10 Secrets for Top College Admissions

In this Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012 photo, students walk through the campus of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. When
In this Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012 photo, students walk through the campus of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. When US News & World Report debuted its list of “America's Best Colleges” nearly 30 years ago, the magazine hoped its college rankings would be a game-changer for students and families. Arguably, they've had a much bigger effect on colleges themselves. A senior administrator at Claremont McKenna, a highly regarded California liberal arts college, resigned after acknowledging he falsified college entrance exam scores for years to rankings publications such as US News. The scale was small: submitting scores just 10 or 20 points higher on the 1600-point SAT math and reading exams. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The following 10 college admissions secrets seek to offer insight into the college application and preparation process:

1.) High test scores are not a hook

High test scores alone (SAT/Subject Tests/ACT/AP/TOEFEL) do not guarantee admission to any institution. High test scores can boost the chances that your application will be read, but to rise above the rest, the critical components are grade point average and rank, institutional fit, love of learning, an academic focus, going above and beyond, and teacher recommendations. Many students assume very high SATs make them sure Ivy accepts and that just is not the case. Low test scores might mean you will not be in range, but high scores do not guarantee anything.

2.) The benefit of a hook

Having a "hook," meaning something that offers strong positionality for an applicant, dramatically improves the odds of college admission. Typically 40 percent of the students attending top-tier universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have a hook. The major hooks are:

• Legacy, meaning a family history of college attendance at a specific school (usually mother or father, but sometimes a grandparent -- and graduate school attendance does not always count)
• Recruited athlete
• Underrepresented student (African American, Latino/a, Native American, Alaskan Native, Pacific Islander, bi-racial, or multiracial)
• Development (donation) case
• VIP or high-profile applicant

3.) Parents and socioeconomic background matter

For the purposes of applying to college, it can help if the applicant is from a non-college or low-income background for college admission. Institutions now routinely request information on and are responsible for reporting the number of admitted "first-generation" college students, meaning neither of the applicant's parents has graduated from college. Rather than hiding a non-college background, highlight it!

4.) Private high schools are not necessarily better than public high schools

The perspective may be that attending a private school or boarding school from K-12 offers a leg up in college admissions, but this is simply not the case. Attending a public high school can actually be better in the long run than going to a "fancy" private school in determining your college admissions odds. Colleges today are trying to diversify when it comes to their admitted classes. Dartmouth College, for instance, typically accepts 69 to 70 percent of its incoming freshman from public high schools, which gives students the chance to be at the top of their class in a larger pool as compared to a smaller private high school. In short, pick a college because of the FIT, not based on any perceived admissions advantage.

5.) Explore and understand your high school's profile and college acceptance history

Every high school has an official college profile that students need to read and be familiar with. College admissions officers will use this to translate and better understand your transcript. Your high school's profile contains school demographics, grade weighting, class rank policy, grade distribution or percentile distribution, class offerings at the school, standardized test score averages from current and past years, and sometimes, college acceptance rates for previous classes. Even high schools that claim they do not rank often provide a very exact GPA distribution that allows colleges to "force" a rank.

6.) Establish connections and make contact -- not just online contact, but in-person contact

Not all colleges offer on-campus interviews, but when applying to an institution that offers an option to interview, take them up on this offer. Also, when a student applies to a college, he or she may be offered an alumni interview; this depends on many factors, such as if there is an alum living in the applicant's geographic area. If offered an alumni interview, applicants should accept the offer. Today's applicants need to view a college interview not as a flexible option, but as a critical opportunity to advance in the pool of applicants. Interviews can make a student who is within range (meaning has high scores, grades, a possible hook, promising institutional fit, etc.) a more dimensional and attractive candidate. Also, many schools keep track of your "level of interest," so do check in at the admissions office when you visit.

7.) Be aware that a file will likely be created for you at any institution to which you apply

At one Ivy League institution, real-life examples of items that have been placed into prospective student files (which are housed at the admissions office and then later sent to senior admissions officers, faculty, department chairs, etc.) include: records of emails and phone calls, including information on the subject of communication as well as odd notes the assistant or admissions officer may have recorded during the conversation; print-outs from top applicants' public Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds and LinkedIn accounts, and self-created websites; recorded notes from the receptionist at the front desk of an admissions office detailing students' demeanor while waiting to be interviewed by an admissions officer, etc. Again, these are real-life examples! Today's college applicants must be aware that when they say yes to an interview with a college admissions officer or university alumni, they are also saying yes to having notes written about the interaction that may be placed in his or her college application file. In addition, students should perform Google searches of their own names, ensure their online pictures and profiles have privacy settings engaged, conduct regular social media self-image checks, and ensure their email addresses and personal websites (that are public) are business appropriate. Many college admissions officers have assistants who perform these checks on top applicants, on-the-fence applicants and wait-listed applicants, and place corresponding notes in applicant files.

8.) Do not buy into college marketing confusion

Colleges can give false encouragement to students and their families by buying their names and contact information from the College Board (which administers standardized tests). Students with scores in a certain range may be targeted by colleges urging them to apply. This does not mean they are "invited" or have any kind of edge. In fact, it gives false hope for some and can cause confusion. The same applies for students who receive brochures, booklets, emails, and online invitations to admissions events. Applicants should not read into institutional marketing as any kind of an indication of potential or pending admission.

9.) Early decision increases an applicant's odds more than early action and early rolling

With early decision, colleges understand they are requiring a commitment and thus recognize early devotion to their school. Applicants should understand that the pool of applicants is smaller if and when they are able to apply early decision. Many college students are afraid to commit to one school and/or are afraid, or unprepared, to commit too early. If an applicant is sure of and committed to a university, taking the plunge and applying early decision can boost the odds of admission simply with the pool of students being lower. Colleges and universities care a great deal about their yield because it has an impact on their prestige, planning, and finances; students who apply early decision have committed to the institution and that helps institutions boost their yields.

10.) Bend the rules in the common application and write an impressive application

Today's college applicants are going above and beyond, not only with the numbers and quality of their test scores, courses, and experiences, but in the information they include with their college applications. At many elite universities, students who include extra information that showcases their talents give themselves a chance to rise above the rest. Samples of extra information may include: a list of pursued high school and summer activities, extra essays, descriptive confirmation of connections and collaborations with university professors and/or researchers, stated interest and personal desire to make an impact at the university or in research, club, or volunteer outlets on campus, and more.

Dr. Michele Hernandez and Mimi Doe cofounded Application Boot Camp® LLC after publishing their best-selling book, Don't Worry: You'll Get In in 2005. Application Boot Camp® LLC is devoted to empowering high school students from around the world in the college admissions process. Application Boot Camp® LLC has been featured in Business Week, The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, CBS News, Good Morning America, and other media. Students have the opportunity to work with Michele and Mimi and leverage their experiences to create applications that rise above the rest. For those students applying to college this year, Mimi and Michele have created a self guided option based on their internationally acclaimed 4-day Application Boot Camp workshops.