A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Collegesby Michele A. Hernández
A former admissions officer at Dartmouth College reveals how the world's most highly selective schools really make their decisions.
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The Target AudienceThe most natural thing to assume is that you are writing your application so that brilliant Ivy League-educated people can read it and laud your humor, charm, and intellectual prowess. But have you ever stopped to think why these brilliant educators would be working in an admissions office, rather than in an upper-level teaching or administrative capacity?
THE TYPICAL ADMISSIONS OFFICER In most highly selective admissions offices, two very different kinds of admissions officers can be found. Though I admit to stereotyping, most admissions people would probably agree with the basic truths surrounding these two groups.
The first group would include highly talented recent college graduates from either that particular college or another highly selective college. These individuals tend to be very bright, people-oriented, interested in education as a broad field, and anxious to gain some valuable job experience before moving on to a teaching position or perhaps a graduate program. Although they are not very experienced in admissions, they know the caliber of students who are accepted into highly selective colleges because of their firsthand experience with their supertalented classmates. They are, for the most part, extremely qualified to judge candidates in terms of their intellectual potential. Finally, they tend to have a risk-taking capacity that allows them to break the rules here and there when they really believe in a candidate. As a group, they are in touch with current students on a day-to-day basis, since they run most of the student programs, such as hosting and tour guiding.
The second group is composed of the "lifers," people from all walks of life who for some reason got into admissions and have been doing it for so long that they tend to be a little out of touch with the current quality of students. For the most part, they have much less interaction with actual college students and can be slightly out of touch with present-day realities. They may consist of graduate students; former teachers; spouses of professors and college staff; and career administrators. The majority of this group did not graduate from any highly selective college, let alone an Ivy League one.
Since they did not attend highly selective colleges themselves, they sometimes have a harder time recognizing truly great applicants. In some extreme cases, they have to learn a formula for quality applicants and then apply this formula to the applicant pool. In effect, these officers have learned to recognize truly intelligent applicants through repeated viewing. Of course, there are exceptions in this category. I feel fortunate to have worked with some of the brightest people in admissions, not only those at Dartmouth, but also admissions officers from other top colleges whom I traveled with during recruiting seasons. However, these high-quality officers are the exception, not the rule.
As you can imagine, there is little motivation for a talented young graduate to spend more than a year or two in an admissions office before moving on to other academic endeavors, such as law school, medical school, or a Ph.D. program. Thus, there is always a huge turnover in the first group, while the older guard, the career admissions officers, remains the staple of most Ivy League offices. With the exception of Harvard and sometimes Princeton, usually under 50 percent of those working on Ivy League admissions staffs (and here you can include Williams, Swarthmore, and Amherst, to name just a few) attended an Ivy League college. Even if you consider the current deans of admissions at the Ivies, very few attended an Ivy League institution themselves. My career paththat is, leaving Dartmouth for four years (one year in Spain, one in a master's program at Columbia University in comparative literature and English, and two teaching) and then going back to work in the admissions officeis atypical.
I hope by now the point is clear: For the most part, Ivy League hotshots are not the ones reading your application. You will note the conspicuous absence of Rhodes scholars or well known educators on admissions staffs. Many of the people who will be judging you went to less prestigious colleges and sometimes begrudge those who have had more opportunity than they have had. As my former colleague from the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, and former Brown admissions officer Harry Bauld writes in his hilarious book on college essays, "This is your audience. Study them well. Not exactly the Nobel Prize panel."
What I am trying to say without shocking you too much is that the very best of applicants will often be brighter than many of those who will be evaluating them.
THE IMPLICATIONS The main fact you should keep in mind is that sometimes admissions officers will miss subtle points because they are not extremely perceptive readers, or because they are reading too fast, or because they are trying to highlight one main point from a letter, or because they are just plain exhausted from reading applications for seven to eight hours a day for months at a time. Unfortunately, many admissions officers are not expert readers (many more have degrees in education than in an academic discipline), and most of them are not scholars or intellectuals. Add to this problem the above factors and you can understand why oftentimes subtle points are overlooked even though they can be crucial to understanding a student's academic potential.
