The founding of Rice played out like a game of Clue: Massachusetts billionaire William Marsh Rice was murdered in his bedroom, poisoned with chloroform administered by his personal valet who was in cahoots with Rice’s personal lawyer. But one crime solving Houstonian lawyer, forged will, million-dollar intrigue, and litigation battle later, William Rice’s fortune founded Rice University in Houston, TX in 1912. Since then, Rice has left behind its unsavory beginnings and has become a premiere academic institution, earning the nickname the Harvard of the South. However, as many Rice students claim, Rice’s legacy could actually rename Harvard the Rice of the North. With a claim like that, College Compass Campus Profiles can only say one thing: Kudos!
William Marsh Rice University, commonly called Rice University or simply Rice, is one of the most prestigious universities in the South, and compares favorably to Ivy League schools. 77% of the ranked freshmen admitted in the 2012 admission year were in the top 5% of their graduating class, and 18% of the class of 2016 were national merit finalists. And, unlike the Ivy League schools, Rice offers a $1000/year scholarship for those finalists that is renewable each year for four years. Rice also offers a variety of other Merit-based scholarships as well as need-based financial aid.
The first step, of course, is getting in. The median SAT score for the 2012 admissions class was around a 2120 and the median ACT score was 32-35. The overall admission rate for 2012 was 17% (for a relatively small class of 939), but the early decision rate was much higher: 24% for 282 enrolled students: just over 30% of the entire class. If Rice is your first choice, then applying in the early decision round would increase your chances of getting in.
Additionally, the yearly tuition of Rice is $35,610 with an estimated total cost of attending at $52,237. However, an endowment with a market value of $4.45 billion means that Rice’s endowment assets per full-time equivalent student was $783,568 for the 2011-2012 academic year. For comparison: The University of Texas school system has an average of $69,483 while Rice has more endowment per student than Ivy League Universities such as Dartmouth ($559,508), University of Pennsylvania ($274,618), Columbia ($246,846), and Cornell ($242,057).
Yet, those students who choose to attend Rice will find a 295 acre campus along with 3,708 potential new friends in the undergraduate schools (and an additional 2,374 graduate students). A gender imbalance is not a problem, as 51% of the student population is male and 49% female. There are plenty of opportunities to fraternize with your fellow students (although there are no fraternities or sororities at Rice) by being placed into one of twelve Residential Colleges. The college system at Rice, most commonly compared to the house system from Harry Potter, places incoming freshmen in a coed residential college which they can call home for the next four or so years. Although Rice only has beds for 84% of its student population and can only guarantee housing for freshman year, most upperclassmen elect to live off campus and most students who wish to live in their residential college for all four years are able to do so. The colleges that make up Rice University are Baker College, Brown College, Duncan College, Hanszen College, Jones College, Lovett College, Martel College, McMurtry College, Sid Richardson College, Wiess College and Will Rice College.
As an undergraduate at Rice, students will find themselves in either the George R. Brown School of Engineering, The School of Humanities, the School of Architecture, the Shepherd School of Music, the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, the School of Social Sciences, or under the heading of the Interdisciplinary or Other Academic Programs.
Rice is also famous for its many traditions, which are often associated with certain colleges or college rivalries, such as: the annual Night of Decadence (NOD) Halloween party at Wiess, the nighttime escapade runs of the Baker 13, the Marching Owl Band (MOB), and the Beer Bike competitions. Rice is also home to 14 NCAA Division I Conference USA varsity athletic teams as well as numerous Club Sports and Intramural Teams. Perhaps all of these traditions and recreational opportunities are a few of the reasons why the Princeton Review named Rice the college with the happiest students for the 2011-2012 academic year.
All in all, Rice has done much to earn—and maintain—its reputation as one of the best universities in the nation and certainly the South. Nestled between the municipality of West University, the Museum District, and the Medical Center, Rice is one of the reasons Forbes.com named Houston as the coolest city in America to live in.
