by Matt DeGreef '85, Dean of College Counseling and Student Enrichment, Middlesex School (Concord, MA)
When I departed SLUH in 1985 for Harvard, I had no idea I would end up spending the next 34 years in the Boston area working in the world of college admissions; however, the training I received in the hallowed halls of Backer Memorial have served me well. The work of any good admissions professional is so clearly being a "man for others," and I feel this basic principle every day when I enter my office. I have been blessed to have spent my entire 30 years in the world of college admissions evenly split between the Harvard College Admissions Office and Middlesex School.
It is hard to imagine that nearly 60 colleges are admitting 20% or less of their applicant pool, and everyone is trying to "cut to the chase" on what it takes to get into these elite institutions. I always tell my students that you have to meet the basic academic criteria to get yourself on the table during committee discussions, and then your personal narrative, distinguishing excellences, leadership skills and strong personal qualities can then be fully considered. Here are a few thoughts for consideration.
First, you need to align your curriculum with your potential college major and then try to challenge yourself through this chosen path, maximizing the rigor that your school can offer you. Most high school students have no idea what they want to study in college, which is totally normal, but if you think you want to pursue computer science, engineering, medicine, architecture, business or economics, I would urge you to talk to your counselor about how to take the appropriate courses so you can be competitive for these majors. For example, if you want to be an engineer, you need to take AP Calculus and AP Physics or AP Chemistry. If you are considering architecture, you may need to take courses in design, drawing and photography, along with learning how to develop a portfolio for the college process. Lastly, Middlesex has the motto: “rigor with sanity.” We encourage our students to stretch, but to stretch appropriately and sanely so they can do all of the things they love to do, including sleep!
In terms of standardized testing, the ACT and SAT are still the tests of choice for the most selective colleges, and it is important to take the tests at the right time within the school's curriculum. This typically coincides with the intellectual maturation of the testers in the middle of junior year. Testing too early can result in testing fatigue by senior year. We also encourage our students to carefully consider the importance of taking SAT subject tests when they align with the curriculum. More colleges are lowering the importance of subject tests in their admissions deliberations; however, if you are a good tester and are taking courses that correspond with the subject tests, there is no harm in taking the tests, particularly in math and science. In the New England boarding schools, we are more hard-wired to have our students take the SAT subject tests, but we are seeing a decline in our students taking them, which mirrors the national trend. Having a thorough conversation with your college counselor about a testing plan is the best advice if you aspire for the highly selective colleges.
There is no special sauce when it comes to how to define extracurricular excellence. The colleges are looking for length and depth of commitment along with leadership skills that demonstrate perseverance, teamwork, engagement, sacrifice for others, grace under pressure, defying personal limitations, and the ability to handle uncomfortable situations. While this might feel like a normal day at the U. High, these are personal qualities that take time to develop, test, and refine, and the colleges are looking for young men who not only have the ability to excel but lift up those around them.
The most important thing about pursuing colleges that, like Stanford and Harvard, deny 96% of their applicants is that you have to keep in perspective that the journey is more important than the destination. The hard work towards developing yourself into an ethical, intelligent, ambitious, spiritual and kind young man who intends to leave his mark on the world cannot be measured by acceptance to one of these ivy-covered colleges. Extending yourself as you pursue your goals will, however, prepare you for whatever may come in your life.