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There are over 27,000 high schools in the United States. Each graduates a valedictorian and a salutatorian: both of whom probably feel adequately qualified to apply to some of the most selective colleges in the country. Add to this the 25,000 students with SAT Critical Reading scores over 750 and the 30,000 with Math scores over 750, and the 14,000 who score a 34 composite or better on the ACT. These students alone, though the universe likely shrinks when you consider some students cut across multiple categories, comprise a sizable population of applicants seeking admission to the most selective schools in the U.S.

In addition, I have not even considered the thousands of students from China, Taiwan, South Korea and other international secondary schools with high-test scores and equally impressive GPAs focused like a laser to gain admission into the most selective colleges.

The point being, when a student becomes fascinated with one of the most selective colleges, such as an Ivy League or Stanford, there is lots of competition vying for each admissions spot. Even if a student is loaded with extracurricular, leadership, and talent the possibility of gaining admission is far from assured.

If the primary draw for the student is the school’s status, the best thing to do is visit the campus, talk with current students over lunch, go to a class taught by an eminent professor, and even drop in during her office hours and note the reception. Then start asking yourself a key question: What is it about this campus that will encourage my growth and is unmatched elsewhere?

It is essential to start asking this question early because your favorite campus assuredly will be asking similar questions about you when it comes to application time: how will this candidate benefit herself and us by attending?

Elizabeth Wissner-Gross knows well how to navigate successfully the demands of admission to the most selective colleges in the country. Her recent counseling record, which includes 12 admits to Stanford, with 10 each to Columbia, Yale and Harvard, speaks volumes about her capabilities.

In her book, written about a decade ago, What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know) she relates a truism in gaining admissions to the most selective colleges. Whether or not the application explicitly asks, there are three questions the admissions officer wants answered before a candidate is admitted: 1. Are you likely to benefit the most from the college’s resources? 2. Are you going to contribute greatly to the school’s community? 3. In essence, why should we accept you?

There is no right answer, but there are plenty of wrong ones. No formula is going to tell you how best to respond to such an inquiry, only truthful instincts bathed in knowledge of what the campus actually offers and how you will take advantage of these resources. This means to make the match an aspiring applicant needs to do her homework and actually bring to the campus a strong desire for accomplishment.

Counselor Wissner-Gross’s book prepares students for answering these very questions by pulling together a four-year academic plan, including summers, which will demonstrate interest in a potential major. Let us assume that your student is interested in International Relations. Besides a curriculum plan that might include Mandarin or Russian, the student will fill her summers with Auburn University’s World Affairs Camp (MUN), Duke University’s TIP Global Dialogues Institute, Georgetown, International Relations Program for High School Students, and a generous dosage of MOOCs including Introduction to International Relations (Saylor).

Yes, this is a lot of work and effort beyond the academic course load throughout four years of secondary school, but if you are intent on getting into one of the most selective schools, this regimen will enable you to answer the three critical questions with knowledge, enthusiasm, and the anticipation of accomplishment. After all, perfect matches are rarely spontaneous: more often, they are the product of deep understanding, hard work, and a little luck.

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC ( and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 10 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800.

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