Fairview High School > Applying to Highly Selective Colleges: What does it take?

Fairview High School

Applying to Highly Selective Colleges: What does it take?

A highly selective college is one that has very competitive admission standards and a very low acceptance rate, because of its highly recognized name and top academic programs and faculty. These schools typically admit only 25% or fewer of the students who apply. Out of over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., approximately 50 are considered highly selective, and approximately 15 of these campuses accept 10% or less of applicants.

The Fairview Counselors, encourage all students to compile a balanced and thoughtful college list based on the factors that are most important to each individual, and not just the name of the college. These individual factors may include: quality of academic programs, cost, location, enrollment size, and extracurricular activities. If your interests and goals lead you to apply to highly selective colleges, please be aware of the following factors.

Admissions officers at highly selective colleges are looking for genuine intellectual interest and achievement in academics, and one or more of the following areas: specific types of demonstrated talent, passionate interests, and creativity. So, they are not necessarily looking for a “well-rounded student” who does a little of everything, but by choosing a variety of students with particular interests and talents, they are able to create and maintain a “well-rounded student body” to fill each new freshman class. However, you may be highly qualified in these areas and still not be admitted.

Every year, we hear, “My grades, test scores, and resume are perfect. Why didn't I get in?” The reality is that If you decide to apply to a highly selective school, especially those with a lower than 10% admit rate, it is important to remember that these colleges are always a reach. There are no guarantees. Each year, tens of thousands of highly-qualified students are rejected by these schools, and only a small percentage of highly talented, driven students, with stellar academic records, are admitted. The most competitive colleges reject up to 95% of their applicants. YOU CAN’T TAKE THIS PERSONALLY.

HOWEVER, one factor that will help the most is to do the best possible job of presenting yourself. You will need to have a strategic, well-crafted and complete application, and contact with the college, so that admissions officers get to know you and the reasons you are interested in their campus. They will want to know about your character, your academic success, skills/talents, involvement in your school and/or community, and how you will make use these talents on their campus and beyond. You will need to write and provide information about yourself, telling your own story, in a way that is compelling, using all of the application materials they allow you to submit. They will also want to understand why you are interested in their particular school. Showing this “demonstrated interest” is an important part of being considered for acceptance. Applying to highly competitive schools must be intentional. It takes self-knowledge, time and planning, so you need to begin early in your high school career. It is difficult to catch-up in junior and senior years.

Please click each link to learn more about these important parts of the application information:


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  • Strategic Application Plan and Timetable

    Application to highly selective schools requires a thoughtful and thorough examination and explanation of your abilities, achievements, and your goals. You must clearly convey your strengths, who you are, why you are interested in a specific college, how you will use the resources, and what you will add to campus life.

    In addition, you will need to determine the timing of your application; if you want to apply to the college “early decision” or “early action”, or during the regular admission deadline. If you know where you want to go, some colleges may have higher acceptance rates for students who apply early action or early decision, especially for those with a talent that the college needs to fill in a particular year.

    Think of the application as a complete picture of who you are, not as a set of isolated parts to be completed and thought of individually. There should be a confirming theme of your specific interests and goals. Plan each section to relate the message of how you are presenting and defining yourself. When all the elements of your application are read together, they will demonstrate who you are, what you want, and why you are a perfect fit for a particular college. To plan your application, use this grid (link to come) and these steps.

    Each part should be thoughtfully crafted and connected, including:

    • Application Format: Thoughtful answers to the general information questions of the application (name, contact information, address, family information, possible area of study, planned tests, etc.)
    • Control of your Social Media: THIS FACTOR HAS PREVENTED MANY STUDENTS FROM BEING ACCEPTED AND CAUSED SOME STUDENTS TO LOSE THEIR ACCEPTANCE. Every contact and record you give to colleges should accurately reflect the way you present yourself in your application. Consider your phone message, email address, and all forms of social media. What are colleges able to see from their connection to your social media accounts?
    • High School Transcript: Accurate 9th-11th grade transcript, and plans to submit transcripts for the fall and spring of the senior year. (If appropriate, use essay opportunities to address any weakness in your transcript that may reflect a time of personal challenge or growth, and a current time of new resiliency.
    • Standardized Test Scores: Record of test scores sent to colleges directly from CollegeBoard.com for the SAT/ SAT Subject Tests, and from act.org for the ACT test results. Also include AP and IB scores, or other pertinent measurements of your knowledge. Forms will also ask for upcoming test types and dates.
    • List of Activities: Meaningful and complete resume of your interests beyond the classroom, and any honors or recognition that you have received.
    • One or More Essays: Well-written essays that reveal your interests, character, personality, unique experiences, and confirm your goals. On supplemental essays written to each college, include the reasons for your specific interest in that campus.
    • Letters of Recommendation: Strong letters of recommendation from your counselor and core academic teachers, who can confirm you academic talent and ability. Others may be included to confirm specific talents, interests, and passions.
    • Extra, additional evidence of your interests, talent, skill: YouTube videos, Google Docs, Drop Box, the Coalitions Application “Locker,” etc.

