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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW
gerald_bradshaw@post.harvard.edu
Bradshaw College Consulting
(219) 663-3041

Dear Mr. Bradshaw,

I visited several Ivy League colleges with my son and daughter last summer. Both are juniors and will be applying to many of them this fall.

We met with representatives who, to a person, kept emphasizing how they typically turn away students with perfect grades and test scores.

Iím not sure I understand the purpose of telling us this information. The colleges we visited have highest grades and test scores in the nation! We came away feeling less confident than ever about the selection process.

Our high school counselors tell us that getting into a top college is more or less a crap shoot. As none of them attended a top college the most they could suggest was read the college handbook.

My question to you is who gets admitted to the Ivy League and what criteria do they use to select students? Both my son and daughter have already scored perfect on several parts of the SAT and rank tops in their class. And to be honest they didnít have to work that hard to do it.

We know other colleges offer a good education but thatís not what they prepared for all these years. I hope you have good advice beyond what we have gotten thus far! Signed, A hopeful parent of the Ivy League.

Criteria For Getting Into An Ivy League School



Dear Parent,

Thatís quite a story but not an uncommon one. America is supposed to be all about meritocracy. Yet many top students are turned away each year from the Ivy League. What gives?

First let me say that the colleges were right in warning you that perfect grades and test scores alone are not always going to get you in. There is more to the admission process than stacking the applications according to grades and test scores and picking the best off the top first before looking at the others. Thatís the way it is done in other countries with a national examination system. Not to be cynical but Iranís current leader scored first out of 50 thousand students on his national examination and look where that got them.

America does not use a national examination to determine who gets in. Nor does having a photographic memory like Bill Clinton or having Einsteinís IQ insure admission. All of which makes it difficult for bright students to prepare for a top college and even discouraging at times.

Youíve already alluded to one quality that makes your son and daughter stand out among others as likely candidates for admission. The fact that they didnít have to work all that hard in high school to be the best in their class is a typical characteristic. I donít know why but the students I have worked with seem to share this one common trait--high school was fairly easy.

Another trait is they all tested well. When colleges tell you not to worry if you donít have the highest test scores this is slightly misleading. The admission meritocracy in American breaks everything down into categories and scores them accordingly, rather than having one vertical stack like in Japan, Korea, India and China. We use gender, ethnic background, legacy standing, sports and geographic location and international status in the search for the most promising students. When they pick a student he or she is most likely to be the one with the highest test scores.

Grades matter but since grade inflation has become rampant in recent years, and class rank is rapidly disappearing from transcripts, test scores seems to be holding their own. And, of course, test score have a lot to do with how colleges are ranked in US News and World report. No matter which of the myriad of categories you fall into, test scores are probably going to be the most persuasive quantitative asset you bring to the admissions committee.

Let me make another observation which is perhaps more difficult to define in a quantitative sense. The students Iíve worked with who got admittedóand they fit all categoriesóseem to exhibit a certain individual self-confidence. Not arrogance. But they seem to know themselves. They understand where they want to go in life and are mature enough to have weighed the outcomes and if they donít get admitted to their first choice it isnít going to make or break them. They are not going the let their identities be defined by the institutions. They are centered and focused on life in general and are prepared to deal with disappoint and failure as a natural component of life. They know what they want to major in, they are already thinking about grad school, and very few take more than four years to graduate. They know that Harvard and Stanford are labels like Polo and Prada. These are great names to have on oneís diploma, to be sure, but in no way are they going to be the defining points of their life. They would not have fallen victim to view that ďthe system is rigged against meĒ if they didnít get in.

I believe what admissions committees look for most is not so much what youíve done as a student but who you are as a person. There are certain advantages that derive from the power of institutions. One canít deny that Harvard or MIT isnít mindful of that when they look for students. But in the end the student is always bigger than any institution. Thatís the student they want in their classroom.

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