Who Gets into Top Colleges and What Makes the Difference: Dean of Admissions Tells All

The title of this summarized interview with Duke University’s Dean of Admissions is the most Frequently Asked  Question of students applying to top colleges in the U.S. And that question has been in that #1 place for the last 10 years, ever since – it seems – greater numbers of high school students from all 50 States and overseas have  “discovered” elite private colleges and universities. Parents also want to know if there’s a secret or some special formula to get into a top college – whether you consider “top” to be the first 10 on U.S. News and World Report  rankings, the first 20, or some other measurement. Here’s how one Dean of Undergraduate Admissions responds:

What Happens to an Application from Start to Finish?

Step One, or The First Read:

An admissions officer from that student’s State reads the entire application and makes a preliminary assessment of how competitive that student is within the likely pool. (About 50% are competitive, 50% are not.)

Step Two

Those 50% application gets another two full reads – one from the Reading Staff, the other from an Admissions Officer, both of whom rate the student in six areas. Then the application gets a third read. From these reviews, about 5% of applicants will be so compelling that they are assured of acceptance. The remaining group of recommended applicants are sent to the committee for discussion. The full process takes three months.


What Kind of Student is Recommended for Committee Review?

Each student will be considered in the context of his or her school’s curriculum. All reviewers are required to read carefully the high school’s profile – a crucial piece of information for evaluating an applicant. For candidates to be considered seriously, they will have had to challenge themselves relative to what is typical of good students at that high school. Colleges can make those judgments because they are familiar with a variety of educational systems: Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, the French Baccalaureate, and offerings specific to a high school.


On Which High School Years Does the Committee Focus?

It focuses on all four years, taking a serious look at whether the student began academic rigor and extracurricular engagement from at least Grade 9 and continued those efforts consistently throughout high school. That indicates both commitment and capability.


Why is Academic Challenge so important to Top Colleges?

The college wants to make sure that the student doesn’t go over his head and sabotage himself by enrolling without being ready. The student should go “above and beyond” high school expectations to be considered for a top college. That aspect is difficult to define, but any college recognizes it when it sees it. Concretely, that “extra” quality means:

  1. Impact. That is understood as students who have made things better for their high school by their presence. This could be in quiet way or a visible way, but their impact is noticeable.
  2. Engagement with the academic material. That quality is usually reflected in the Letters of Recommendation. (Does the student think critically? What kinds of questions does he pose? Does he make connections between/among other subjects?)
  3. How does this College or University picture this student on its campus? Only each institution can answer this question for its own needs and priorities, for the qualities it seeks in a student, and for the programs it wants filled. This is only understood from the inside, as a member of the institution. The priorities of that specific college cannot be guessed from the outside — by the student, his classmates, or his relatives.


Mistakes Students and Parents Make, and How to Avoid Them

  1.  Trying to anticipate what an Ivy League or similar college wants. Almost always, that’s a mistake and results in strained, artificial efforts to please – efforts which fail, because usually the guesses are wrong. It also results in lack of student enthusiasm for his choices. Both parents and students can be guilty of trying to outguess an admissions committee, including the worst possible mistake: stopping a cherished activity because of a belief it “won’t look good” to the college.
  2. Choosing the wrong college, based on parental desires and disappointments.Too often, parents confuse their ambition with their student’s ambition. The parent’s responsibility is to support the child in that child’s natural interests and capabilities because that will produce the recognizable depth that the committee looks for.
  3. Adult editing of the student’s application essay. “The more involved the parent, the worse it gets.” The admissions committee reads a student’s essay as if it is spoken, not written. Adults do a poor job of mimicking the student’s voice.
  4. Inappropriate use of social media, if brought to the University’s attention. “Don’t do anything in social media that you would not want your parents to see.” Social media is not the student’s own world, even though students like to assume that.


