15 Tips for Minority Students to Get Accepted Into Ivy League and Elite Colleges

Being admitted into an Ivy League university or elite private college is competitive for first-generation minority students or any high school student. But most minority students must compete for limited spots in the freshman class without the help of Princeton Review and Kaplan prep classes, advice from costly private college consultants or mentoring by college-educated parents. Despite the obstacles, talented minority students are finding ways to get through the Ivy League gates (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale) and be admitted to first-tier colleges.

The competition is fierce. Robert Jackson, Yale University’s director of minority recruitment, told The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine in January 2010 that in 2009, Yale received 14,000 applications for 1,100 freshman spots, so about one of 14, or about 7 percent, were admitted. Lily Trayes, director of Ivy League Placement, a New York-based college counseling service; Pam Proctor, author of The College Hook: Packaging Yourself to Win the College Admissions Game; and Rod Bugarin, a former admissions officer at Columbia University and Brown University and currently a regional director of RecruitZone, offer tips on what a minority student must do to be accepted into these prestigious colleges.

Experts say that Ivy League colleges haven’t lessened their commitment to diversity and have sustained financial aid to deserving students, despite the economic recession. Proctor says elite colleges are “still looking for talented minorities. Colleges are particularly mining for students who may be off the radar screen and yet have motivation, drive and intellectual capacity to make it.”

Trayes adds that Ivy League and highly selective colleges “want their population to be diverse in terms of ethnicity and finances.”

Students who apply to Ivy League colleges must have high GPAs and SAT scores. But Trayes relates an anecdote of three students applying to the Ivy Leagues, two of whom had the highest possible SAT scores and the other close behind, but spoke five languages. The first two were rejected, and the polyglot student was admitted. Hence, Ivy League schools want more than high scores. Proctor adds that elite colleges are looking for a three-legged stool: top SAT scores; high GPAs; and one attribute, skill or experience that sets a student apart from the others, like a competitive edge in a business.

Trayes says that being a minority student with top scores is an advantage, not a handicap. “A student that represents cultural diversity and has the scores and transcripts that meet what colleges are looking for has an advantage,” she says. These elite colleges are looking to raise their percentage of Hispanic, African-American and Native American students and their diversity statistics.

Bugarin says that Ivy League admissions staffs look at SAT and GPA scores in the context of a student’s school and background. “We’d expect scores to be higher from a student from a well-funded school with ample resources. Social factors were acknowledged,” he said. These schools want to see “leadership, having the ability to influence and impact others positively through academics and activities, possessing these traits that you don’t see in others.”

But if Ivy League colleges are so dedicated to diversity, why do most have Hispanic and African-American populations between 4 percent and 8 percent, when both ethnicities number about 14 percent each of Americans?

Trayes blames the public school system, stating that most minority students attend urban schools that aren’t preparing students to handle the demanding curriculum of elite colleges. Bugarin added that many minority students don’t take advanced math and science, and that excludes them from consideration.

Here are 15 insider tips on how talented minority students can compete for Ivy League and elite colleges:

1. Lay the foundation in high school

Ivy League and elite colleges are looking for students who have taken the most challenging courses in high schools. Students who take AP and honor classes fit that description. Students who sleepwalk through high school and don’t take the toughest math, science and English classes won’t meet the criteria.

2. Market yourself to college

Just as colleges market to students, students must promote and market themselves to colleges, Proctor explains. “Most students don’t like to sell themselves,” she says. But to gain entry, students must think about how they want to present themselves and highlight their strengths.

3. Find the hook

Every student has a powerful story to tell but must discover the hook or differentiating point. Just being Latino isn’t enough of a hook; students must unearth a personal and individual story that serves as a cornerstone of their life. For example, Proctor says one student wrote about a summer he spent taking care of his autistic brother, demonstrating what he learned about himself and how it changed his relationship with his family, creating a powerful essay. That anecdote served as the hook that enabled him to

students with a hook, one year, Barnard College accepted a state’s top amateur golfer, a Leaders of Tomorrow scholarship winner, a finalist in the Odyssey of the Mind competition, a circus trapeze performer and a finalist in a Shakespeare oratory competition. In her book, Proctor notes that most high school students are too busy to ask themselves, “What’s the one thing that sets me apart?” Most Ivy League schools want superstars, so students must demonstrate that 20 years down the road, they’ll make a significant impact on society. Colleges are looking for “passion, something about you that reveals what you are doing, suggests your potential to contribute to the campus,” Proctor says. In addition, they pursue students who have overcome great obstacles.

