Estrela Consulting Blog

Understanding Selective College Admissions: The Secret Sauce - Tips and Strategies

Jamie Kirby October 09, 2023

Note: This is a companion piece to our recent Estrela Webinar Series: "Understanding Highly Selective Admissions". You can find the recordings of Part 1 and Part 2 of these webinars using the links embedded here. Enjoy!


We explored the data in Part I.

We explored institutional priorities in Part II.

So what is the secret sauce?  How do you get admitted to a highly selective school?

Truthfully, there is no one secret ingredient that will get you an acceptance.  However, there are some tips and strategies to help your application be as strong as possible for consideration!

Activities and Involvement

    • Depth and passion are more important than number of activities.  You do not need to play 3 sports, be a member of 6 clubs, and do community service at 4 locations.  But what you do want to show is deep, genuine involvement in the activities you do pursue.
    • Show a substantive contribution to your school or community, beyond yourself.  How have you impacted those around you and made a difference?
    • Activities should demonstrate your values.  What is important to you?  Choose activities and groups that are meaningful to you and authentic to your interests.
    • You are not limited to officially organized activities!  Have you completed scuba certification?  If you are an artist, have you considered opening an Etsy shop or selling at craft fairs?  Do you write your own music?  Any of those activities, and more, are excellent activities for college applications!

    Testing (if submitting test scores)

    • ACT or SAT scores should be near perfect if submitting them.
    • AP scores should be 4’s or 5’s with an emphasis on your areas of designated interest.  For example, a 5 on AP Calculus will strengthen your application for engineering more than a 5 on AP Psychology.  A 5 on AP English will strengthen your application for a humanities major.
    • IB scores will not be available at the time of application, but your teacher(s) from junior year can provide projected test scores that could benefit you.
    • Test prep is still extremely important, even with test optional opportunities.  A great test score will strengthen your application.  You should plan to do substantial prep to get the best test score you can, and then once you have your best score, make the decision whether to use it or not.

    Research or Internship

    • Research or internship experience will greatly enhance your application to highly selective colleges.
    • It demonstrates intellectual curiosity outside of the classroom
    • It helps you explore your career interests to find a good fit, and having relevant experience shows your interest and passion for your chosen field in your application
    • Research or internship experience can also give you great substance for your personal statement or “why us” essay.
    • You can find research opportunities through summer programs, local colleges, fee-based research opportunities, family and friends, museums, hospitals, doctor or dentist offices, and local businesses of interest.  Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for opportunities!


Be Cohesive

    • Before you begin your essay, your application, or submissions requesting letters of recommendation, reflect on what aspects/points/qualities/experiences about YOU that you want to showcase in your total application package.  As you complete your application, ensure that each of those aspects are reflected throughout the various pieces.
    • Do you present yourself in a thematically cohesive manner?  Your pieces of the application should fit together like a puzzle to tell your story and reflect who you are.  A random assortment of activities and stories is confusing and doesn’t showcase you in the best light.
    • Have you used all parts of your application to connect the dots of your life story?  Your activity list, honors, essays, and letters of recommendation should all connect.  If there are particular traits, activities, or accomplishments that you would like your letter writers to highlight, be sure to include that in a brag sheet or share that information with them when you ask for your letter.
    • Do you seek new challenges?  Show how you have embraced challenges and grown into leadership roles throughout your years in high school.
    • Your senior year schedule: Did you choose to push yourself?  Is your course load at least equal to, potentially more difficult than, your first three years of high school?
    • What will you do when you don’t have to do anything?  Colleges are looking for students who will be active participants on campus.  Show them what you do with your unscheduled time and how you will be an asset to their community.

    Demonstrated Interest

    • Remember in Part I, where we talked about enrollment management and yield protection?  Demonstrated interest can help show a college that you are truly interested in attending, and didn’t just add them to the Common App on a whim.
    • To find out if your colleges of interest track demonstrated interest, look at section C7 of the Common Data Set.
    • A few ways of demonstrating interest are opening and clicking on links in your emails (colleges can, and do, track that!), reaching out to your admission counselor, attending college rep visits at your high school, and visiting campus.

    Supplemental Materials

    • Some colleges allow submission of additional materials to demonstrate your talents and interests.  If you have exceptional talent in an area, or additional information that you want to share with the admissions committee, you may be able to submit:
      • Music supplement (recordings)
      • Art supplement (portfolio/photos of work)
      • Writing portfolio
      • Research Abstract
      • Resume
      • Supplemental letters of recommendation.  Be sure that supplemental letters of recommendation will include significantly different information from the required teacher recommendations.
      • Link(s) to online presence (i.e. school newspaper, YouTube channel, podcast) 
    • Check each college’s admissions website for details on what they will accept and how to submit materials.  Some will allow you to upload it it to your admissions portal; others will ask you to email it or may link to a program such as SlideRoom.

    Application Plan

    • Look at the application plans your college offers.  If Early Decision is an option for your top choice, it can be a good strategy to consider.  Remember that Early Decision is binding, so make sure it is a school you plan to attend if accepted.
    • Some schools fill significant percentages of their class in the early decision round.  If that is the case for your top choice, you may want to consider applying ED.  These charts from Big J Consulting provide excellent information on the acceptance rate for Early Decision vs. Regular Decision as well as the percentage of the freshman class filled during the ED round at many schools.

So while there is no secret sauce that will guarantee you admission to your top choice college, using these tips and strategies can help ensure that you are putting your best foot forward.  Remember that there are only some aspects of the admissions process that you can control; there are more qualified candidates than there are spaces, and institutional priorities guide much of the decision making.  Do your best to portray your authentic self, and remember to build a balanced list of schools so that you have several opportunities you would be happy with to consider when offers are in.

*If you haven't read Parts 1 & Part 2 in this series, be sure to check them out! 

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