How to get accepted
to the best colleges.

An insider’s guide to the top colleges admissions process.

Learn important insights, tips, and recommendations for the:
Application | Essays | Letters of Recommendations | SAT | Interview

ast year, the top-ranked colleges in the United States – Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and other elite universities like Stanford, Duke, and MIT – received nearly 250,000 applications.

In 2015, Harvard admitted a record low 5.2% of applicants. That acceptance rate at Harvard has dropped by nearly 50% in the past 10 years. Harvard accepted 1,990 out of 37,305 total applications and other top schools produced similar results. College admissions at Ivy League Universities is getting more difficult each year.

Given those intimidating odds, how can you improve your chances of getting into your top choice college?

The following will guide you through the entire college application process and provide advice and recommendations to differentiate yourself among the pool of candidates. This guide will put you on the path to getting accepted to college. It includes specific guidance on getting into to Ivy League colleges or similar elite universities.


College Application Overview

The College application process is typically comprised of the following:

  • High School Transcript
  • Common Application essays
  • Supplemental School essays
  • 2 Teacher Recommendations
  • SAT or ACT scores and SAT Subject test scores
  • Candidate interview

Your academic record, extracurricular experience, and personal history are usually included in the application essays and recorded in the Common Application data forms. Most students submit all of their applications online via Naviance or similar platforms.

Most colleges give prospective students two application options: early or regular decision. Early applications have two categories: early action or early decision, commonly abbreviated as ED or EA.

Early decision applicants receive consideration before regular decision candidates and these options usually involve a binding agreement to attend the school if accepted. Early action applicants also receive consideration before regular decision candidates but they are not bound to attend the college if accepted.

Early applications are usually due November 1st and decisions are received in mid-December. Regular applications are due as early as December 1 or as late as February 1st with the majority being due by January 1st. Decisions arrive in March and April. Some larger schools and public universities also offer admission decisions on a “rolling” basis.

While there are benefits to applying early, namely finding out sooner, there are also reasons to wait. If you are not certain which college you want to attend then you shouldn’t force yourself to apply early–especially if the school has a binding ED admission policy. Applying regular decision allows more time to work on applications and research or visit schools.

The entire process of applying to college is long and arduous. You should plan on taking the standardized tests like the SAT, SAT Subject tests or ACT in Junior year, and spending the summer and fall crafting your applications, obtaining letters of recommendations, and preparing for interviews. However, most students begin preparing long before junior year by maintaining the highest possible GPA, choosing the right courses, choosing the right extracurriculars and summer programs, and visiting and researching schools.


Last year, the top-ranked colleges in the United States received nearly 250,000 applications. How can you improve your chances of getting into your top choice college?

  Admissions Timetable

Junior Year

Sep-May: Take SAT, SAT Subject tests and ACT.

Oct-Aug: Visit college campuses.

Jun-Aug: Begin crafting your applications.

Senior Year

September: Obtain letters of recommendations.

November 1: Early applications are usually due.

Dec-Feb: Regular applications are usually due.

Mar-Apr: Colleges send out acceptance letters.


If you plan on working with an educational consultant, consider signing up in as early in high school as possible to give yourself time to correctly and authentically build your academic and extracurricular profile. Signing up early prevents making a mistake of taking the wrong class, testing too early or too late, or having an imbalance in your outside activities – which could hurt your college admissions chances.

What do the Best Colleges Look For?

Among the thousands of students applying to the top ranked colleges, what do Admissions Committee Members look for to determine who gets in and who doesn’t?


In a word, “fit,” says Laurie Martin, Director of Undergraduate and Graduate Consulting at Stratus Prep, the world’s leading admissions counselling firm. “Among all the Ivy League and elite colleges, one of the top attributes they look for is fit. But not just having the right test scores and grades. It’s important to demonstrate cultural fit within the community of the college–the fact that you will give as much to the university as it will to you.”

Harvard’s admissions website does in fact list “Contribution to the Harvard community” on its “What are we looking for?” page. The website goes on to explain, “Will you be able to stand up to the pressures and freedoms of College life? Will you contribute something to Harvard and to your classmates? Will you benefit from your Harvard experience? Would other students want to room with you, share a meal, be in a seminar together, be teammates, or collaborate in a closely knit extracurricular group?”

