How to Get Into Your Dream College

In an earlier article on, we discussed how to organize your college list into safeties, matches and reaches. It's critically important to integrate a variety of these as part of your list, and to be clear about your goals. But can you really get into those "reach" colleges? Schools like Harvard and Yale only accept about 6% of applicants. With the volume of college applications increasing, the chances of being selected by your top choice school seem to be diminishing.

But you don't have to give up on your dream school. With a little advance planning, you can increase the odds in your favor that you may, in fact, get into the school of your dreams.

First of all, keep in mind that not all schools are the same in terms of what they look for during the admissions process. It will be important to thoroughly research what qualities each college wants in their student body and what parts of the application they will look at most closely.

Commonly, students are advised to involve themselves with a variety of sports, clubs, and volunteer activities. Conventional wisdom is that colleges seek students who are well-rounded.

Although this is true of most colleges, those that are highly selective are not necessarily concerned with finding "well-rounded" applicants. For example, our admissions data shows that at Princeton and Stanford, college admissions counselors consider extracurricular activities to be very important, but those at Harvard do not. Similarly, Harvard, Yale and Princeton do not place much importance on volunteerism, but Dartmouth does.

The choices that you make when building your college list will in large part determine how to direct your efforts when preparing for the college admission process.

Be sure to do some research on the most sought-after qualities of successful applicants to your dream school. Yale wants students who are uniquely passionate. Princeton seeks those who demonstrate a strong voice in their college essay and are willing to challenge themselves by stepping outside their comfort zone. Stanford looks very closely at application essays and letters of recommendation to find candidates who show intellectual vitality and a love of learning.

In fact, for some of these highly selective schools, marketing yourself as a "well-rounded" student may actually work against you. Unlike most other schools which seek applicants that are generally intelligent but won't rock the boat, selective Ivy League schools are looking for the folks that will change the world. They are looking for the next great researchers, inventors, political leaders, authors, and social activists. As such, they are not so concerned with finding well-rounded students. They want students who have proven to be highly passionate and accomplished in a particular area. That means giving a laser-like focus to the particular skill or subject about which you are most passionate, and becoming a master of that skill or subject. Devote your energy to fostering brilliance in computer science or playing the cello better than anyone else. This may mean hinder your ability to play a sport year-round or volunteer in a soup kitchen. You will need to be 100% on your game in one particular skill set in order to show college admissions officers that you are capable of great accomplishments in this area.

There are many positive aspects to being well-rounded, and it's true that many of your safeties and your match schools may value this as an important quality. But if you aspire to one of the top 10 schools in the nation, you may need to sacrifice some of that "well-roundedness" to developing that one shining area of accomplishment that will stand out to them.

As you set out on your college admissions journey, be sure to identify those schools that line up with your goals most ideally. Include a good mix of safeties, matches, challenges, and reaches. But don't assume that these "reach" schools are actually out of reach. With plenty of research and strategic planning, they can be within your grasp.