7.5 percent. That’s the average acceptance rate for America’s top ten universities.

A decade ago, this rate was nearly double. Elite colleges are denying more and more qualified applicants, and the recent trend is placing more pressure on high-achieving students. Mark Giesmann, a college counselor here at Regis Jesuit, says that “more people are applying to these prestigious schools than ever before, especially more students from overseas. Anytime the number of applicants increases, acceptance rates go down.”

But this begs the question: what are they looking for?

Giesmann explains that in the admissions process, generally the “most important factor is curriculum, while second would be grades in those classes, and third would be test scores.”

Without question, these are crucial factors at top universities. At Princeton University, for example, the average admitted student will have taken almost exclusively Honors and AP classes, have a 4.0+ GPA, and a 33 on the ACT.

So just do all these things and get in, right? Not exactly. These three factors are more than enough at most schools, but highly selective schools differ because they attract an especially talented applicant pool. Although they do weed out some students based on these factors, “almost everyone has a strong curriculum, grades, and test scores,” Giesmann says, “so a host of other things, including extracurricular activities, recommendations, essays, etc come into play. These schools are looking for a ‘hook’, a special talent or story, possibly an athlete or even a cello player.”

Brad Barnes, who is the college admissions officer at Full Passage, Inc., says that schools want to be diverse. He says that “private colleges often want to attract a wide array of interests and backgrounds – schools would hardly be diverse, stimulating environments if they only admitted all the affluent, 4.0 students.”

Thus, the biggest challenge for a student is to exemplify diversity. If an applicant is a racial minority, he/she is already at an advantage. However, activities such as doing service work, traveling abroad, launching a program, or playing a unique instrument can also provide an edge. “Schools are interested in students who are active and engaged in the world around them,” Barnes says.

Additionally, he advises that students “explain any extenuating circumstances.” If an applicant has been through a particularly difficult time, it’s worth mentioning. On the one hand, this can be used to possibly explain a low grade that may stand out from a certain semester. Moreover, it can demonstrate personal character and show a sense of vulnerability and maturity that admissions officers might connect with. Again, this enables one to say that they make the school more diverse, the crucial factor that colleges seek.

Even still, a perfect student who has a great test score, is highly involved, and exemplifies diversity can still be rejected from an Ivy League school. The process isn’t always fair. It is important to not get overly caught up with the frenzy surrounding colleges that are ranked the highest. Giesmann says, “we are not pushing kids to go to the most prestigious schools. That’s not necessarily the right fit for all of our students.”

Barnes agrees. He says that above all, its about “finding a college that fits you academically, emotionally, and financially.”

A college does not define a person. Several people live extremely happy and successful lives without the most prestigious undergraduate education. But if you’re aiming for the top, just know what you’re getting yourself into.

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