Welcome back to College Compass’s series, What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Now that we’ve covered all of the aspects of applying to an Ivy League school, I have taken the liberty of compiling the main points from the preceding posts into a convenient Ivy League admissions checklist:
Straight As, with maybe 2-3 Bs max
As many AP/IB courses as possible
Summer before Junior year: know PSAT National Merit cutoff score for your state, practice and aim above that score (may include test prep sercives).
Take SAT and/or ACT multiple times (perhaps once at the end of Junior year and once at the beginning of Senior year), aim above 2100 on SAT and above 31 on ACT (may include test prep services).
Always take AP exams at the end of AP classes, try to get 5s on all of them.
Take two SAT II subject tests, aim above 700 on each.
One creative extracurricular for all four years of high school.
One athletic extracurricular for all four years of high school.
One volunteering extracurricular for all four years of high school.
Hold an office/leadership position in a school club or other organization.
Win an award/recognition for one of your extracurriculars.
Ask two teachers from either your Junior or Senior year (who taught classes in which you got As) for recommendation letters at least one month before the application deadline.
Finish a draft of your admissions essay(s) at least one month before the deadline and have your English teacher/another grammar expert proofread it.
Write an essay about something you love, and mention how the specific school you are applying to will help you pursue your dreams.
If possible, apply to your top choice early decision.
Do not apply to all of the Ivies. Narrow down your choice as much as possible.
Next time, we’ll have a few concluding remarks about applying and getting into Ivy League undergraduate programs. Until then, best of luck, and keep studying!
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:
Cornell University, located in Ithaca, New York, has the largest undergraduate population out of all the Ivy League Universities. With about 14,000 undergraduates, Cornell nearly triples the undergraduate population of Princeton University. This large population gives Cornell student’s a unique experience, a state-school size population with an Ivy League education.
With the large number of available spots for students, Cornell also has the highest acceptance rate out of the 8 Ivy League schools. At 16.2%, Cornell still remains very tough to get into, but still easier than Harvard’s 5.9% or Yale’s 6.8%. The average SAT score for an admitted student at Cornell is 1420 for aggregate Reading and Math.
Unique for the Ivy League, Cornell also offers a discounted tuition rate for New York residents, a drop from $43,000 to $27,000. The reason for this “in-state tuition” is that the state of New York heavily funds various programs at Cornell. Unfortunately, even with this discounted tuition, the average student graduates with $18,938 of debt. With a total cost of $60,000, Cornell is a very expensive school. With a large student body population, Cornell does not have the resources to offer financial aid packages as generous as those of her Ivy League counterparts.
Cornell organizes its colleges in a very decentralized manner. Each of the seven colleges makes its own admissions decisions and academic programs. The only requirements standard for all of the colleges are the ability to pass a swimming test, the completion of two physical education courses, and a writing requirement.
Cornell’s colors are carnelian and white. Their teams refer to themselves as the Big Red with the unofficial mascot being a bear. Cornell generally has strong basketball and strong lacrosse teams. Their basketball teams have won the Ivy League regular season 4 times from 2007-2012, and the lacrosse team won 9 straight Ivy League championships from 2003 to 2011.
If you appreciate Cornell’s rural location in beautiful upstate New York and can afford its steep price tag, it presents a great option for prospective undergraduates. With some of the best food a university can offer (such as their delicious Amish ice cream), Cornell is ranked 8th by the Princeton Review for campus food. Cornell also has some of the best research institutions in the nation, providing satisfaction for the palate and the brain.
So, by this point you’ve made the grades, taken the tests, done the extracurriculars, gotten your recommendations, written your essays, and sent the whole thing off to the school of your dreams. You’re done, right? Not so fast. You might have to do an interview.
What do I say? How do I act? What do I wear?!! The questions scream through your by now exhausted brain. Never fear, all will become clear in this eighth (!) installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?
To begin with, not everyone gets an interview, so you might not even have to deal with this. Don’t worry if you don’t get an interview – Columbia didn’t interview me and I got in, while Princeton did interview me (and it went really well) and I didn’t get in. If a school does choose to interview you, you should consider it to be a good sign – it means they’re seriously considering you, and you’re pretty high up on their list of possible freshmen. If you don’t get an interview, it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in you. They might not have someone available near where you live, or they might have already decided to accept you. Who knows?