What Qualifies a Student for a Top College

  1. The student’s own performance, intellectual rigor, and academic talent.
    The first constituency of any elite university is its faculty. Non-academic performance will always be secondary.Median score range for Duke students on SAT CR + Math is 1420 – 1550, obviously meaning a quarter of the admitted students score below 1420; a quarter score above 1550 on the two sections combined. For ACT scores, these ranges are 32-34. These ranges, combined with stellar grades, are typical of other top colleges as well. Grades are evaluated based on the level of that school. For public schools, this means that the student will likely be in the top 2-3% of his class. For private schools, the student will be within 25-30% of his class in order to be considered competitive for admissions.
  2. Intellectual ambition, as evidenced by the student’s entire file.
  3. Ability to handle the particular academic approach and philosophy of that college or university. (For Duke, that would be its rigorous interdisciplinary requirements.)
  4. Likelihood of contributing to the college community (non-academic talents, support of others, school spirit, campus life). Students like being with other talented students.


Tipping Factors for Duke Admission

None of these replace superior academic qualifications, but in deciding among qualified candidates, the following factors may tip decisions:

  1. Diversity. This is more than ethnicity, nationality, race, or economics. It includes personal interests, perspectives, experiences, which may include geography but goes beyond geography. Duke wants a varied, complex class.
  2. Legacy: A minor factor, but can be a tie breaker.
  3. Athletics: Duke is a Division I school. Athletics is less important at some other institutions.
  4. Projected Demographics: Where will the student likely be living and working 20 years from now? Duke would like that future geographical representation to be diverse.
  5. Ability to Pay. Duke is need-blind for U.S. students, but need-aware for Internationals, as are most U.S. colleges and universities.

For the entire interview with Dean ChristophGuttentag, go to:



College Admissions 2015: Facts and Trends

This year’s college admissions massacre

You’ve been watching the trends, no doubt: An increasing number of colleges moving to single digit acceptance rates. You may be surprised to learn, however, that not all of those tighter races are occurring in the Ivy League. In fact, only five members of that single-digit crowd are Ivies. For two years in a row now, Stanford has been closest to Harvard in difficulty of admission, surpassing both Yale and Princeton. The University of Chicago, historically accepting from 13-40 % of applicants over the last 10years, this year equaled both Brown’s and MIT’s acceptance rates of ~8%. Cornell’s acceptance rate was matched by that of Claremont-McKenna and was exceeded by what Duke University reported.

What’s going on?

Lots of things.Particular colleges may have unique reasons this year, such as the University of Chicago’s expansion of its financial aid program (resulting in more applications) and its higher Yields (students accepting offers) in the last two years than has historically been true. In addition, a variety of factors have brought Chicago up in U.S. News and World Report rankings, making it now #4. That change also has stimulated Chicago’s application numbers.

However, the single most important factor affecting attempts and results across the board continues to be the Common Application, which allows applicants to apply to dozens of institutions simultaneously, with or without supplemental application material. Colleges and universities receiving a deluge of applications need to be able to predict approximately how many of the offers they extend will be formally accepted with a deposit by May 1. Some of those colleges tend to receive more applications than others, simply because they are viewed as fallback options or relative “safeties,” even when such terms do not reflect the academic rigor or reputation of such colleges. Everything is relative in college admissions – from the viewpoint of the college and from the viewpoint of the student.

In other words, compared to Yale and Princeton, Duke is a “safety.” Compared to Stanford, Claremont-McKenna is a “safety.” With the Common Application, why not just throw in an application of a college “lower ranked” than the top 10? The reason why not is that unless the student looks particularly well suited to the alternate college, the student is likely to be either rejected or waitlisted. Leading to the next trend….

The 2015 Wait List Pandemic

With such volumes of applications, many of those from outstanding students, colleges are playing the same games students are: hedging their bets. They are extending offers only to those outstanding students who are likely to consider that offer very seriously. It has been common this March and April to receive 6 or 7 wait list results, 3 or 4 rejections, and only 1 or 2 acceptances. So, if you’re a student, perhaps currently a sophomore or junior in high school…

How Do You Avoid a Wait List Result?

You avoid it first of all by being more targeted and selective yourself. Be as selective and specific in your list of colleges as the colleges are deliberate about evaluating their choices and extending offers. This means not approaching the process as if it’s a numbers game, a lottery, or as if colleges are as indiscriminate as some students. If you want to be treated respectfully and seriously, then show that to every college which receives your application. The priority should be…

The Student’s Own List

What are you trying to achieve? To be admitted to just any college? Any well-known college?Any college “approved of” or popular among your peers?Any college within a particular range of selectivity?A college at a particular “ranking” by U.S. News and World Report? When you examine your goals for college and beyond, and factor into that how the college may view your academic credentials relative to its selectivity, you will begin to view some of your choices as inappropriate and others as more “targeted.” Not all colleges, even within a narrow range of rankings, are similar to each other. Institutions vary widely in a number of factors: size, academic emphasis, student life, campus culture, academic programs, and options. If what you desire is what they have, and if that match is obvious by your background and your statement of purpose, you are less likely to be waitlisted.

