relatively true at all of these schools: the odds are not in your favor.

During my stint in graduate school at Stanford, then-President Hennessey came to a small seminar on leadership in higher education and discussed his goals for the university. He told us that Stanford, which had a five percent admit rate at that time, could probably admit the next-most-competitive five percent of applicants and there would be no noticeable depreciation in the quality of the student body. Unfortunately, he said, there were not enough beds on campus to accommodate that number of talented students, so they had to draw the line at five percent even if 10 percent (or more!) of applicants were similarly well-qualified.

The hard truth is that at these schools, there will never be enough space to accept everyone who “deserves” to attend. Hopefully this fact about institutional selectivity will liberate you enough to focus on a different kind of goal.

 Your goal should be about more than “getting in”

In my first few years at College Coach, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a handful of students who were fortunate to be accepted to some of these institutions. In every case, their objective for their lives has been somewhere beyond where they hoped to go to college. They have intellectual interests that they hope will not be sated by an admit letter, passions that they expect will extend beyond their formal education, and blazes of energy and enthusiasm and curiosity about the world around them.

One of my colleagues put it perfectly: When it comes to any applicant, “it’s the overarching story, the drive, and the proven commitment that’s going to count. If a student has that, the rest—scores, grades, accolades—will happen as a consequence. Details rarely create the drive; they’re usually a product of it.”

So take a look at the world and think about how you’ll make your mark. One of these schools might play a role in helping you get there, but it’s more likely that it won’t. If you come up short, it will be hard not to feel disappointed. But you have not failed. Continue to develop the focus and skills you’ll need to make an impact on the world. Everything else will follow.

*Note: The author makes this pronouncement only in terms of selectivity and not in terms of educational quality. There are dozens—perhaps hundreds—of less-selective institutions that might offer you a better overall educational experience than the 11 schools we discuss here. The fact remains that students aim for these schools in disproportionately high numbers and we at College Coach want to see them understand this process better.


About the Author

Ian Fisher is an educational consultant with College Coach. Before coming to College Coach, he worked in college admission at his alma mater, Reed College, where he read applications from all over the world. Ian has a B.A. in philosophy from Reed and a M.A. in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.