MIT’s admissions website also lists “Alignment with MIT’s mission to make the world a better place,” as the first admission criteria. As they put it, “Remember that there are many ways to make the world better – we’re not looking for applicants to have cured all infectious disease in the world by the time they’re fifteen. Tutoring a single kid in math changes the world. Lobbying a senator to change bad policy changes the world. There are thousands of examples.”


To boost your odds further of getting accepted to the most prestigious colleges, you should also be mindful of what institutions may covet even more than fit: Diversity. That can mean diverse or perspective, region, interest and talent in addition to racial, ethnic and gender diversity.

When admissions officers evaluate applications, creating a diverse student body is a very important goal. Again on their admissions page Harvard states, “While Harvard is renowned for its academic excellence, we strongly believe that one of our greatest strengths is the exceptional diversity within the student body.”

Laurie Martin

Director of Undergraduate and Graduate Consulting at Stratus Prep

B.A. from Columbia and a masters degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

About Laurie
Laurie has nine years of experience in college admissions counseling including work at one of the country’s top college preparatory schools. She is also a former all-American athlete who understands the most important aspects of the college process and how to get an edge on the competition.

Working with MBA Consultant
“A consultant will help you get an edge, make the process infinitely less stressful, and increase your chances of getting into a better school than you could do alone as well as access to colleges with stronger financial aid opportunities.”

Read getting-into-college advice articles from Laurie  

Brand You: Marketing Yourself To Colleges

Perhaps the most important advice we can offer throughout the entire application process (other than don’t miss deadlines) is to craft your story in a way that makes you unique and memorable.

You are building your brand.

There are literally thousands of students with similar test scores, grades, and activities applying for the same few seats. An applicant cannot afford to look and sound like everyone else.

Stratus Prep’s Martin explains, “It’s about creating a genuine narrative and that shows colleges exactly what they want to see: who you are.”

She cautions, “Applicants will tend to pad their resume hoping that ‘more is more.’ However, admissions readers comb through each individual’s essays. They have read thousands of them and can spot a list of activities from genuine interest and focused effort. That is where the most compelling narratives are found: students who are true to their unique identity.”

This is an area where an college consultant can provide great help.

Martin continues, “At Stratus Prep, we have a proprietary process that examines a student’s profile and evaluates an applicant’s most important activities and achievements. This is where we help them highlight those and connect them into a story that shines through the crowd.”


 The most compelling narratives are from students who are true to their unique identity.   – Stratus Prep’s Laurie Martin.

The Common Application

Do your homework

Before you dig into the Common Application itself, it pays to do your homework. Think about what you want your college experience to be like and why you want to go to college? Consider how you plan to use your college education in your future. The Common Application essay prompts and the supplemental school essays will ask complicated questions like, “Why are you unique? What are your goals? What is a difficult challenge that transformed your thinking?”

Next, you’ll need to develop an in-depth answer for why you want to attend a each particular college. All elite universities offer different strengths and areas of focus, and you’ll be required to explain what specifically you find most appealing about each school.

Your answers should be authentic. A college consultant can help you think through these profound questions and assist you in articulating your strengths and weaknesses and what you hope to accomplish in post-grad and in life.

A college consultant can also help to bring to life your extracurriculars and background. This part of the application is often reduced to a list of activities, dates, and brief descriptions and can be a missed opportunity to continue your narrative. Use this section to highlight accomplishments that demonstrate, among other strengths, your fit within the college and potential impact on the university community.

Tips for Your Application

  • Highlight accomplishments that feature academic experiences and leadership capabilities.
  • Always use quantifiable metrics when possible, for example discuss the exact number of hours devoted to a community service project or when demonstrating its result, e.g. “I spent 25 hours that semester organizing the clothing drive and we were able to collect 87 used coats.”
  • If there are weak grades in a certain course, address them in the additional essays.
  • Don’t forget to include academic and other successes outside of the classroom such as internships, shadowing, or subject-specific summer programs
  • Focus on progression and growth over your four years of high school.
  • Tailor your application to each school in order to align with their objectives and strengths as well as use the school’s language and phrases. The admissions officer will make the connection and be more likely to view you as a “fit” for the college.
  • Avoid simply telling the admissions committees about yourself. Instead show them through strong anecdotes.
  • Write clearly and concisely. Don’t not use long prose or ramble.
  • Of course, pay attention to the details and accuracy – typos and omissions are obvious application killers.