    As you craft your application, think about what you want to say about yourself to each college and determine which part of your application will convey the information you are trying to communicate.. Ideally, when all the elements of your application are read together, they will demonstrate who you are, what you want, and why you are a perfect fit for a particular school. Please click here for more specifics on completing a college application. Also, read each of the links below for further tips and recommendations.
  • Rigorous Transcript & Top Grades

    First and foremost, schools will review the content and rigor of your high school courses and the grades you received. Highly selective schools anticipate that you will have taken the most challenging college preparatory, advanced, honors, AP, or IB courses in high school and that you have been successful in those classes. See Course Offerings and Honors Programs. Include known scores of AP and IB exams, and dates of exams that you plan to take.
  • Excellent ACT/SAT Scores

    Excellent test scores are ideal for serious consideration by highly selective schools, and you should devote extra time for test preparation. Take the ACT and the SAT by the spring of junior year so that there is plenty of time to decide which to pursue, and for additional preparation to take tests again in the fall, if necessary to improve scores. The PSAT that is given in the fall of the junior year is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship program. It is optional, but for students applying for highly selective colleges we recommend taking it. Learn more about college applications testing

    TIP: If a highly selective school does not actually require something but “recommends” it, like taking SAT subject tests, you should consider that recommendation as a direction to do it. The students who are competing with you will be doing so. For these colleges, you should take these exams if you are qualified to do so.
  • Unique Service or Accomplishment

    Having an essential leadership role in a club, community service organization or entrepreneurial enterprise is an important addition to your resume and can be highly regarded by admissions officers.. Ideally, you will have engaged in authentic, committed service to an organization over 3-4 years rather than a longer list of activities and organizations with only surface-level involvements. See the Opportunities and Opportunities articles.

    Evaluate interests and strengths early on in school, community, national or global involvement, or competitions, and find opportunities to explore that interest in depth. This might include: academic subjects and competitions (including STEM), athletics, fine arts, or a unique interest or passion unrelated to school. Genuine commitment in these fields might be demonstrated through honors and awards, research and publication, volunteering in these areas, participation in summer programs and internships, etc. Learn more about careers
  • Exceptional Talents or Passions

    Selective colleges are seeking students who have demonstrated their developed talent and passion in some aspect of their extracurricular or academic lives. This might include athletics, performing/ visual arts, among many other types of documented special and developed abilities. As a result, you should evaluate your interests and strengths early on and then find opportunities to go deeper in those areas. Choosing one or two interests and achieving real excellence is preferable to trying to “do it all” on a modest basis.

    Depth in these fields might be demonstrated through honors and awards, competition results, letters from noted people involved in the area of performance. Students often include evidence of their abilities through videos, YouTube, Google docs, Drop Box, etc. It will also be important to contact the coaches, professors, or representatives on campus who will be interested in verifying your talent, recruit you, and represent you to the admissions officers.. See information about Selective Programs
  • Strong Letters of Recommendation

    For highly selective colleges, letters of recommendation are invaluable and sometimes, they are the first items that are read from all of the application materials. It is important to give accurate information to your counselor so that he/she can represent you in terms of your character, personality, goals, and growth at Fairview. It is important for your core academic teachers to write about you as a student scholar and your performance and in the classroom, not about your extracurricular activities. Be sure to give your counselor and teachers appropriate and meaningful information from which to write your letters. Learn about letters of recommendation
  • Confident Personal Interview

    Interviewing with campus or local (Colorado) admissions representatives (and coaches, if appropriate). In interviews, clearly convey who you are, what you will bring to campus, and why you are interested in the school. Learn about Interviewing
  • Demonstrated Interest in the College

    Sometimes, highly qualified students are rejected by admissions officers because they do not show enough special interest in the campus. Showing your high level of interest in the college campus ,through research, communication, and gathering information during campus visits where you show and state/record your interest from attending a class, speaking with faculty your intended major or interest, and meeting students If visiting the campus is not possible, find out all you can from websites, virtual tours, and attend all possible meeting where the college representative in isn't our area. See more info about visiting colleges
  • Affiliations/Connections with the College

    Having an affiliation with a highly selective school can sometimes give you an advantage in the application process. Some examples include being a legacy with a parent alumnus, having a relative who is either a high level government official or a member of the faculty, having a special celebrity status, or donating a large amount of funding to the university. If you have an affiliation, you will likely mention it in your application, but the affiliation alone will not guarantee an acceptance. You must keep the emphasis of your application information on your qualifications.


For additional advice, information, and a step-by-step guide, please visit “Admission to a Selective College or University:” by author, David Crooks