When it comes to unhooked kids, I think of elite college admissions not as a lottery, but as weighted dice. The right set of accomplishments and recommendations can make your odds much better, but there are no guarantees for any particular place. My son applied to Princeton Early Action this last October and was deferred in December. But last month he received a "likely letter" from Yale which, all things being equal, should have been more difficult to get than admission with Princeton during Early Action. This uncertainty is part of the reason for the increased number of applications.

It's useful to think of elite colleges as really having the following different tiers, and admission becomes significantly easier as you go down a tier.

1. Elite Early Action: This is Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT (HYPSM). They are confident enough in their status that students can apply to them early, get admission, but are not required to attend. Caltech is also an early action school, but it's tiny and always in the shadow of MIT.
2. Elite Early Decision: This consists of the remaining Ivy league schools, plus schools like UChicago, Duke, Hopkins, and Northwestern. UChicago also has Early Action, but the admit rate is pathetically low and the only people getting in that way are those who would qualify for one of the HYPSM schools.
3: Highly selective: This category is roughly the remaining top 25 schools. It includes very solid schools like Rice and Vanderbilt, and the strong publics like Berkeley, Michigan, and UCLA. The private schools tend to be ED with only a couple of exceptions.
4. Selective: This is roughly #26-50 in USNWR. Every one will provide a solid education but admission is considerably easier than in tiers 1-3.

An important thing to know about the Ivies is that less than 1/2 the student body is selected based upon merit. There are a number of preference groups that have an easier time in terms of admissions, and the most common preference groups are Legacy, Race, Athletes, and Children of Faculty. It's not that the kids who get admitted under these preference groups are weak, but that the ones without preferences have to be superlative by comparison.

Second, for tiers 2-4, there is a significant advantage to using Early Decision relative to Regular Decision. Your application will get read more carefully, and there are fewer of what I call "filled quotas". By this I mean that every college has target numbers for various groups, whether that be geographical distribution, race, SES category, choice of major, etc. By the time RD gets to your application saying you want to be a CS major, they will look at many how many CS majors they have already admitted and think "we really don't have space for another one" and move on.

Next, we should talk about stats. The most important thing to understand is that when it comes to tiers #1 and #2, stats won't get you in, but will keep you out. Solid stats are expected, and unhooked kids should be at/above the 75th percentile on the SAT or ACT. If you are not, then barring something else really desirable about your application, your chances are slim. Likewise, excellent grades are also expected.

What is often given little attention is the high importance given to recommendations. You want your kids' junior year teachers to love them. That means they pay attention in class and are active in class discussions.

What you really need for tiers 1 and 2 are extracurricular activities that makes the admission committee take notice of you. It could being nationally ranked in your activity, excelling in very hard tests like USAMO, being a truly outstanding musician, published research, etc.

The key thing about the extracurricular activity is that it had better be something your child enjoys, because they will be working on it for a long time. For one of my children, that was art, and for the other, research. A really good book that explains how to do this part well is Cal Newport's book "How to be a high school superstar".


Edited by mithawk (02/02/20 09:48 AM)