When I did my interview for Princeton, I was invited to the home of a Princeton alumnus living in my hometown, and we basically just chatted for a while, mostly about my accomplishments and all the stuff I included in my application and essay. I also brought a recording of a piece of music I wrote, which I believe made a nice impression. Overall, he was very friendly and it went very smoothly. If you follow a few basic guidelines and adhere to common sense, I see no reason why your interview should be any different.
To begin with, wear business casual clothing – no jeans or t-shirts – to show that you take the interview seriously. When you arrive, smile and shake the interviewer’s hand, and ask them how they’re doing. Your interviewer will then introduce him/herself and start asking you questions, such as: “Why do you want to go to this school?” “What makes you a good candidate for going to this school?” “What are your interests?” “What are your dreams?” etc. He or she may ask you to explain a concept that has to do with one of your interests, or tell a story about something you put on your application.
The key is to talk about how great you are without sounding like you’re boasting, and to sound intelligent and articulate as you converse. Try to come up with a few stories about impressive things you have done: how you won an award, how you got elected president of math club, how you organized a fundraiser, how you played a concerto with an orchestra, etc. Also, remember, you get to talk about whatever it is that interests you most, so you’re on your home turf, so to speak. If you stick to topics you know and care a lot about, you’re bound to sound intelligent, passionate, and dedicated.
You might try practicing for the interview with a friend or parent. Just have them ask you the above questions and talk about your accomplishments. Most of this will all be stuff that you’ve already included in your application, so it should all be fresh in your mind. Just relax, and try to be the most polite, friendly, and polished version of yourself that you can be.
After the interview (if there is an interview), that’s it. You just have to sit tight and wait for that envelope in the mail to arrive. Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, I will do my best to provide you with a convenient checklist summarizing all of the preceding posts. Until next time, keep studying!
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:
Today, in our seventh installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we turn from the substance and content of your applications to more strategic questions. Of course, if you don’t have the substance, this won’t get you in – but if you screw the strategy part up, it can still keep you out.
How many schools should you apply to? Which ones? Should you do early decision? These are the kinds of strategic issues I’m talking about.
When applying to Ivy League schools, one of the worst things you can do is apply to all of them and hope you get into one of them. A friend of mine in high school who was at least as strong as I was academically applied to over a dozen different schools, including all the Ivies in hopes of increasing his odds of getting into one of them. All the Ivy League schools rejected him. He still got into a very good school and is doing great in graduate school now, but he went to all the trouble of filling out all those applications and suffered all that stress for nothing. I applied to four schools, only two of them Ivies, and got into all but one.
When sending off applications to the Ivy League, less is definitely more. Remember, these schools want all the students they accept to actually attend in the Fall and not go somewhere else instead. If you applied to all of the Ivies, then why should they believe that you would choose them if another Ivy also ends up accepting you? Thus, universal rejection.
What you need to do is research – these schools actually are different and distinct from each other in a number of ways, and each one has its own unique history and personality. If possible, visit the schools, and try to set up meetings with professors in departments that interest you. Most importantly, try to talk to students who go there and are doing what you think you might want to do. They will have lots of advice and be able to tell you what it’s actually like to go to these schools, what things they love, what things annoy them, and how to take full advantage of the institution. Even if you can’t visit in person, you can try calling the admissions office and ask them if they could arrange for you to chat with a current student in a particular major. Also, try reading the college newspapers and blogs. These student publications can give you an unfiltered glimpse of student life, attitudes, and concerns on campus, which may help you narrow down the field.