Public Institutions Are Becoming the New Privates

….at least in some ways. One of those ways is that students are including many public universities on their lists. Until recently, most students who were applying to many private colleges also included only their own state’s college system as a “back-up” or “safety.” Now, typically a student applying to private colleges across the country will include three or four public systems in various states as well. This trend has resulted in two developments: (1) increased prominence of those public universities, leading to greater application pressures on them; (2) higher numbers of wait-lists and rejections, both for in-state and for out-of-state applicants.   For example, consider…

The University of California, 2015

What has been a massacre at Stanford in both 2014 and 2015 was a bloodbath at seven U.C. campuses this year. I have never seen it this bad, nor have most admissions officers. Many factors contribute, the two most important being (1) population pressures within California, which can be expected to maintain and increase slightly next admission year; (2) the State’s budget shortfalls as they affect the University of California system. For the second year in a row, the University has been permitted to override its mission of educating California’s students in order to receive higher tuition for out-of-state and international students. That in turn has allowed UC to accept statistically less qualified students (grades, scores, accomplishments) merely to meet budget goals. Where previously an accomplished California student could expect admission offers from 4 or 5 campuses, this year hundreds of students with 4.0 grade point averages and high SAT or ACT scores have received one or two offers from UC campuses collectively.

Summing up the numbers, from The Los Angeles Times:

 “In recent years, UC sharply increased the numbers of students from outside the state because they pay about $23,000 more in tuition than Californians do. But the rising presence of non-Californians is a hot political item, and legislative proposals to increase state funding to the UC require a freeze on their ranks.

 [UC President Janet] Napolitano said the level of non-Californians offered admission will be capped next year at UCLA and Berkeley, “where the demand is highest,” but she did not freeze it at the other seven undergraduate campuses. UC San Diego, Davis and Irvine also enroll significant numbers of non-Californians.

 An unprecedented 20% of this year’s freshman class across UC is from outside California and about 30% at UCLA and UC Berkeley. Though UC officials insist that Californians are not being excluded to make room for non-residents, many parents and legislators believe that UC has admitted far too many students from outside the state and are concerned that the practice hurts in-state students’ chances for admission.

 About 103,000 California high school seniors have applied to UC for fall 2015 admission, about 3.2% more than last year.

 What to do?

 New Strategies for California Students, 2016 and Beyond

 For the foreseeable future, take nothing for granted.

 (1) Apply not only to every U.C. campus, and with varied majors, but include at least one or two campuses in the State University system, such as a Cal Poly and one other.

 (2) Apply to as many private colleges as are reasonable for your academic goals, while keeping in mind my earlier admonitions about your own selectivity.

 (3) If for financial or family or other practical reasons, you must attend college only in the West, consider the Pacific Northwest, and not only the University of Washington Seattle, which has enjoyed tremendous popularity in the last three years, leading to application pressures on them and thus much higher rejection rates. It would be wise for you to broaden your list to Colorado and Arizona (further east also, if possible). Remember what I said earlier, “Colleges are playing the same games students are.”Some public university systems are experiencing what California has: budget concerns. This means that for those systems, there may some advantage to you in applying as an out-of-state student.

 Additional Strategies are Possible.

 Are you currently a freshman, sophomore, or junior? For more information on how we can help you optimize your college possibilities, use the contact form on this website. Give us a little information about your needs so that we can start a live conversation with you.

2015 Most Selective Colleges

Brown 8%
Claremont McKenna 10%
Columbia 6%
Cornell 15%
Dartmouth 10%
Duke 9%
Harvard 5%
MIT 8%
Pomona 10%
Princeton 7%
Stanford 5%
U of Chicago 8%
U of Penn 10%
Vanderbilt 10%
Yale 6%

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