The Morning After: Ivy League Hangovers, College App Essays and SATs

As someone who works with many dozens of hopeful high school seniors every year, which often means talking to parents when they are concerned about how their sons and daughters are doing on their essays and applications, yesterday, waiting for the Ivies to make their announcements, was a stressful day.

I left my apartment at 4:15pm and went to the frozen yogurt place in my neighborhood, both to kill some time before the 5:00pm announcements, and to soothe my nerves with some comfort food. I had already heard from many students and parents about their positive early decisions (Harvard, Yale, Vassar, Hopkins, UVa, UMich, NYU, BU and more), and I had also heard about a few big disappointments (Harvard, Yale, UPenn, NYU). But yesterday was the final big day for those with Ivy hopes.

I heard some great news and some news that disappointed students, their families and me, and then I began to read the articles about the numbers -- and everything fell into place. And what I'd been feeling for many months was confirmed by the cold hard facts of how many students apply and how many are admitted.

This morning, an article in Business Insider had these highlights:

"Harvard University admitted 5.9% of applicants, according to The Harvard Crimson, up slightly from last year's 5.8% admissions rate. Harvard accepted 2,023 of their 34,295 applications.

"Columbia University admitted 6.94% of applicants, up from a record low 6.89% acceptance rate for the Class of 2017. Columbia accepted 2,291 of their 32,952 applicants.

"Other top colleges have also released their admissions data. MIT took 7.7% of applications, while Duke University accepted 10.7% of student applicants."

A disappointed parent wrote to me that her son had been accepted to a number of great schools, but didn't make it to Brown, although there were students who did get into Brown at his school who had lower grades and SATs than he had. The family was puzzled.

Moments later, I found this piece in the Boston Globe, revealing who were among the 8.6 percent of students who got admission invitations: "the most diverse ever, with 45 percent identifying themselves as African American, Latino, Native American or Asian American" and "18 percent are the first generation of their families to go to college, also a record for Brown." Students were accepted from all 50 states -- and from 88 countries.

Students are competing, not only with their classmates, but with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The usual portfolio -- top grades, top scores, great essays, extra curricular activities and letters of recommendation -- is necessary but not sufficient, given the competition, and given many schools' interest in making their student bodies resemble not just the United States, but the entire globe.

Families must factor in luck, geography and mathematics: there are only so many places available for a great many hugely talented young people.

While many families mull over these choices, honors and disappointments, I think it's important for rising juniors and their families to keep all of this information in mind as they face the the next round of college applications. It's great to have "reach schools" -- the schools you're not certain you can get into -- but it's also important to make sure you have plenty of targets and safeties. It's crucial to accept the fact that these Ivy numbers are so competitive -- and the competition is international -- that it might be a wiser idea to spend time finding the great non-Ivy schools and making dazzling applications to those schools, rather than investing heart, soul and time in the often demanding Ivy applications.

Yet I understand -- I really get it -- that it's important to reach too. Perhaps what I want to say is, "Reach wisely. Reach smartly."

I work with students who have Ivy hopes and dreams, CUNY and SUNY hopes and dreams and just about everything in between and all around. I try to steer them to schools where they will thrive -- and where they'll get in. It's a difficult process for all -- students, parents, teachers and those of us more on the sidelines. Today will be a day to celebrate for thousands of students and to "mourn" -- though some may object to the gravity of the word -- for many others. Those of us who are older (and maybe a little wiser), want to say to all: You'll be fine. Your kids will be fine.

Elizabeth Benedict's Don't Sweat the Essay helps students worldwide with college and grad school application essays and applications. She is a bestselling author and former Ivy League writing professor.