Let me give an example that took place at Dartmouth during a reading retreat, when the whole admissions office gets together, discusses strategies and priorities for the upcoming year, and then reads through actual case studies from the current year's class. All thirteen of us prepared the five case studies the night before so we could read our write-ups aloud and then see how people voted. The biggest disagreement concerned an extremely subtle case of a girl who came from a very humble background. She knew early on that she wanted to be a veterinarian, and she had started working ten hours a week and all summer for two years in a vet's office to obtain firsthand experience. Veterinary medicine was her passion, and you could see throughout all her class work and activities that she was preparing for a career in the field. All her recommendations stressed that she was very quiet but that when she did contribute to class, she almost always offered a tremendous and insightful thought that really turned the classroom into a live arena for debate. One even referred to her as something like a "creative whirlwind of ideas." Though all her teachers said she was modest and quiet, no one said that she was a low impact person who just blended in with the scenery. On the contrary, they all pointed to the fact that she just didn't blather on and on about what she knew, as some students did, but, rather, that her idea was to follow the discussion intently and then to interject her point as things became more interesting.
What became immediately evident in our follow-up discussion was that nearly all the old-guard people in the office immediately latched onto her teachers' remarks about the quiet aspect of her character, stressing that she would be a low-impact person at Dartmouth and would never add to class discussion because she'd be afraid to speak up. In other words, they totally ignored the body of the recommendations, which stressed that she always had meaningful contributions and that she just waited until the right moment to share her thoughts. Based on this information, only two out of thirteen people voted to accept her.
As you can see from this example, it takes a much more comprehensive reading to get beyond the formula (which in this case was the word quiet) and to delve into the meaning of what the recommendations were saying, which was that at first glance you might think she was quiet, but, in fact, she was one of the most valuable presences in class discussions.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
The most obvious point is that teachers, guidance counselors, and students should avoid being too subtle. Remember, most recommendations are read quickly and the reader is skimming for main points. Rather than writing a long, detailed letter that chronicles the entire intellectual development of the student ("When Jim was in ninth grade, his writing was not very good; then in tenth, I noticed some improvement...."), just get to the point. How is the student now? Hit your main point hard: "In my class of twenty-five honors-level students, Jim is by far the finest writer and thinker." If you want to convey the idea that even though Jim is quiet, he is not a wallflower, be direct: "Although Jim is a quiet person, his insights are so powerful that when he does contribute to class, he changes the way others think about an issue." If the recommender I described above had been more direct, there would not have been such a high potential for misunderstanding.
The same rule applies to the student. Don't try to hide your accomplishments behind a wall of modesty. If you are captain of your team, come out and say so. If you are president of an organization that is citywide, explain briefly that your role goes beyond that of the average club president. If your science experiment won a major competition, write about it and explain how high the level of competition was. I will offer more specific information in later chapters, but keeping your audience in mind will always help your chances of admission.
THE MONEY QUESTION
Despite the fact that most people are convinced that wealth, fame, and position in society will be looked upon as positive factors in the Ivy League admissions process, this is simply not the case anymore. The tendency at all the Ivies is to reward students from very humble backgrounds who have gone above and beyond their means in order to succeed academically. Since for the last several years the Ivies have been trying to shed their image as snobbish enclaves for wealthy and privileged students, they scrutinize applicants who have never had to work for anything In the majority of cases, coming across as a preppy, well-off kid will work against you in two ways. First, you will alienate many admissions officers who might hold your upbringing against you, especially if they come from a more modest background, and second, you are putting yourself right into the Ivy mold that these colleges are trying to break away from.
During my years in admissions, I was sometimes surprised by the bias Ivy officers held against privileged students, especially those who went to fancy private high schools. I disagree that there is something inherently undesirable about having smart students from wealthy families on Ivy campuses. In my opinion, having a wide mix of socioeconomic backgrounds on every campus is an important part of diversity. Just as poor students didn't choose to grow up poor, few rich students choose to grow up wealthy. I disagree strongly that being privileged should automatically count as a strike against the student. However, the reality is that it often does, so it is necessary to take this into account when writing college applications.
How does all this relate to your presentation of your application? The first thing to avoid is the tendency to brag about your privileged upbringing. You'll notice that most colleges have you start by filling in your parents' college backgrounds and professions. I know that when I filled in these boxes, I was convinced that the admissions committee would be impressed by my parents' backgrounds and jobs. I thought I would get "extra points" because I came from a family that valued education. In fact, I thought the committee would see that I had a good chance of succeeding since I came from a successful family. I could not have been more wrong.
The main reason colleges ask this question is to see if you qualify as a "legacy" at their college, meaning that either your mother or father graduated from their school (see chapter 12 for more details). Another reason is to see if you have come from a much less sophisticated background and therefore would have lower standardized test scores and perhaps a less polished application. What these questions are not there for is to impress the reader, some of whom have been known to harbor grudges against kids who "have it easy." It's a matter of preconceived notions and expectations, as well as personal biases.
