Advice on Getting Into College

Every time a parent comes to my office with a pen and paper and asks expectantly, “Exactly what does my daughter have to do to get into Harvard, Yale and Princeton?” my heart sinks. There is no sure-fire formula, no magic bullet, no easy way to give this parent what he or she wants.

My real challenge, though, isn’t letting the parent down gently but helping that person reframe the question. A parent should be asking me to help him or her find the right college to challenge and enrich the life of his or her daughter. (The Ellis School, where I work, is all-girls.)

When a student finds a true fit, she will be accepted and will thrive.

The next question is the important one: How does a student find the right fit? The search for the right academic program, the right geographical location, the right physical environment and the right social ambience must come first, and that is a subject for another article.

But once the student has some inkling of what he or she wants, then this student has to find the right academic level for him or her.

None of the above is important if the student is overwhelmed or under-stimulated, just as the right academic fit will not be sufficient if the student is unhappy in other ways. And given the abundance of information we have in print and online, it is possible to find an appropriate academic level.

The courses that the student decides to take in high school are important, because all colleges like students who “challenge” themselves. Students don’t have to take suicidal loads, but they should seize their school’s opportunities within reason. Grades and standardized-test scores do matter—a lot—no matter what any college-admissions office says. The average grades and standardized-test scores of the last admitted class of most colleges is a statistic available on college Web sites, in college guide books and in guidance-office software. (And parents and students need to beware of old data; it changes too fast! It is very important to know that and to use that figure wisely.)

The student should be comfortable within those boundaries, and, because girls are at a disadvantage in the application pools to liberal-arts colleges, they should be at the upper end. If there is some compensating factor, if the student is a recruited athlete or an underrepresented minority or a legacy, he or she may be able to look at the lower edge of the statistics. And no one should be fooled by kind admissions officers who say that SATs are unimportant in colleges’ decision-making. It’s a delusion, however understandable, to think that a college will see your child as you do and make her the exception to the rule.

If your daughter has the numbers that put her in a college’s “admissible pool,” then the intangibles kick in. Some pundits suggest finding a hook by starting squash lessons at age 6 or French-horn lessons at 7, but for most students, the intangible is their personalities and their abilities to express that. One college-admissions director at a highly selective school told me that the deciding factor among many highly qualified applicants is the energy of the student’s essays, and, in my experience, that is true. The student doesn’t have to have swum the English Channel, but he or she has to be energized by that experience and has to write about it in a way that conveys that energy. The student has to be him- or herself, even though that self is an unfinished 17-year old, and has to write the essay no one else could have written.

What admissions officers, high school counselors and parents are looking for is a student who is authentically engaged by her life and her world; that is not something that can be created starting at age 16 or 17. After all, we are not just dealing with applicants in this process; we are dealing with individuals, our sons and daughters, who have been developing for 17 years.

The advice I would offer to parents is to give your children the opportunities to thrive, to grow and to pursue their interests.  Encourage them rather than push them. Support them in their interests rather than finding more “marketable” ones. Engage with them as they engage the world and then step back when they are ready to grow more independent.

To the parent in my office looking for the quick Ivy fix, I’d compliment her on the amazing 16-year-old she has raised and then ask her to let her daughter take it from here. When students come to the college-search process, they will find a good fit if they know how to do their research well. We can help them start their research then give them some space. And the greatest gift we can give may be to joyfully affix the decals of whatever colleges they choose onto the back windows of our cars.

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