I spent a week in June 2007 at Harvard University for their "Summer Institute on College Admissions". Speakers included Admissions Staff/Admission Deans from UPenn, Harvard, Princeton, Mt. Holyoke, U of Miami, Stanford, U of Michigan, Northwestern and Brown. Here's the website.
I also learned about Emory, Johns Hopkins, UVA and University of California-Berkeley when they hosted a counselor meeting in September 2013.
Here's some of what I learned:
How Admission Decisions Are Made at Highly Selective Colleges
Ted Spencer of University of Michigan, speaking about the process his university goes through to choose each class:
His staff read applications at least twice, maybe 3-4 times, and use a "Freshman Application Rating Sheet" to comment on dozens of criteria. You are then rated HA for high admit, A for admit, AR admit with reservations, D for deny, DR deny with reservations, and many iterations of those 3 categories. (HA+, HA, HA-). Here are the criteria you are rated on:
SECONDARY SCHOOL ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE (in order of importance; from your transcript and Secondary School Report)
- pattern of grade improvement in high school
- solid college prep curriculum all 4 years
- strength of senior year courses
- courses beyond those required
- AP or college courses while in HS
- test scores
- academic area of interest
- class rank
- strength of curriculum (# of AP courses, Honors)
- average SAT scores
- percentage attending 4-year college
- competitive grading system of HS
- competitiveness of class
- academically disadvantaged school
- civic and cultural awareness/tolerance
- commitment to high ideals
- intellectual independence/enthusiasm for learning/risk taking
- creative, artistic talent
- concern for others
- motivation, determination, initiative, effort, persistence, tenacity
- leadership potential, maturity, responsibility
- cultural awareness/experiences
- socioeconomic & educational background: 1st generation to go to college in family, low economic family background, economically disadvantaged region.
- Geographical considerations: in-state resident, under-represented area.
- awards/honors: academic, athletic, musical, civic
- extracurricular activities, service, and leadership; impact that involvement had on school or community
- participation in enrichment or outreach programs
- alumni relationships
- faculty, staff connection
- scholarship athlete
- work experience
- other: military, Peace Corps.
- depth in one or more academic areas of student's interests
- evidence of academic passion
- grasp of world events
- independent academic research
- intellectual curiosity
- artistic talent
- writing quality: content, style, originality, risk taking
- overcoming personal adversity/disadvantage/unusual hardships
- language spoken at home/ESL
- frequent moves, many different schools
- demonstrated interest
- strong personal statement
Most students are looking alike on paper: high grades, AP courses, great SATs. That leads them to look at the essay, extra-curriculars, and letters of recommendation in order to distinguish one candidate from another.
Regarding wait lists: this year they found half of the students stayed on the wait list. They do not rank their wait list. As accepted students deposit after May 1, if Miami is short on English majors or females or football stars, they use the wait list to shape the class.
Princeton University's Dean of Admissions Janet Rapelye had this to say:
Many times, admissions decisions are not about a candidate being good enough, but fulfilling the college's ever-changing institutional priorities. For example, if lots of experienced band players are graduating, those types of applicants may receive higher priority. Admissions decisions do not always make sense to those outside the college for this reason. If a college is trying to increase their number of - take your pick - international students, rower athletes, writers - that may be how they pick some of the applicants. This changes from year to year, and explains why one student from a high school gets into Princeton while another does not, most things being equal on the surface. (It was helpful for me to hear from the college side of things that they know sometimes their decisions don't make sense to high schools!)
What's the magic formula to get into Princeton? (That's what I asked!) They educate 200+ engineers a year, and they need more females! Are you a Princeton legacy? That increases your chances of gaining admission 3x the normal rate. She was quick to point out that 65% of legacies are denied, which is a tough part of her job, making that call to a Princeton alum about their child that was denied! In sum, there are no formulas, no guarantees. After all, most applicants have the requisite 4.0 GPA and 2100 SAT scores. That's quite the competition.
Harvard's Director of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons
Harvard Admissions has a staff of 35 who each get a vote on applicants; majority rules. There are 20 faculty on a standing committee for specialized readings. Bill repeated these stats over and over this week, about who they accept:
- wicked smart=200-300 acceptances
- distinguishing excellence on a national level=200-300 acceptances
- well-rounded, bright=the rest, about 1300 acceptances
Personal qualities (PQs) are so important, more important than 10 years ago. Harvard is very interested in what you would be like as a roommate. Why? Everyone agrees that the education you receive from OTHERS is an important part of college. Here's exactly what he said:
"Shame on us for accepting a kid who's smart but a jerk. We want kids to make the students and teachers around them better, someone you want to be around."
Demonstrated interest does not mean as much at Harvard, or any college that has tons of competitive applicants.
Emory: why are you a standout? All applicants have the grades, coursework and test scores to do well at Emory. The "Why Emory" essay is very important. Demonstrated interest is not a factor.
Johns Hopkins: they created the DaVinci machine, a robot that does surgery. Advice for engineering applicants: how did you impact your school, club and classroom? Wondering who to ask for a teacher recommendation? Ask the teacher for whom you worked the hardest and learned the most, even about your weaknesses. Don't worry if you did not earn an A in the class. Keep in mind their admitted and denied applicants have the same test scores. Think about that for a minute. Demonstrated interest is not a factor.
University of Virginia: 22% out of state admit rate, as they have a mandate to ensure 2/3 of the class is from VA. Demonstrated interest is not a factor.
University of California-Berkeley: their students show initiative, don't need hand-holding by their parents, and always author their own applications. You must be a self-starter in such a huge university. 3.4 min GPA for out of state applicants, no recommendation letters are accepted. Demonstrated interest is not a factor.