How to Crack the Ivy Code

Admission to top colleges and universities has never been more difficult.

Harvard broke all records this year, accepting just 7.1 percent of applicants, while Yale accepted 8.3 percent, Columbia 10 percent, and Princeton 9.3 percent. Brown and Dartmouth accepted 13 percent and 13.2 percent, respectively. Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst Colleges accepted 16.3 percent, 18.4 percent, 18.3 percent, and 14.2 respectively. Swarthmore College granted admission to a record-low 15 percent, while the University of Pennsylvania admitted 16.4 percent. Boston College admitted a record-low 26 percent of applicants, and Duke reported record selectivity admitting 19 percent. The overall Ivy acceptance rate this past year was 12% — again, an all time low.

With Harvard and Princeton dropping early decision/action and Harvard, Dartmouth, Swarthmore and Tufts announcing expansions of financial aid in recent months, the pool of applicants for the Ivy League and other top schools is overwhelmed with qualified students and as a consequence, this year was the lowest ever in terms of acceptances. We don’t see this trend changing any time soon with a population bubble increasing the number of teenagers and more and more highly credentialed students applying. This year there are 3.23 million graduating U.S. high school seniors, and 60-65% of them now apply to colleges. The swelling population of 18-year-olds will peak in 2009, when the largest group of high school seniors in the nation’s history, 3.2 million, are to graduate.

We receive hundreds of emails a week from devastated high school seniors who did not receive the news they had hoped for in the college admissions journey this year. Many of them had high scores, great extras, and amazing grades. We also hear from younger high school students who are desperately seeking the secrets that will make them stand out amid the scores of other super qualified applicants. The results for the students we’ve worked with in our Application Boot Camp workshops have been astounding. But, we can’t work with everyone personally, so we wanted to share our knowledge about what it takes to stand out and achieve success in the grueling Ivy League admissions process.

We believe that knowledge is power! There is less stress when we know what it is we have to do…SO…to that end…Here’s what it takes to get into America’s top colleges:

1. Grades. This is one of the first areas a college admissions board will consider. Even if a student’s SAT scores are sky-high, high school grades matter the most. A student who starts off strong but lets his grades lag in the final year, or vice versa, will have a hard time in the admissions process. Colleges want to see grades trend up in tough classes and students in the top 10% of their class. At Dartmouth this year, 93.4 percent of accepted students ranked in the top 10 percent of their secondary school’s graduating class. Our students who have gotten into top colleges typically are A students who have taken 5-6 Advanced Placement tests.

2. Test scores. The SAT score is a big part of the admission’s picture because colleges report their freshman class averages to U.S. News and World Report. The biggest mistakes we see students make is waiting until their senior year to take their first SAT test. Remember, colleges will see all of your SAT scores and will count the highest score in each section. So, begin early and take your first SAT in December or January of your junior year. That gives you time to retake it if you need to do so, with SAT preparation in-between. We don’t much like group SAT classes, but rather encourage students to work with someone who can teach you how to be a savvier test taker or to learn that skill yourself. We supply resources on our website including some amazing tutors.

3. Extracurricular activities. Don’t trust the lists of suggested extras that some college preparation sites offer. An admissions board will be much more impressed if you follow your passions and take them above and beyond. Show leadership and a theme. Use your summers to deepen that niche or themed interest.

4. Awards. Students who are talented, driven and dedicated will be seen favorably by college admissions boards. State, district or national awards in an area of expertise will set a student far apart from their competition.

5. Hooks. Sure, if you happen to be a legacy, recruited athlete, development case, famous person or have any other major ties to a particular college, leverage that hook!

While the Harvard acceptance rate and other Ivy League admissions rates are surprisingly low, it is by no means impossible to win a spot at one of these schools. For the exceptional student who works hard and prepares for college applications well in advance, an Ivy League education is still within reach.

Mimi Doe is the co/author of Don’t Worry You’ll Get In (Avalon) and co/founder of along with Michele Hernandez, America’s premiere college consultant. Doe was called a “parenting guru” by Ladies Home Journal Magazine.

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