College Application Essays

Colleges use essays on the application to find out who you really are. You should use the college essay to differentiate yourself and further your narrative.

College consultant Martin suggests, “Make sure you have an anecdotal example for each point you want to make about yourself. Keep the points connected to the overall narrative you are presenting.”

Keep in mind that the critical objective for any college admissions committee is to accept a diverse class that “fits” within the school. Therefore, your critical objective for your essays should be to demonstrate how your unique life experiences will add to the richness of the incoming class.

There are six prompts for the Common Application essay. You must choose one. The essay should be between 200-650 words. Aim for 500.

2015 Common Application Prompts

2015-2016 Essay Prompts [250-650 words]

1) Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2) The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3) Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4) Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could have taken to identify a solution.

5) Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood or adulthood within your culture, community or family.

A college consultant can provide perhaps the greatest value in helping you answer these questions and maintain a consistent narrative that connects your academic work, extracurriculars, personal interests, a particular college’s strengths and your future goals.

Tips for Your Essays

  • Spend time outlining to ensure a coherent narrative
  • Start with an attention-grabbing opening. Write something that makes you stand out, but make sure you stay on topic.
  • Use your personal background and accomplishments to demonstrate that you have a unique perspective and will add value and diversity to the class.
  • Show how you’ve been a leader in your extracurriculars, in the classroom, or in your community service. Remember leadership can be displayed with or without an official title.
  • Align your values and vision with the school’s. Every college has its own culture and mission. Do your homework to ensure there’s a good fit between you and the school.
  • Be specific. Provide colorful anecdotes and interesting details to make your stories more interesting and memorable.
  • Do not make excuses for mistakes or failures in your past. Be honest and explain what you learned and how you’ve grown from your experiences.
  • Be confident, not boastful.
  • Stay positive; no sarcasm, blaming, or bitterness. It never plays well.

Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges require two references, one from a science or math teacher and one from a English or history teacher. They are submitted online through the common application. You should ask teachers who know you best, and have had you recently–junior year teachers are typically preferable. You should make sure you got a good grade in their class and participated fully.

You’ll likely find that the letters of recommendations pose your greatest challenge in the application process because you have such little control over getting them done.

Consider this an important test of your time management and interpersonal skills. If the letters are late or don’t meet the requirements, what does this say about your ability to complete projects?

You’ll want to request a recommendation far in advance of deadlines and ensure the teacher is aware of the deadlines from the beginning. Ask, don’t just assume the teacher will do them–no matter how close your relationship.

Martin explains, “Schools don’t really care about extra recommenders. Too many letters seems excessive. It’s more about having two academic accounts of the students work within the classroom. It is most important he or she give specific examples that demonstrate the strengths of the student.”

While you should never offer to write the letter for your recommenders, you can offer to meet with them to explain your study plans or subject interests in college. You can also remind them of your recent accomplishments and certain projects or assignments you completed in their class.

Tips for Your Letters of Recommendation

  • Letters should come from two teachers. It is preferable to have one teacher you had in math/science and one you had in English/history. It is preferable for them to be a junior year teacher.
  • It is better to have two teachers who know you well and from whom you earned a high grade than it is to have a specific subject area or class year.
  • Ask your recommender to be honest but also to be an advocate for you.
  • Reinforce the importance of specific, detailed examples to illustrate their points.
  • If you need two letters of recommendations, consider 3 or 4 options in case one falls through.
  • Give each recommender plenty of time to write the letter.

College SAT Exam

As of March 2016 the SAT redesign will be in effect. The test is 45 minutes shorter than the previous version of the exam.

According to the College Board: “The SAT doesn’t test logic or abstract reasoning. It tests the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math. Your knowledge and skills in these subjects are important for success in college and throughout your life.”

The new SAT tests 3 areas:

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
    • Reading Test
    • Writing and Language Test
  • Math
  • Essay (optional)

To get accepted to a competitive college school, your SAT score is critical.

