How To Get Into Top Colleges: From the Admissions Committee at Duke

Every part of your application will be read, analyzed, and assessed.

How To Get Into Top Colleges

In an interview with Forbes, Duke University’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Christoph Guttentag, reveals what it takes to get into top colleges in the U.S. He discusses what goes on inside the admissions committee and how admissions officers ultimately decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Since the interview is almost an hour long, we decided to pick out the highlights.

A little background on Duke: Duke University in Durham, NC is one of the top ranked schools in the U.S. (#8 according to U.S. News and World Report). They have around 32,000 applicants and an acceptance rate of 10-12%.

On the admissions process at top colleges:

To get into top colleges like Duke, an application is read at least fur times before being discussed in the admissions committees. First, it is read by the regional admissions officer responsible for all applicants from a specific geographic region, and he/she makes a preliminary assessment about whether the candidate is competitive or not.

At this stage, about 50% are competitive and 50% aren’t.

Then, the applicants who are competitive get two full reads, one by a member of the first reading staff and one by an admissions officer. After those two reads, it gets a third assessment. At that point, about 5% of applicants are strong and compelling enough to be admitted. The rest are discussed in admissions committees, where an admissions officer presents the case to the committee. The whole process for regular decision takes three months.

What this means for applicants:

Every part of your application will be read, analyzed, and assessed. There’s no part of your application that matters more or less; your application will be considered as a WHOLE. So don’t spend all of your time on standardized tests and neglect your extracurriculars. Don’t obsess over your essays and forget to get your letters of recommendations.

On the academic course load expectations of top colleges:

To get into top colleges, you need strong academics. High schools all have different curriculums and course offerings, but Guttentag says that no curriculum is better or worse. Admissions officers consider students within the context of their school. They assess whether the student has challenged himself within the context of what’s possible at the school, and what’s typical of the good students at that school. What matters most is that a student is challenging and pushing himself/herself.

What this means for applicants: Guttentag says a student who chooses a less rigorous curriculum simply to get good grades is at a disadvantage, but a student that gets in over his head is counterproductive. So what can you do? Take the hardest classes that you can do well in.

On what it takes to get into top colleges:

What colleges tend to do is look at applicant pool and identify the stronger academic candidates within the group that’s applied. Among the strong candidates, adcoms look for two characteristics: impact and engagement.

Making an impact, being engaged

Schools like a sense of engagement, not just in community or school, though both matter, but a real sense of engagement with the material that they’ve been taught. Guttentag says that you’d be surprised at the degree to which letters of recommendations from teachers help them identify students that aren’t just getting good grades but are thinking critically about the material, seeing contradictions, and making connections between classes.

In terms of impact, adcoms like to distinguish those students that take leadership roles and make things better. Regardless of what a student wants to get involved in and where they decide to make a commitment, they need to make an impact.

These qualities, engagement and impact, help adcoms picture how a student will add to a college’s community. That’s the critical point, according to Guttentag.

What this means for applicants:

First, it means that letters of recommendation are IMPORTANT. Make sure you pick the right recommenders and make sure they get their letters in on time. Second, it means that it’s not enough to just pick up leadership roles; you have to make a difference.

On what NOT to do if you’re interested in attending a top college:

Guttentag sees two big mistakes from parents. The first occurs when parents to figure out what the school wants and changes their student’s activities to match that. When people do things because they think it’s expected, there’s not the same level of enthusiasm, passion, or commitment, and this is clear in the application. The parent’s job is to support the student’s commitment as long as it matters and is worth doing.

The second mistake is when parents can’t keep their hands off their student’s essay. The more involved they are with the college admissions essay, the worse it gets. What people don’t realize about the essay is that the adcom reads it as though it were spoken rather than written. When adults get too involved, it detracts from the student’s individual voice, and the adcom can hear it.

What this means for applicants:

Parents, be supportive of your student’s interests and help them channel into into productive activities. Then, take a step back and let kids grow.

Watch the full interview here.


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