Try to narrow it down to one or two top choices, and only apply to those. If you can narrow it down to one first choice school, I strongly recommend applying early decision/early action. There is no stronger message you can send a school to let them know that you are committed to going there if you are accepted, and that alone greatly increases your chances. The more students who have everything I have discussed in the previous posts that they can nail down early, the better. So if you feel like you’re looking good from the previous posts, applying early decision to your top choice is your best bet. I personally didn’t apply early decision, since I wasn’t 100% sure where I wanted to go and I didn’t want to narrow my options. Looking back, I think it would have been better if I had done more research and applied early decision – I would have had better information about the schools and I would have only had to fill out one application! Remember, in the end, you have to specify which school is your top choice on your application anyway, so you might as well get it done sooner rather than later.
If you don’t apply early decision, you will want to apply to at least two non-Ivy League schools, one that you are absolutely certain you can get into (a safety school) and one you feel you can probably get into. In addition to Columbia and Princeton, I applied to Rice and the University of Texas. I was guaranteed to get into UT because of Texas’s top 10% rule, and while I was uncertain about all the other schools, I felt I had a better chance of getting into Rice than I did into Princeton or Columbia, because Rice had a more forgiving acceptance rate. I listed Columbia as my top choice and got in everywhere except Princeton.
After you send off your application, you might be given the opportunity to do an interview with a representative from one of the schools to which you applied. Next time, we will discuss everything you need to know about Ivy League admissions interviews. Until then, keep studying!
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:
Princeton University, perennially ranked in the top 5 undergraduate institutions by Forbes, is the 4th oldest college in the United States. With a massive endowment of 17.1 billion dollars, Princeton’s endowment ranks 3rd , behind Harvard’s 32 billion and Yale’s 19.1 billion, but has a third of Harvard’s student body and 4000 fewer students than Yale with only 7,500 students, undergraduate and graduate. In other words, Princeton has about 2.3 million dollars to spend on each student, but spent “only” a total of 1.4 billion in 2011. That’s still almost $200,000 a student. Not surprisingly, students will often joke that the Princeton administration will just throw money at a problem to make it go away.
Though the cost may seem daunting at about $53,000 a year, Princeton’s financial aid office makes sure that cost will never prevent a student from attending the school. Last year, $210 million was spent on student aid, covering Princeton’s no-loan policy, with an average aid of $36,000, completely covering tuition fees.
Another amazing aspect of Princeton is its active alumni community. Though many Princeton graduates will attend professional schools at other Ivy League schools, they always refer to themselves as Princeton graduates. Sixty percent of Princeton graduates donated to their Alma-mater in 2009, which far eclipses Harvard and Yale’s 38% giving rate (even Texas Aggies aren’t that crazy about their school).
So what does it take to get into Princeton? Well, a high SAT score definitely doesn’t hurt as students with a SAT score from 2300-2400 have a 21% acceptance rate, almost tripling the 7.9% general acceptance rate. Surprisingly, alumni relations aren’t all that beneficial, as only 12% of the student body have parents that have attended Princeton. Diversity is also a major emphasis at Princeton, since about half of the population are minorities while 11% are international students.
Princeton’s campus is often referred to as the “Orange Bubble” by students because they often feel slightly isolated from the outside world. Even though New York City is only an hour train ride away, students do not venture outside the bubble very often. Though many enjoy the close-knit atmosphere the bubble creates, others will complain it’s too close for comfort.
One of the great aspects of Princeton is it’s emphasis on undergraduate studies. It requires that all its professors teach some undergraduate classes; in fact, even its president, Shirley Tilghman teaches courses. As an undergraduate, no resources are hidden away. From the minds of famous professors, such as Paul Krugman and Cornel West, to the amazing research facilities, Princeton undergraduates can expect access to all the school has to offer.
At the moment, the Princeton administration is waging a war to kill off Greek Life at the school. Princeton does not recognize any fraternities or sororities. Beginning in Fall of 2012, freshmen are not allowed to engage in rush activities. The administration defended this decision by citing the drinking culture of Greek Life and also noted that they believed residential colleges and eating clubs to be better options for social life at the school. Speaking of eating clubs, they represent an important aspect of life at Princeton. Beginning in the spring semester of sophomore year, students have the option of choosing to become a member of eating clubs. These coed institutions will often host parties and, as you might guess, feed their members. There are two types of eating clubs, sign-up and bicker. In a bicker club, students must apply and go through an interview process to join while to join a sign-up club, students simply sign-up and join.
