If you’re applying to a highly selective college, you may have heard about hooks like legacy—having a parent or grandparent who graduated from the institution—or connections to a major donor. These are out of your control, and actually make up only a small number of Ivy League acceptances each year.
Instead, think of a hook as a special skill or talent that might make you extra appealing to the admissions offices at highly selective institutions. With that in mind, the next question applicants need to be asking themselves to accurately evaluate their chances of acceptance to an Ivy League college is:
What is my distinguishing excellence?
A distinguishing excellence, or DE, represents significant achievement in a particular field. It could be in an academic area like science, writing, or mathematics, or an extracurricular activity such as debate, music, or journalism. A DE is not simply getting all A’s in science or being president of your school’s debate team, although these can be important components of a DE. Rather, a DE encompasses continuous and measurable success that goes beyond the boundaries of your high school to regional, national, or even international recognition.
Why is a distinguishing excellence important?
When Ivy League admissions officers at these colleges read applicant files, they are constantly asking the following questions:
- How is this applicant unique?
- How will this applicant contribute?
- Why should I admit this applicant instead of the many other academically talented students whose files I have read this year?
A DE is the answer to all of these questions.
Curious about whether or not you have a distinguishing excellence? If your accomplishments are particularly unique or quantifiable in an impressive way, you might. Reaching the rank of Eagle Scout is great, but about 50,000 are awarded each year. The act of creating a non-profit to solicit a thousand dollars and serve 500 meals is not a DE either, but it can become one if you are raising $100,000 and serving 500,000 meals. And if you’re using this non-profit as your Eagle Scout project, even better!
In the same way, you may be the only valedictorian at your high school, an excellent achievement until you realize there are close to 40,000 high schools in the United States alone, each with a top student. However when you couple number one status with a gold award at the USA Biology Olympiad, you now have a DE. An interest in government and leadership could include being class president, youth representative to city council, and local campaign volunteer for a prospective senator, but it doesn’t move into true DE territory without additional impressive activities such as heading up the regional volunteer corps for the senator’s national campaign.
Other great DE’s I have seen in my time in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and working at College Coach include a national debate champion, a future global leader fluent in eight languages, a beloved student who headed multiple organizations at his school and was noted as the most impressive to ever attend, and a budding engineer whose project won awards in a national competition and who also created STEM opportunities targeting girls at her high school.
I will grant that some of these are extreme examples of distinguishing excellences, but the through line for all is that the students each had a passion they pursued through multiple, structured channels. If that describes you, you may be one step closer to acceptance to an Ivy League college. If it’s difficult for you to define your particular focus, let alone identify more than one way in which you have excelled in it, then acceptance at this highly selective level is unlikely.
Next up in the process: recommendation letters. Part six in our series on evaluating your chances of acceptance to an Ivy League institution will offer insight into the types of letters that will improve the odds of getting in.