As you likely know, college admissions were especially competitive this year, particularly at the most selective schools. The most common question that I’m currently asked is about how to beat these odds, when it’s statistically harder than ever to get into the Ivies. Here are some strategies that have helped my clients succeed:

  • Understanding That Test Optional Isn’t Always What It Seems.

Because many students were unable to sit for standardized exams, most colleges, including the Ivies and other highly selective schools, waived their usual requirement that students take the ACT or SAT. SAT subject tests have also been eliminated, and no longer exist.

At first glance, this seemed to open the door for strong students who don’t perform well on standardized tests to gain admission to schools that typically accept applicants with scores in the 98th or 99th percentile.

In practice, the implementation of this new test-optional policy varied widely. Some schools were truly test optional, but the majority of the highly selective colleges still (unofficially) expected most students to submit scores. One Ivy League School even stated explicitly in writing that if the applicant came from a community where it was possible to sit for the exam but didn’t submit scores, they would hold it against them. (The statement was later retracted, but in practice this philosophy appeared to be their paradigm.)

However, because admission to these schools seemed more attainable, application volume shot up, leading to sub 5% admit rates at multiple schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale and Stanford, MIT. Penn, Northwestern, Duke, Brown and Vanderbilt had sub 7% admit rates, while Colby, Bowdoin, Williams, Dartmouth, Cornell, Rice and Washington University all had sub 10% admit rates.

  • Realizing That Grades and Rigor Matter More Than Ever.

As the competition has gotten even more intense, and as some schools have legitimately de-emphasized the SAT, there is even more scrutiny on grades. There is also a higher bar in terms of curricular rigor.

As a former Ivy League admissions officer and a parent of three, with one daughter who just graduated from an Ivy, another daughter who is a rising Sophomore at a different Ivy and a son who is a rising Junior in high school, I share your frustration.  There is already a great deal of pressure on high school students to achieve, and the pandemic has made it even more difficult for people to excel. Increased pressure is legitimately unfortunate. That being said, the reality is that the most successful Ivy and Ivy+ applicants (for the most part) have uniformly outstanding grades, now more than ever.

  • Casting A Wider Net.

These trends have prompted, and will continue to prompt, people to cast a wider net and apply to more schools. (On average, 2021 candidates submitted 9% more applications than their 2020 counterparts.) This obviously creates a self-perpetuating cycle, but especially if you are applying to the most selective schools, it might be strategically important.

  • Keeping An Open Mind.

Furthermore, colleges that used to have a 20-30% admit rate are now posting sub 15 and sub 20% numbers. (Middlebury, BU, Barnard, Colgate, Notre Dame, Wellesley and Tufts, for example, have all become significantly more selective in the last 2 years.) This means that applicants (and their parents) need to readjust their preconceived ideas about how hard or easy it is to get into certain schools, and re-calibrate their targets accordingly. College students who are rising seniors might not be competitive applicants if they were to apply now to their own schools – the selectivity is intensifying that rapidly.

  • Starting Early and Leveraging Your Strengths.
    I know that all of this sounds daunting, but there are absolutely strategies that will maximize your odds of success. Even this year, my clients were admitted to schools including Stanford, Yale, Penn, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Michigan, Colby and more. In addition to understanding your strengths and weaknesses and curating the right list, the essays and interviews are critical, as are activities. Starting to prepare for the college admissions process early enables you to optimize your chances, and to get into the best possible fit.



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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than $70 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 98% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.
North Star Admissions Consulting