In all, Princeton’s reputation as a top school is well deserved. Even though students must write the dreaded Senior Thesis, they are adequately prepared when the time comes around to write the 80 page monster. From the strong students it attracts to the amazing educational experience it offers, it’s hard to go wrong choosing Princeton.
Welcome to part six of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? This time, we will discuss a critical part of your application over which you have almost no control. You don’t even get to see it: you recommendation letters. Who should I ask to write a recommendation for me? That’s pretty much the only question this time, ’cause it’s the only thing you get to decide.
You should ask teachers from your Junior or Senior year who taught an AP or IB class in which you made an A. Preferably, you will ask teachers who know who you are and like you. If possible, pick a teacher who can talk about something amazing you did for class – if you did a project that went above and beyond what was required, that would be a great thing for them to talk about in their recommendation, right? If you know them through a club or extracurricular activity in addition to acing their course, that’s a plus, too.
The main thing, though, is to get As in their courses. These teachers have to write recommendations every year, and I bet most of them have it down to a science (or a form letter with blanks where your name goes). As long as you did well and didn’t antagonize them, chances are they will write you a wonderful, glowing recommendation. Just trust them, be polite and gracious, and take it easy.
Most elite schools require two teacher recommendations, so you may want to pick one humanities teacher and one math/science teacher, although it depends on what you want to study in college. I asked my U.S. History teacher and my IB Music/Orchestra teacher for recommendations, for instance. I believe a high school counselor recommendation is often required as well, although, since you have no control over who that is, there isn’t really anything you can do or worry about in this area. I remember our counselors had us fill out a questionnaire that our counselors could use to pretend they knew who we were (at a school with 800 graduating seniors, who could blame them?), so that part was very low stress for me. As long as you don’t have some sort of epic feud with your high school counselor, that should be fine.
In addition to these required recommendations, you also have the option of submitting additional, supplementary recommendations. Remember that your college admissions officers have thousands of applications to go through, so if you do submit an extra recommendation, it had better be good: only consider doing this if there is an adult who knows you well and they are either someone who can write about something impressive you did outside of school or they are someone famous/important/powerful. For instance, if you are really into volunteering and led a big volunteering project, you might have your adult sponsor write a recommendation about your accomplishments. I personally did not submit any extra recommendations, so they really aren’t necessary. If you have something really impressive, though, go for it.
The same goes for other supplementary materials. I did submit a CD and scores of pieces of music I wrote, since music and my ambitions as a composer were a running theme throughout my application, and I like to think my pieces were pretty impressive for a high school kid. These parts of the application are truly optional, so if you don’t have supplementary materials, don’t worry about it.
That pretty much wraps up all the stuff that’s actually in your application. So, now what do you do with it? Next time we will discuss application strategy, which can be critical in getting you in. Until then, keep studying!
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:
Welcome back to What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? In this post, we will discuss one of the most challenging parts of an Ivy League application: the essay, and any other personal writing samples you are asked to complete.
Oh, the personal essay. That most excruciating part of the application arms race, where they tell you they “just want to get to know you,” but they’re also judging you at the same time. Should you be honest? Can you be honest? Should you just try to impress them? What on earth should you write about?
First off, they want to see if you can write decently. Make sure you proofread your essay thoroughly – you can even have your English teacher go over it with you. This means don’t wait until the last minute to write it. If you are scrambling to finish an essay before the midnight submission deadline, the probability of spelling and grammar errors appearing in your essay increases dramatically, and dumb mistakes like that do not impress admissions officers. I’m going to do you a favor and tell you to finish the first draft of your essay a month before the deadline so you can have plenty of time to polish it. Maybe you can even send your application in early!
Second, they want to see if you know how to present yourself well. They want to know if you realize how you sound when you talk to other people. They are looking for critical thinking and meaningful self reflection. Are you self-aware? Do you know what kind of an impression you make on people when you say certain things? Do you know how to make a good first impression? Do you know what’s important to you? Do you understand yourself?