4. Reach out to the college

Many colleges have a diversity admissions officer, whose names often can be identified on their websites. Send an e-mail or contact that person, expressing your interest. Ask questions about what you need to include in your application. Ask to visit the campus and speak to minority students. Take initiative.

5. Take teacher recommendations seriously

Some students see recommendations from their college advisor or English or math teacher as an afterthought, but they can play a role in boosting your application. If a high school guidance counselor writes in a recommendation that the student helped transform the high school by his or her leadership, that can strengthen a student’s application.

6. Participate in diversity weekends

Many colleges hold diversity weekends to familiarize talented high school students, including sophomores and juniors, with the campus. Some of these colleges offer stipends to attend the weekend. Bates College, Lehigh University, Whitman College, and Williams College are some schools that organize diversity weekends.

7. Find your voice in the personal essay

The essay should reveal the applicant’s personality. “Colleges use the essay to get to know the student in a personal way,” Trayes says. One trap is having someone else write or guide the essay, which leads to an overly polished and slickly written essay and displeases most admission directors. Proctor adds that the opening line should serve as a summary of the entire essay and serve as a hook to interest the reader, comparable to the lead of an Associated Press news story.

8. Do your homework and prepare for the interview

The interview should be like a

 “pingpong” match or mutual conversation in which the student and admissions representative ask questions of each other. Don’t be passive; play an active role in the interview. Bringing a résumé to the interview, for example, a school’s multicultural or bioengineering program, indicating that the applicant researched the college. Come to the interview ready to discuss your strengths: what you bring to the college, what makes your background unique, an extraordinary or special experience that you’ve had, such as volunteering at a food kitchen or participating in a statewide sports competition.

9. Differentiate among Ivy League colleges

Bugarin noted that all Ivy League colleges aren’t alike. Columbia’s core curriculum differs from Brown’s open curriculum. He advises that students research what is expected of them in certain majors and then consider those differences when writing the application.  Students need to make a “match” with the specific college, he suggested.

10. Create a winning application

What does it take to create a winning application? Prove to the college that you will be an asset and leader on campus. The college wants to see that a student is independent, mature and responsible; most campuses don’t want to baby-sit students. After the admissions department finishes reading the application, the representative should think, “This kid is a leader, a go-getter, and we have to get this student on campus.”

11. Focus on the supplemental application

All the Ivy League colleges ask students to fill out a basic application plus a supplemental addition. Bugarin says that Yale asks specific questions about why you want to attend that college, and Brown wants to know why you want to major in science and engineering. “They’re looking to read between the lines and get to your ethos.”

12. Network and tap resources

Several nonprofits are dedicated to helping students find the right college, including the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, Questbridge and others. Find them on the Internet. If you’re interested in applying to an Ivy League college, go to your church or your parent’s union and see if anyone has graduated from there or if they have children who attend and ask questions about what it takes to be accepted.

13. Don’t give up on independent counselors

Although hiring an independent counselor costs thousands of dollars, Bugarin says that “any independent counselor worth their credibility should be able to give this advice on a pro-bono or discounted rate.” Ask your college advisor for a recommendation and offer the independent consultant what you can pay, and see what the answer is.

14. Broaden your search beyond the Ivy League

In addition to applying to Ivy League colleges, consider the next 25 to 50 top colleges that offer first-rate education. Trayes notes that the following first-tier colleges are attracting bright Latino and minority students: Union College, Hamilton College, Ithaca College and Wesleyan College in the Northeast; McAllister College, Grinnell College and Knox College in the Midwest; and Lake Forest College in the Southwest. And she added that Holy Cross College and Connecticut College don’t require the applicants to submit SAT scores.

15. Don’t let financial considerations serve as a deterrent

Ironically, Trayes says a low-income student has a “better chance of getting a full ride into an Ivy League college than attending a local college.” Most Ivy League colleges offer financial aid that will meet the demonstrated needs of students who fall below the poverty level or are economically disadvantaged. But minority students must prove and demonstrate that they can handle the academically competitive environment and not be overwhelmed by the environment and become cut off and isolated on an intense campus.