The best approach to improve your chance of getting a good score is to study and take practice tests. Private tutoring can be an excellent resource to improve your aptitude on specific areas of the exam.

The new SAT includes the following improvements:

  • Focus on the knowledge, skills, and understandings that research has identified as most important for college and career readiness and success
  • Greater emphasis on the meaning of words in extended contexts and on how word choice shapes meaning, tone, and impact
  • Rights-only scoring (no penalty for guessing)

According to the College Board the best way to prepare for the SAT is to take challenging courses, study hard, and read and write in and outside of the classroom. Studies suggest that cramming and short-term prep can’t substitute for hard work in school, but it’s certainly a good idea for you to become familiar and comfortable with the test format and question types. That’s why the best SAT practice is the PSAT/NMSQT®, which covers the same subjects under timed conditions.

While everyone’s study habits are unique to himself or herself, there are general guidelines to help you prepare.

Tips for Taking the SAT

  • Familiarize yourself with the basics of the new SAT exam, including the question formats, directions, time limits, and scoring.
  • To create an effective study plan, start by taking one full-length practice test to assess your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Always time your practice to get used to the time limits and to practice pacing.
  • Eliminate answers you know are wrong.
  • If you don’t know, guess. You will no longer be penalized for wrong answers, so guessing works in your favor.
  • As you prep, keep a detailed log that tracks your performance, especially your errors. This will make it easier to focus on and improve your weaknesses.
  • If you guessed on a question and got it correct on a practice test, review it as if you got it wrong to make sure you understand it for test day.
  • Simulate game-day conditions. Wake up, eat, and prepare the same way you will for your actual SAT. Also try to take your practice tests at the same time.
  • Be well rested the day of the exam.

College Interview

Not all colleges will offer an interview. Some will offer interviews if you request it from the admissions office. Many colleges use alumni from your region to conduct their interviews. For the most part, receiving an interview is not indicative that you are closer to getting admitted. However, acing an interview can certainly get you closer to admission. If you receive an interview offer, you should try your best to accept and make sure to prepare for it.

While not all interviews are structured the same, you will likely meet with an admissions officer or an alumnus. Most interviews last between 20-45 minutes.

“Think of it as another opportunity to learn more about the school,” explains Martin. “The most important recommendation is to know yourself and your narrative. Be very specific as to why that college, what area of study you are interested in, and how you would add value to the school community.”

The most important question you will not be asked, but one which the interviewer, especially an alumnus, will seek to answer is “Would this person add to my school’s community?” Building rapport and camaraderie with the interviewer is critical for a successful interview. Ask them about their experience at the school if they were an alum, show curiosity and genuine interest.

Tips for Your Interview

  • Prepare for a college interview the same way you would prepare for a job interview.
  • Practice answering questions out loud and within a certain time limits.
  • Conduct mock interviews with a friend, or better yet, a consultant or coach.
  • Rehearse giving natural, succinct answers.
  • Don’t just repeat lines from your application essay. Be able to flesh out answers with new, interesting anecdote and details.
  • Do your best to make a personal connection at the beginning of the interview. Find common interests, shared passions, similar backgrounds.
  • Prepare answers for challenging questions, especially those that probe for weaknesses or ask for details.
  • Relax. Most of these questions will be about you and you know more about yourself than any other person.
  • Prepare 3-5 insightful questions about the college to demonstrate your seriousness about the process. Avoid questions that have obvious answers or you could have easily answered by visiting the school website.
  • Show up early to the interview. This will allow you to get relaxed and look your best.

Work with a College Consultant

To improve your chances of getting accepted to the college of your choice, consider hiring a college consultant.

“A consultant will help you get an edge, make the process infinitely less stressful, and increase your chances of getting into a better school than you could alone. You’ll also be able to access to colleges with stronger financial aid opportunities. 60% of Harvard students receive scholarships,” says Martin. “At Stratus Prep, we have a process designed to highlight your strengths and address your weaknesses. We can help you create a strong narrative that differentiates you from other applicants.”

Most college applicants hire a counselor before senior year when applications are due. However, most candidates are better served starting the relationship earlier to give you more time to strengthen your profile.