Secrets of getting your kid into the Ivy League

By Michelle Konstantinovsky

If teenage melodramas are to be trusted, nothing matters more in a young adult’s life than the almighty college acceptance letter. From SAT prep to personal essay obsession, teens are often expected to spend the entirety of their high school years vying for spots in the most prestigious institutions while competitively side-eyeing their rival classmates.

Irena Smith doesn’t really buy that. “One of the things I try to do is inject some reality and sanity into the process,” says the Palo Alto-based Comparative Literature PhD and former Stanford University admissions officer. “Ivy Leagues are not for everyone; asking how to get your kid into an Ivy League basically suggests that a child is a commodity that needs to be placed somewhere.”

As a college admissions consultant, Smith calls on her academic background to provide in-depth, personalized guidance to students (and families), helping them discover who they are as individuals and how they can optimize the odds of landing in a school that’s suitable for them. In some cases, that might not be an Ivy. But, let’s face it: many of the Bay Area’s brightest minds hope to raise graduates of Harvard, or Yale, or Brown. So what’s the secret for securing a spot in the hallowed halls of one of the eight Ivies?

“Nobody expects a kid who’s decent at cross country in middle school to get into the Olympics; that’s exactly what’s happening with Ivy Leagues,” she says. “If you feel you need to groom them for anything and you’re putting an undue amount of effort into it, you’re asking the wrong question.”

Instead of desperately pushing your child toward a specific school at any cost, consider Smith’s tips for a happier, saner, more commonsense approach:

Times have changed

College acceptance anxiety is more intense than when you were a high schooler. “I think 20 or 30 years ago, there was not this level of parental involvement and teens were left to their own devices to make their own mistakes, and decide where to apply and let the chips fall where they may,” Smith says. “The U.S. News and World Report college rankings started in 1987; it seems like there’s a direct link there to the obsession with top-tier schools.”

Leading the charge

If your teen hasn’t taken the lead on seeking academic challenges and opportunities, pushing them hard may be pointless. “Almost without exception, kids I’ve worked with who’ve gotten into Ivy Leagues are extraordinarily self-driven and have had passions and ideas and ambitions and created that path for themselves,” Smith notes. “Their parents may have signed them up for middle school travel programs or The League of Creative Minds, but not for the purpose of getting into college, but to give them something to do over the summer to see if it sticks.”

Know your allies

Rather than racking up endorsements from every educator on campus, have your teen stick to the ones who can speak to their strengths. “For the most part, colleges want the best letters from the teachers who like you the most,” Smith says. “Students feel they need to appear well-rounded and get letters from each discipline, but the key is knowing yourself and figuring out what you’re good at and who will go to bat for you.”

Keep it real

“In essays, students sometimes speak with a voice they think other people will want to hear rather than writing in a natural, conversational tone,” she observes. “And refrain from writing a community service essay about going to a third-world country and how you changed kid’s life; it doesn’t come across as compassionate, but patronizing. It could be a life-changing experience if you dig into the details of why it was life-changing.”

Friendly faces

According to Smith, students often envision college admissions committees as a “terrifying, faceless entity of a bunch of grumpy old people,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Imagine an audience of fairly friendly, maybe older sibling-type of people or your parents’ hip, younger friends,” she says. “These people are there because they like teenagers.”

By the book

“Reading and being an intellectually curious person is huge,” Smith says. “I encourage all my students to become or continue to be voracious readers, and this can include listening to podcasts or going to lectures or listening to TED talks—just being more engaged in the world at whatever level that is and being more curious.”

Keep your eye on the prize

“Focusing so much on getting in also makes people lose sight of what they’ll do when they get there,” Smith cautions. “It’s the beginning of a four-year process. They might hit their stride at a school they didn’t think was good enough for them and then get an MBA at Harvard or Stanford.”

If your kid …

Is an economics all-star: Serious econ-minded college applicants will likely want to consider Princeton and Harvard (the nation’s top two universities overall and in economics specifically). The University of Chicago, Yale, Columbia and Stanford are all prestigious picks as well, not to mention the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke.

Is destined for the stage or screen: Yale, Columbia and Stanford all top the U.S. News & World Report’s list for universities offering dramatic arts majors, and New York University is a top contender for aspiring thespians too.

Is a star engineer in training: Depending on the type of engineering your aspiring Elon Musk is passionate about, he or she may want to set their sights on Princeton, Columbia or University of Pennsylvania (computer engineering), Yale or Stanford (mechanical) or MIT. (civil).

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