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How to Get into the Best Colleges


This is a concern and central to the desire of many students and parents in securing a bright future (without resorting to donating a building to the campus). We’re all familiar with the horror story of the star-student with a 4.0+ GPA, loads of extra-curricular activities, and near-perfect SAT scores not getting admitted to any of their top choices.


College Admissions are more Competitive

College applications have doubled in the last 15 years. At “top” schools (those accepting 10% or fewer applicants), applications have increased 120% over the past 15 years*, while admittance rates have stayed the same. Logically, this drives many top students to apply to more schools, further driving the acceptance yield down. Common application formats allow students the ability to apply more frequently more easily, thus compounding the problem of too many applicants for too few spots.


So, exactly what are the best schools looking for?

We think a better question is what are you looking for?


Let’s Define Our Terms

When a parent or student asks about getting into the “best schools” they are almost exclusively referring to the top 50ish schools as defined by makers of lists. These might come from US News & World Report, Forbes, Niche, or other sites that publish rankings. Generally what students and parents aren’t as familiar with are the criteria and methodology for assigning these rankings. They can depend on matriculation rates, financial aid packages, student satisfaction, etc. In fact, it’s very difficult to pinpoint what these criteria are even spending a significant time on these websites, and if that’s the case how do we know it’s a “best” school for any given individual? Rather, we like to think of the “best” school as one where a student is successful as a learner, contributes to and benefits from the campus environment, and maximizes his/her opportunities for growth.


Reframing what “Best Schools” Mean

That being said, the question now becomes “how to get into best schools for him/her?”

Do a little digging, and you’ll find that if you search for best marine biology programs or externships in public policy, you get an entirely different list. It’s difficult to wean ourselves off of the idea that anyone who can should go to Harvard or Stanford, and we all have some work to do to stop communicating that as the measure of success because statistically-speaking, a smaller and smaller percentage are meeting that bar. Do we really mean that 90-95% of students are unsuccessful? In our opinion, a school where the student thrives is a “best school.”


Helping Students Find their Best Fit Schools

Re-focusing attention from lists and rankings to individual needs will yield a set of schools that have a higher return on investment in terms of time and resources spent. Students are more invested in learning and better equipped to take advantage of opportunities if the program meets their unique objectives and requirements. We interview students extensively to find what environment will fuel their passions and identify schools that match their requirements. Then, presenting a stand-out application tailored to what that school is looking for is more natural because the “fit” is already there.


So, save yourself needless heartache and wasted time/money and spend the appropriate time defining your goals and identifying the right targets. Your process will be smoother and more successful. And if you need a little expert help, we’re happy to point you in the right direction.


*Pew Research Center

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