Applying to Highly Selective Colleges – What Prospective Applicants Need to Know

Applying to College, Building Your College List, Financial Aid

One indisputable trend in college admissions is that highly selective schools continue to get more selective as numbers of applications increase. In fact, Akil Bello with FairTest first coined the phrase “Highly Rejective” as an alternative to “Highly Selective,” since many of these schools pride themselves not on how they “select” students for admission, but on how many students they reject.

Every year my colleagues across the country try to impress upon students and families the importance of a balanced college list, since the competition to be admitted to highly selective schools is fierce, and admission is unpredictable and often opaque.  Additionally, many highly selective schools provide little or no merit aid, so accepted students whose families do not have financial need will likely be paying quite a lot for the privilege of attending these institutions.

It is important to remember that the most highly selective schools account for a mere 5-8% of graduates in our workforce, so we know that there are many, many successful people who graduate every year from less selective universities. Furthermore, many of these less selective schools have a lower cost of attendance or offer merit aid to students that don’t have financial need.

If, however, you (or your student) still want to apply to highly selective institutions (and several of the campuses in the University of California system are included in this category), then you should know that you will need to do the following to be competitive:

  • Take the most rigorous courses offered by your high school, including as many AP or IB courses as you can handle in your junior and senior years.
  • Take community college or online courses outside of your high school if there aren’t enough challenging courses offered, or if this is the “norm” amongst your high performing classmates.
  • Get As in most or all of these courses.
  • Take the SAT or ACT exam and get a top score (this may take serious test preparation).
  • Participate extensively in several activities, including some where you show leadership.
  • Participate in one or more regular, committed volunteer activities in which you make an impact on the community you serve.
  • Participate in one or more activities that align with your intended field of study (or pursue hobbies or personal projects that show your intellectual curiosity).
  • Enter competitions (and aim for statewide, national, or international awards).
  • Students applying to STEM fields should complete a research project (either an individual project or a project overseen by a professor).
  • Make a great impression on your teachers so they write strong recommendation letters (many highly selective schools require 2 strong recommendation letters from junior teachers of core subjects).
  • Be prepared to write excellent essays for your applications. These should be thoughtful, insightful, and polished.

Students who can manage all the above successfully are likely to be “on the playing field” for highly selective colleges – but this does not guarantee acceptance to any particular college. In fact, it is now extremely common for students with strong academic and extracurricular profiles to be rejected from multiple highly selective colleges. Applying Early Decision increases your odds of admission, but students can only apply to one school ED, and it is a binding agreement (meaning that if you are accepted, you must attend this school regardless of whether they offer you any merit aid or not).

If everything listed above sounds doable to you, then it is reasonable to plan on applying to highly selective colleges – and the consultants at On My Way can help you present yourself most effectively through your application. But – you should still be prepared to receive some rejections, and have a balanced college list that also includes a number of well-matched colleges with higher admit rates.

Does everything listed above sound like more than you can handle in high school? That’s fine too! Our consultants can help you find excellent colleges where you have an excellent chance of gaining acceptance and maybe even earning some merit aid, where you will thrive and graduate well-prepared to enter the work force or graduate school! Contact us for more information.