PLAYING THE HARVARD-YALE GAME Competition at top colleges ranges from daunting to devastating, but there are ways to improve your chances of getting in.
By Lani Luciano

(MONEY Magazine) – With today's college-age generation 15% smaller than it was in the peak years of the mid-1970s, you might expect that joining the freshman class of the best schools would be easier to achieve. Surprisingly, competition is as hot as ever. Parents, facing expenses reaching toward $17,000 a year at some schools, increasingly want their money to buy a name-brand education. Students, eyeing the well-paid, high-powered jobs that are often the rewards of illustrious degrees, crave status with their studies. An example of the result: last spring the University of Pennsylvania, the most accessible of the Ivies, rejected 9,000 students, more than the total who applied in 1978 and more than four times the number it accepted. Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale each took fewer than 20% of applicants. Even beyond the 40 or so most competitive colleges in the country, chances of admission to the other selective schools such as Boston College, Pomona and the University of Virginia stand at about one in three. The odds may be formidable, but not insurmountable. Admissions directors, charged with creating a lively as well as an intellectual atmosphere, are drawn to resourceful applicants who find ways to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Students who plan their high school careers with college in mind have an advantage, but even at the point of application, you can make a difference by the way you present yourself to admissions officers. Selective colleges look hardest in three broad areas: academics, extracurricular activities and the application, including your essay, personal interviews and recommendations. GRADES AND SCORES The surest way into a top college is to have a wonderful academic record from a first-rate high school. So attending the name secondary school in your area can be a plus. If you can't pick your school and can't manage straight A's, then at least pick your classes carefully. Right from the beginning, avoid the easy ones like driver's ed, typing and golf and concentrate on building your knowledge and skills through broad, solid courses in English (especially writing), math, history, foreign languages and science. Electives should reflect your extracurricular interest: music courses if you sing or play an instrument, journalism courses if you write. Try also to take the most challenging courses your school offers: for example, advanced- placement classes, honors seminars and independent study. Even if you are not the class brain, a B in a difficult course shows effort, guts and seriousness about your education. Yet another application improver is college-level work. If you take one or more of the courses for high school students offered by many selective colleges, you will almost certainly help your chances at that school and likely at others as well. The classes should be rigorous, like the summer program for math students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Amherst, Cornell, Harvard, Skidmore and several other colleges offer summer programs for high school students in such subjects as fine arts, writing and the sciences. Although a debate rages about the fairness of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) and the American College Testing Program (ACTs), all selective schools continue to use them in varying degrees to assess applicants. Good scores (SATs of at least 1300 and ACTs of 27) reinforce your impression as a scholar, but poor ones may not hurt you very much. Says Carol Lunkenheimer, Northwestern University's director of admissions: ''Scores aren't as important as grades and the courses taken.'' Nonetheless, you may want to cram for the highest possible scores. Even such skeptics as the Federal Trade Commission and the Educational Testing Service, which prepares the SATs, acknowledge that < tutoring classes can help raise your scores by 50 points or so. Many high schools sponsor their own preparation classes. If yours doesn't, try asking some of the seniors or your school counselor for recommendations on the best tutoring. Should you retake the tests in hopes of raising your scores? If you know in your heart that you didn't do your best, sure. But don't retake them in the simple hope that, somehow, the numbers will levitate by themselves. Average score increases for students who retake the tests are in the 30-point range, and 35% of the scores actually drop a bit. EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES If it is simply not in your power to sustain A's by your junior year in high school, you will have to look very hard at what else you can cultivate in yourself to impress an admissions committee. In fact, students with somewhat weak grades but attractive qualities, besides the obvious one of outstanding athletic skills, stand a much better chance of getting in at many of the most popular schools than those with B's and no extra features. The quality that makes you wanted despite ordinary grades can often be found in extracurricular activities that help you show the following talents: Creative ability. Depth of accomplishment is what really impresses college inquisitors. Becoming a truly skilled singer, artist or composer will help your chances more than dabbling in a different pursuit each year. Katie Clark, 18, of San Francisco had good grades but mediocre combined SATs of just 1050. What made her stand out for the University of Pennsylvania was her dance talent. After studying modern dance and ballet for 10 years, she was good enough at age 17 to be offered a job with a professional company. Says Penn's associate dean of admissions, Daniel Lundquist: ''She didn't meet all our usual indicators, but she was a gem in the rough.'' Leadership and initiative. Being on your high school student council is viewed by admissions officers as nice but unremarkable. More memorable is participation in local politics or government, such as being an intern in the mayor's office or heading a local fund drive. Starting your own business or getting a summer job with real responsibilities, such as running a concession stand in a park or joining the ambulance squad, suggests that you have even bigger contributions to make to a college community. Volunteer social worker Jennifer Walsh of Scottsdale, Ariz., pictured on page 139, is one such example. Character, maturity and judgment. Traveling extensively on your own, living with a family abroad, overcoming a problem like a stutter: all these rate high. ''We admitted one young man whose family needed him to help cut lumber on their land. His grades suffered, and he had no time for extracurricular activities. But his maturity benefited,'' recalls Clifford Sjogren, director of admissions at the University of Michigan. Moral: find something productive that appeals to the grown-up you