For the first time, my father and I were aboard the same airplane, but we were not descending upon a vacation destination. We were en route to a campus visit to Yale.
It was our maiden flight to the American Dream.
As first generation immigrants, we embraced the belief that a son of a meatpacking plant worker can attend a well-known American institution if he works hard.
The wings stretched to paradoxically defy gravity while forcing a smooth landing on the cold New England runway. Deplaning and in the midst of small talk, had the flight attendant asked me what I knew about admission to this highly selective college, my response would have been ambiguous at best. But it was this naivety—a blank slate that left the doors open to opportunities when I applied to three highly selective colleges my senior year.
But misconceptions can discourage a decision to apply or misguide the preparation necessary for admission, so join me as we debunk some of the common myths about highly selective colleges.
Myth: Even if I get accepted, there’s no way my family can afford $65,000 a year.
The Truth: More than ever, there’s a national conversation around college affordability. And it’s resonating boldly at highly selective colleges. At recent presentations at Harvard and Princeton, admission officers spoke strongly about the importance to avoid disqualifying yourself because of the “sticker price.” That cost figure can be misleading.
For example, a student from a family with an income of $120,000 has full tuition and 18% of room and board covered at Princeton. Families with lower incomes may qualify to have full tuition, room, and board completely covered. The result? 75% of their students graduate debt free. Similarly, at Stanford, families with incomes of $125,000 have tuition covered. Most highly selective colleges in the country endorse similar financial aid awarding practices so you are encouraged to visit their financial aid web pages to carefully review the details. Keep in mind that assets beyond the family home and retirement funds are likely to impact financial aid.
Loan-caps are also in place at dozens of these institutions. At Northwestern, undergraduate student loans for each student are capped at $20,000. The college will award scholarships in place of loans if cap is reached at any point during the student’s undergraduate career.
These highly selective colleges are able to provide generous financial aid packages to admitted students because of their large endowment funds that reach into the billions.
Myth: They only admit students with perfect GPAs, ACT/SAT scores, and heaviest load of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.
The Truth: There is a consensus that at the core of admission into one of the highly selective colleges are tough classes and high grades and test scores. That being said, admission officers are looking for students who have challenged themselves within their context. If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, as is the case for most rural schools in Nebraska, you shouldn’t lose sleep as long as you are able to show that you are taking the most rigorous—but realistic—curriculum available to you. It’s about context!
Taking the standardized test scores two or three times is recommended, but more than that often creates more stress for the student with marginal to no improvement in scores. Maintain perspective and know that the score is only one of many factors the admission office will be considering to decide if you are able to succeed academically.
Each school has institutional priorities, or strategic needs (i.e. finding more female engineers), and they may vary from year to year so don’t waste time trying to figure them out. The colleges also have cultures and personalities. So if you are declined for admission, it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t prepared for college coursework, but perhaps that your application doesn’t align with the college’s current vision. Keep your head up!
Myth: I must be involved in every school activity, build a school in a third-world country, and complete summer research at a well-known university to be admitted.
The Truth: University of Chicago Vice President and Dean of admissions and financial aid James Nondorf says “Be yourself. Don’t stress about what we want. Tell us who you are.” A holistic or comprehensive review process allows admission officers to go beyond numbers and assess your passion and interests.
If volunteering at the local YMCA is meaningful to you, then do that. Traveling across the world to help build an orphanage for a week so that you can put it on your resume may in fact hurt the authenticity of your application. Spend your time in high school doing what you love and achieving at the highest level possible. Depth over breadth. If you couldn’t add that activity on your resume and you would still do it, you are closer to the authenticity that may help you be admitted.
If you are applying to a highly selective college this upcoming fall, what are you excited about or have questions about?