If an officer is reading the application of a student from Groton whose father went to Harvard Medical School and is the chief neurosurgeon at a major hospital and whose mom has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is in private practice, he starts out by expecting a lot of the student. Clearly, the student comes from a family where there has always been enough money to put a child in the finest nursery schools, kindergarten, after-school activities, and so on. Undoubtedly, they have been able to afford private tutors for both standardized tests and high school subjects. If the officer then sees that this applicant has mid-600 SAT scores, a B high school average, and has been involved in extracurricular activities such as lacrosse, sailing, and horseback riding, he is bound not to be very impressed. The officer's thoughts would run as follows:
He has had every possible advantage and still only managed mediocre [by Ivy League standards, that is] grades and scores and has never really gone beyond the classroom to seek additional academic challenges.
Now let's look at a student with similar achievements from a totally different background. The first thing the officer sees about Susan is that neither parent went to college; her father is an auto mechanic and her mom is a postal clerk. She goes to a poor inner-city high school where only 15 percent of the population goes on to four-year colleges. Before the officer even starts reading her application, he mentally adjusts his expectations and attitude. No need to feel threatened or jealous of the advantages she might have had. Despite her background, and the fact that she could not afford SAT prep courses, she was always a reader from early childhood. She scores 660 on the verbal, 650 on math, and ends up ranked tenth in her class of 110 students (let's say she earned mostly A's, with a few B's), taking the hardest course load available to her. She is captain of two athletic teams, has done significant community-service work, and teachers say she adds that extra spark to class discussions. Susan would get the vote of any highly selective admissions committee because she rose to the top with limited resources and managed to stand out. The readers can feel good, thinking that they are helping out someone less fortunate by giving her that ticket to an Ivy League school so she can succeed in life.
Some of you may take my advice too much to heart and be tempted to lie or invent. I am not suggesting that path. I am a firm believer that the cream always rises to the top and the best kids shine, no matter where they are from. What I am saying is that you don't need to be overly specific. You have to state where your parents were educated, but when it comes time to put down their jobs, you might want to be somewhat vague. For example, if your father is the president and CEO of a big-name investment bank, the committee is going to be expecting quite an amazing applicant, one who has gone beyond his comfy lifestyle to make himself known. You might just write down "banker" for occupation. It's not a lie, but at the same time, it doesn't create such a high expectation in terms of wealth and privilege. Rather than saying "chief neurosurgeon," why not just M.D.? Rather than "chief partner in a major law firm," just put "lawyer." I'm not suggesting you deceive the readers; rather, I'm proposing that you be modest and exercise a level of humility in both your personal part of the application and the description of your parents' jobs.
Unless someone in your family is planning on using his position (let's take the CEO of a major investment firm) to erect a large building on the campus, the admissions office does not need to know exactly what your parent does. That way, an officer will be unable to judge you unjustly because of your background. You are merely protecting yourself from this unfair treatment. Better to let the committee wonder about your background and thus consider you entirely on your intellectual merit.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. The highly selective colleges are always glad to have some very high-profile students or celebrity kids at their institutions, because they get free publicity. When the son of a Disney CEO attended Dartmouth, the college received tons of good, free publicity. When Amy Carter went to Brown, people suddenly knew all about the school and its curriculum. However, a very small percentage of students will fit into this category, so if your parents are merely wealthy or partners in law firms or business firms, the highly selective colleges will not be impressed. However, if your father is a famous actor or the President of the United States, the admissions office might be more favorably impressed. In any case, all VIP cases (see chapter 14) first go through the alumni/development office, not through the admissions office. At some point, the two offices communicate. The bottom line is that in 98 percent of all cases, there is no reason to overstate your parents' position in society on your application.
In some cases, it will be obvious that you come from a privileged family just by your choice of high school and your address. If you go to a fancy private high school in New York City and live at a chic, recognizable address, you might as well write whatever you want, because your background will be quite evident anyway. In later chapters, I will go into more detail about how to present yourself without being overly coached or polished, but for now, I want to set out a constructive timetable for the years leading up to college, especially for the benefit of families who do not have access to an informed college counselor.
Copyright © 1997 by Michele A. Hernandez "END
Meet the Author
Michele A. Hernandez graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1989. She served as an assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College from 1992 to 1997. Currently, she is the president of Hernandez College Consulting LLC, one of the nation's leading firms on helping students gain admission into top colleges.
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