are becoming and do it. YOUR APPLICATION By fall of your senior year, with your high school career mostly behind you, your final shot at getting into your chosen school rests with your application, including your essay, interview and recommendations. Of the three, your essay is the most important, since it is your best chance to say what makes you special. Although you may have to answer a specific question (a typical example: ''What is the best piece of advice you ever received?''), personalize your comments as much as you can. That way the reader can respond to you, the writer, not just the topic. Don't write about things, particularly things that mere money can buy; write about events, feelings and ideas. Robyn Castellani, 18, of Atlanta made it into Brown last year partly because of an essay she wrote about a street person who she had befriended. Says Robin: ''Three others from my school with higher grades and scores than mine were rejected.'' Another young woman wrote her essay about her family's decision to honor the anniversary of her father's death by doing many of his favorite things. In doing so, she made plain how she had come to terms with it. For inspiration on what makes a memorable essay, read Essays That Worked: 50 Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation's Top Colleges (Kampmann & Co., $7.95). There isn't much you can do about recommendations besides picking people who are crazy about you. Unfortunately, even your biggest fans may write remarkably uninformative letters. Your best bet is to ask your letter writers to be specific in their observations and to include as much personal information as they can. Don't pass up an interview. While a poor one won't damage you beyond redemption, a good one can really help. ''I'm a sucker for confidence and motivation,'' says Alberta Meyers, admissions director at Trinity in San Antonio. Do your homework so you can ask intelligent questions concerning, for instance, details of the curriculum you intend to pursue. Don't ask for information plainly available in the college catalogue. Express an informed interest in the school and explain why you want to be there. Early-admission edge If fall of your senior year is upon you and fear of mass rejection sets in, there are two things you can do. One is to apply for early admission to your first-choice school. You will have to apply by Nov. 1 or so, but you will hear by late December, plenty of time to apply elsewhere if you are turned down. Early-admission applications have a slight edge. ''Students who apply for early admission are saying they think we are No. 1. While we don't automatically give them preference, they gain an advantage,'' says Lorne Robinson, director of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Be sure where you apply is where you want to go, though, because you may be morally bound to attend if the school accepts you. With several schools it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Amherst, Cornell, Dartmouth and Williams are among the ones that require you to pledge that if accepted you'll come. At Brown, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Yale, you are not required to attend but you must pledge that theirs is the only school you are seeking an early decision from. Play fair: several top schools now compare lists of early applicants. If you cheat, you may lose out at all your choices at once. The geo ploy Another strategy is to add to your list of target schools one or more colleges where you will have an advantage simply because of who you are. For instance, apply to a school far from where you live so you can be what some admissions people call a geo -- a geographically diverse applicant. This ploy works particularly well if you are from an out-of-the-way place or are applying to a school that wants to broaden its image from regional to national. Atlanta's Emory University is a top southern school that wants to be a top national one. ''There is no question that a qualified candidate from Wyoming or Alaska is going to have priority with us,'' says admissions dean Dan Walls. Conversely, apply to your state university, where admissions criteria may be lower for state residents. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in-staters are admitted on SAT scores as low as 1100. Out-of-staters need at least 1300. So one out of two residents, and only one of eight nonresidents, gets in. And if you haven't applied to your parents' alma maters, do so, since children of alumni are admitted at some schools at about twice the rate of other applicants. Be certain in your application to emphasize your strengths while setting your weaknesses in context. If your grades aren't up to par because your family was going through a divorce or financial difficulties, say so. Better still, use your essay to express how the crisis affected you. If no excuse is needed for your grades -- or none is possible -- capitalize on your accomplishments. For instance, Nick Cooper's combined SAT scores of 1340 were just average for Rice University in Houston. But a tape of his jazz/ pop band playing a composition he had written put him over the top, not just at Rice but at the University of Chicago and Georgetown as well. (Cooper chose Rice because he preferred its computer science program and because he felt more comfortable there.) Photographs, poetry, samples of an ad campaign you designed are all examples of ways for the school to catch a look at the real you. A year off? What if the worst happens and you are rejected by all your top choices? You still have some options. You could take time off from school and gather more credentials. A year of interesting work or volunteer activity can also enhance your profile. You might try asking the schools that turned you down where you fell short. Most admissions officers will tell you and respect you for asking, particularly if you intend to address those points with more study or broader experience. If you get into a school that was not on the top of your list, you could go there and try to make a real showing. You might be surprised at the result. Brad Kornfeld of Denver wanted to study journalism at Northwestern, Stanford or Tufts. All turned him down. He went to Emory in Atlanta, a secondary choice because it doesn't have a journalism program. After a semester of dedicated effort, he raised his grade-point average to 3.8, considerably better than the 3.3 he had in high school. He reapplied to the three schools and got into all of them but Stanford. ''I think they were impressed by my hard work and continued interest in coming to their schools,'' he says. But he has decided to stay at Emory. ''I'm involved here now and doing well,'' he says. As for his journalism career, he is studying sociology -- ''a good preparation for writing about human events'' -- and has applied for an internship at Atlanta-based Cable News Network. Says Brad: ''Sometimes the best college is the one where you're happy.''