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: