A reader sends in the following strategies for getting into fancy colleges:
My advice to all high school kids is the following:
1. Don't take too many honors classes. Just get good grades. Honors classes don't make you stand out that much. Getting an A in a standard class is better than a B in honors level or AP. If you're smart and want to learn extra, go for it. If you take a regular class, you'll have plenty of time for this either in class where you won't have to pay attention or at home because the homework is easier. You don't get all the extra garbage projects the teachers give you. You can also use the extra time to boost your SAT. GPA+SAT is what really matters.
University of California gives a full 1.0 higher GPA for "Advanced Placement" courses, even though a study says that 0.5 would better predict freshman GPA. I'd like to see Advanced Placement test scores weighed more heavily in college admissions, but there is a lot of resistance to that.
2. Find the majors in your university of choice that have a low enrollment or needs your demographic. Then figure out what the university policy is for changing majors or schools within the University. My school had a college of Arts and Sciences. So you can apply as say a German major and then switch to Biology if you want to. It's easy. If you're a guy, apply to the school of nursing if the school has one. If you're a girl, engineering might do the trick at some schools.
But make sure you can transfer. One hint is if it says "School of ..." they might not let you transfer from the School of Nursing to the School of Engineering.
3. Be a competent athlete. This is obviously easier said than done but many top level schools (Northwestern, Michigan, all the Ivies, Duke, etc.) just need warm bodies to fill out a team that won't fail out, get arrested, get into fights, or develop a drug problem. We had lots of guys on our team that would have been 3rd string on their J.V. team in high school but being an athlete was the bump that got them into an Ivy. Coaches at these schools often don't mind if you're not a great athlete if they think you will be successful in your professional life after graduation. You're a potential donor ($) to the program for life.
In Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, the Dupont University basketball team has three "swimmies" (tall white guys who aren't terribly good at basketball but have lots of endurance for practice, and who are genuine students) to fill the 13th-15th spots on the roster and boost team GPA. Is that common?
When I was a freshman at Rice, I played in a pickup basketball game in which my team of five non-athletes beat a team of four Division I basketball players 20-16. My big contribution to the upset was calling out, when we non-jocks jumped out to a 16-4 lead on a streak of hot-shooting, "Game at 20!" Not surprisingly, we soon regressed toward the mean, and barely hung on to win 20-16.
Granted, the Rice basketball team was pretty awful. That Christmas I went to Pauley Pavilion see them play a UCLA team that had four NBA first round draft picks on it. UCLA beat Rice 107-60 and it wasn't that close. The highlight was when Rice's center got the ball down low and tried to lean in on UCLA's David Greenwood, who simply took a step back and let the Rice big man fall down untouched.
But still ...
4. Go meet the coaches. Go to a summer camp or just call them up and drop by the school and try to meet them. At the top schools, the coaches simply don't have time to scan the whole country looking for athletes that approach the minimum test scores or grades required for admission. They are thrilled if you find them. A ten minute meeting with a coach is all it takes sometimes. Just don't be pushy. Pushy parents are a huge problem that coaches don't want to deal with unless you're kid is an amazing athlete (in which case you wouldn't really need an admissions strategy).
This strategy is low cost and fairly easy to do. It's even easier with women since Title 9 worships women athletes. This strategy is great for the minor sports. If you're trying to play basketball at Duke, you're out of luck. Wrestling, squash, tennis, track, swimming, soccer, and rowing (at some schools) are prime targets. Even football at the Ivies has some opportunities. Being president of the Spanish club or yearbook editor does nothing for you. Sports can be a great meal ticket. And the alumni benefits are tremendous as you have 10-50 instant connections depending on the size of your team. There are often opportunities for extra money with summer jobs through alumni as well.