Monday, October 25, 2010
Elite Ivy League Schools Put Emphasis On Leadership
BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW
Bradshaw College Consulting
Dear Mr. Bradshaw: I'm still overwhelmed with shock at my neighbor's child being turned down from all the top colleges he applied to last year. He was a brilliant student with an outstanding academic record.
Our son is a sophomore at Andrean High School and I don't want that fate for him. Can you tell me what colleges are looking for in an applicant? Is it more than just grades and test scores?
We have asked many people and nobody seems to have an answer that would account for a top student not getting in. Is it connections? Parents being alumni? Contributing a lot of money to the college?
I'm hoping there is still time to adjust his curriculum if that is the issue. Please help us find the right answer. -- Concerned Parent
Dear Parent: You raise a number of important questions.
Today, America's leading colleges no longer are looking just for students with great grades and top test scores. They are looking for the students who will make the most of the opportunities and resources around them -- the students who will make a real and meaningful impact on their community and in our world.
Learning the skills and best practices to make this kind of impact as a high school student can be tough. You need to develop leadership skills that come from launching and growing your own student venture.
Colleges will take notice. You need to show them you are cut from a different cloth.
In my 20 years of interviewing and preparing students for top colleges, leadership, by far, is the most important characteristic used in deciding who is admitted. The risk is trying to develop these skills within the confines of traditional extracurricular activities. Students need to step outside the box and launch their own ventures.
I've worked with a number of students to develop these programs. Here is my recipe for success.
First, you need to pick a project that is important to you -- perhaps a program to help improve the environment or combat drug use among students. You need a vision of who you want to help and who you need on board to help the group achieve those goals. In a nutshell, this involves:
* Learning to speak and write confidently.
* Establishing a clear vision, mission, and goals.
* Forming a dedicated team and membership base.
* Building community support and excitement.
* Planning for short- and long-term events.
* Designing incentives for your board and managing your team.
* Writing effective letters, invitations and promotional material.
* Budgeting for a long-term organization.
* Taking steps to ensure long-term sustainability of your organization.
* Creating a track record of success (for your friends, peers and colleges to see).
Start by writing an informal proposal for your project. Spend time thinking through and writing up your project's mission and proposed outline -- the two key early elements you should include in your proposal.
The mission can be relatively simple and should include what your project seeks to accomplish (perhaps something along the lines of raising awareness about a worthwhile cause and bringing the high school community together to show youngsters the danger of drug use and demonstrating how the community cares), and what it is you aim to do (organize a fundraising effort, for example).
The proposed outline should show how the project would be accomplished. In this section, you will compile your "plan of attack" and will give information about the specific activities that will help you achieve your goal. This information balances out the mission statement, so although the mission statement explains why you are doing what you are doing, the outline should show how you will accomplish your mission.
As I mentioned earlier, early planning is a key factor for the success of any endeavor, and going through this process will help you flesh out your ideas. It will be confusing and hard at times to write down your exact ideas, but I think you'll find it very helpful to go through the process.
The key point is to try to write your proposal as clearly as you can, so anyone can pick up your proposal and learn what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you will accomplish it.
Dear Overwhelmed -- There are many misconceptions concerning the application process to a top college or university. If you apply, it is important to simplify the process beforehand and be as down to earth as possible in your analysis. That will help ease your anxiety.
First, dump any preconceptions you have about life at a top college. Start with an open mind. Vague ideas about privilege, dreaming of gothic spires and crewing on the Charles River are inspirational, but peripheral to your overall goal of getting a good education.
What will get you into Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania or Notre Dame are demonstrated intelligence, the ability to perform under pressure, and -- at least as important as either of the above -- careful planning. You will need a precise understanding of what courses you want to study and why.
First, there must be good reasons for applying to a top school. You have researched several and have decided an elite college or university is the place you will do your best.
Clearly, you like the idea of a highly competitive student body. You have discovered that students at top colleges learn quickly, have a very low dropout rate and enjoy conditions conducive to outstanding academic performance.
Next, you are likely to graduate at least in the top 5 percent of your class, although this does not mean a solid set of A's. If you have an uneven record in your freshman year, but are on target in the second and third years, prepare a brief explanation in your personal statement.
SAT and ACT scores are the only criteria that are universally standardized, so they carry a lot of weight. A good score on the SAT is at least 650 (out of a possible 800) in each category of the test. The magic number is over 700, but admissions committees point out that students with perfect scores routinely are turned down, and students with lower test scores routinely are admitted.
If there is any doubt about your scores, take the test again in October. If you already have taken it, use Score Choice to send in the highest scores. So it doesn't matter how many times you take it. (Caveat: Without taking a test prep class, it is unlikely you will improve you scores an appreciable amount.)
You must realize that entry to an elite school is very competitive and that each year, excellent candidates fail to get in. You have to face this fact and know that should you not get admitted, there are other excellent universities where you would be happy. In any case, be sure to have a backup school.
Once you have considered all the above and are still set on applying to the very best, then you can focus on the admissions process.
One reason certain high schools get so many students admitted to elite colleges is, they expect their students to prepare early, starting well before the end of their junior years. Many students take the SAT as sophomores to establish benchmark scores.
Many high schools expect students to have the application process well under way before the end of summer of their junior years. By then, applications should be finished in draft form. This helps assure that early application deadlines will be met.
You do not need a counselor to hold your hand. Do not let others do your thinking. On the other hand, this is an area where parents are justifiably strict in making sure their son or daughter stays on schedule.
Know what you're getting into. If you don't have copies of university prospectuses, go online or order them from the admissions office. Also, ask colleges for a copy of alternative prospectuses or class supplemental material in your major.
University catalogues are filled with classes and course descriptions that may not be offered when you get there. Look at the main catalogue and compare offerings to the supplemental materials.
Finally, it is time to compare schools. Which one is best? Only you can make that call. If you have done your research, trust your judgment.