Several years ago, there was a network news story about Japanese high school students preparing for their graduation exams. Their performance on these exams determined what level of university they would get into. Pressure to perform was intense because graduates of the most prestigious university virtually were guaranteed a prosperous life's work and other perks.
Sound familiar? There was one crucial difference, though.
The news report showed one particular densely populated apartment complex in Tokyo where many high schoolers lived with their families. It looked like any other big-city, high-rise except for curious and conspicuous heavy metal canopies shrouding the sidewalks in front of the buildings. A convenience for rainy or hot sunny days? No, these steel roofs protected passersby from the falling bodies of distraught high schoolers who had not fared well on their exams. The suicide rate was so intense that city officials felt duty bound to protect pedestrians with this shielding. Incredible.
You may know someone who was deeply crushed by his or her failure to get into an ultimate first-choice college. Hopefully, s/he didn't contemplate suicide. The point here is simple and worth remembering: The most challenging part of your college process may well be getting into your chosen college. Graduating may be notably easier.
I often mention the sometimes-arbitrary nature of elite-college admissions. The story seems to be the same every year. The pressure to apply early mounts every admissions season and this year's seniors will face tougher competition than last year's, but not as tough as next year's. No end to the spiral seems to be in sight.
In a past Yale Daily News article, for example, a student reporter wrote about this rising rate of early applications. Once again the pattern repeats: Acceptance rates fall because of an increase in the number of applications. Yale's acceptance rate has fallen to a record low for early applicants as opposed to last year's. In general, when comparing those numbers, prospective Yalies might figure that they have a significantly better advantage if they apply early. Obviously, that logic is technically irrational, but that's how some seniors think, thus driving early applications skyward.
So then, what observations can we make about this situation? One strong implication is that if you're deadly serious about getting into an elite college, you're going to have a lot of well-prepared competition. That seems obvious, but what else does that suggest? It suggests early preparation, not only early but also savvy.
You probably hang out on sites like College View and College Confidential for one of two basic reasons. First, you've already decided that you're going to throw your hat into the high-end application pool or, second, you're thinking about it but wanted to see just how hard it may really be. If yours is the second reason, don't be scared away. Unless your overall profile is a complete mismatch with those of the admitted freshman at these top schools, you have a shot at getting in. If you're reading because you've already decided to go the distance, then hopefully your profile package is up to the challenge.
Keep in mind that you can never be sure exactly what the admissions office is looking for each year when it reviews thousands of applications. In my articles on College Confidential, I've tried to help you build a toolbox of questions to ask, tactics to use, and skills to develop as you approach this monumental challenge. However, I can assure you of this: Colleges look for both a well-rounded, balanced student and that "standout" special gift, skill, or talent. Make sure your application shows that you have the right portfolio to show to the admissions officers, and that your special talents are easy to identify in your materials.
Above all in your applications, you should be looking for consistency, clarity, and logic in marketing your portfolio. Make sure that your transcripts agree with your teacher and counselor evaluations, that your SAT or ACT scores reflect your abilities as shown on your grade transcripts, and that your essays are an airtight wrapper around the whole application package. That will make your candidacy hard to ignore.
Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.