High-achieving high school students and their parents so often complain that the Ivy League admissions process is, in a word, random. When they hear that a student with lower grades and standardized test scores got into an Ivy League school while a student with higher grades and scores got waitlisted or denied admission to this same school, they jump to the conclusion that the evaluation system is unfair. While this process can certainly be viewed as "unfair," there is very little that is random about the Ivy League admissions process.
The fact that applicants to Ivy League schools are evaluated through "a holistic review" does not by any means suggest that Ivy League admissions officers whimsically decide who gets in and who doesn't. This is not a lottery. This is not a game of chance. This is a process with established rules that can, in many ways, be reduced to a science.
Once an entire application is received (transcript, high school profile, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, school report, teacher evaluations, the application itself, and its supplement including all the required essays), an applicant is initially evaluated based on his or her Academic Index (A.I.). The A.I. is a number based on a formula using a student's GPA, class rank, SAT or ACT scores, and SAT Subject Test scores. Some of the colleges in the Ivy League use an A.I. on a numeric scale of 1-9 with 9 being the strongest, while others use a scale from 1-5.
Assuming all else is equal, an Academic 9 obviously has a better shot at getting into an Ivy League college than, say, an Academic 6. But all else is typically not equal. A student who writes a boring essay about scoring the winning goal in a playoff soccer game against the school's arch-rival has put herself at a considerable disadvantage. She's not on the same footing as a student who writes a moving essay about how his family turned his home in a Texas border town into a fortress to prevent his physician father from being kidnapped by drug smugglers.
If you're about to counter that evaluating college essays is inherently subjective, you'd be wrong. While two Ivy League admissions officers can certainly evaluate one essay differently, it's a rare occasion when Ivy League admissions officers are completely divided about whether or not an essay is powerful enough to make a case for an applicant to be admitted. Of the tens of thousands of college essays that are received each year, powerful essays are few and far between.
You'd be amazed how many college essays focus on a trip to Europe, which says in flashing lights to admissions officers that the applicant's parents can afford to pay for such a trip -- often triggering jealousy. Other essays turn out to be one giant cliché. It could be an essay about overcoming an injury to mount an athletic comeback. It could be about volunteering at a local soup kitchen. It could be about building homes with Habit for Humanity in Costa Rica. Ivy League admissions officers read these same topics in droves year after year and these essays are just as boring as they were the last time they read them.
Upon reading the first few lines of one of these cliché essays, the reader knows just where the essay is going. There is little room for surprise and there's a good chance the reader may not even finish reading the essay in its entirety. Yet because admissions officers read thousands of college essays, it's easy for them to spot a good one almost instantly. A first line can often make or break an applicant. An essay that grabs the reader might start something like, "In a previous life, I was a pirate; in this life, I am a storyteller" or "In this age of high definition video games and wireless devices, I've never kicked liking LEGOs." And essays with openings such as, "According to Webster's Dictionary..." will likewise put admissions officers to make like Rip Van Winkle.
Certainly there is an element of luck in the Ivy League admissions process. It may help if a former college athlete is reading the application of a tennis recruit. It may help if the Ivy League admissions officer reviewing your application got asked out by someone really cute earlier that day or if the admissions officer happened to attend your high school. But luck is certainly not a decisive component of the Ivy League admissions process and one could argue that even this luck was science played out in real time (priming for being asked out and the familiarity principle for attending the same high school). While the word "holistic" may seem far from scientific, the Ivy League admissions process is indeed a social science. And it's one that can be mastered.