They also want to know that you really want to go to their school and nowhere else. Part of their rankings are based on the percentage of admitted students who actually decide to go there. Imagine Harvard and Yale both admit the same 2,000 incoming freshmen, and 1,500 decide they’d rather go to Harvard and 500 decide they’d rather go to Yale. That would look bad for Yale. Because the same pool of students is applying to all these schools, the same student could potentially get into more than one and have to choose between the two just like this (the year I graduated from high school, a friend of mine had to choose between Harvard and Princeton). In your essay, you should mention why the particular school to which you are applying would be the perfect place for you to do whatever it is you want to do, citing specific opportunities and programs that are unique to that school.
Lastly, they do actually want to get a sense of who you are, what you’re into, what drives you. They want to know what makes you unique from all the other students whose applications they’re slogging through. If they get two applications that are exactly the same it’s hard to justify picking one over the other. Distinctive is better than bland. Try to make this an essay that only you could have written, and don’t be fake. They can smell fakery a mile away – awkward quotations from “great authors” you never read or don’t care about, forced use of big SAT vocab words, saying you care about something when you don’t. The trick to writing these essays is to be absolutely honest, but polished. You want to present yourself, whoever you are, in the best light possible.
On that note, there is one other thing you should know about the admissions process. At these schools, one admissions officer reads your application and essays, and, if they like your application, they defend you before a committee of their fellow admissions officers and get them to accept you, too. If you get admitted, it’s because your admissions officer really believes you have what it takes, and he or she will know your name and have your application memorized. When you write your essays, you need to give your admissions officer something to fight for.
So, what should you write about? Prompts on the common application (which is generally accepted by most of the Ivy League schools, with special supplements) include:
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
Topic of your choice.
It honestly doesn’t matter what topic you choose – I did the “topic of your choice” option. Whenever you write anything you want to start by thinking about what you want your reader to think or feel when they finish reading whatever it is you’re writing. In this case you want your reader to 1) like you/think you’re friendly/want to meet you, and 2) think you’re smart/passionate/hard-working.
Thus, you should write about something that you love. Don’t write about something you dislike/disapprove of/are against. Keep things positive by writing about what you like/believe in/are in favor of. This should also preferably be something you know a lot about, and it should give you a chance to show off your knowledge. You sound smart when you teach the reader something new they didn’t know before, so take advantage of any unusual knowlegde you have of your topic. If you’re worried that you’re topic isn’t intellectual enough, try throwing in some history. Everything has a history, and adding a historical element can lend your topic some academic credence. It should also be something that you’ve done something about (maybe in an extracurricular activity) – something where you have accomplished something that you had to work for.
Also, try to make your topic fairly unique. If you are writing an essay about a person who influenced or inspired you, avoid overused examples. If you are a devout Christian and want to write about your faith, instead of writing about Jesus, write about St. Francis or Martin Luther or another important figure in the church you admire – preferably one that wrote a book or started a movement (the same goes for other foundational religious figures like Mohammed or the Buddha). If you do decide to write about someone who is constantly held up as an example of an inspiring person, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi, you had better have a really in depth knowledge of their lives and works that goes beyond what you learned in school, and have a unique perspective, insight, or interpretation of these figures. Unless you have a really good reason, avoid writing about parents or family members. Even though the reality is that the most influential people in your life are the people who raised you, it would get boring for admissions officers to read hundreds of essay that are all about how important a prospective student’s parents are to him/her.
If you have a remarkable life story or have struggled against great adversity in order to make it to this point in your life, the essay is also the place to talk about these life experiences. Ivy League schools are always looking for remarkable people who beat the odds, so if you feel comfortable sharing information about tough things you’ve been through it could definitely be to your advantage. Just to be clear, I’m talking about real problems: poverty, homelessness, being a war refugee. Lesser trials and tribulations can make for good essays, too, but remember there are also people who have had things much worse.
Whatever you write on these free response portions of the application, don’t lie. If you make stuff up in order to impress people, chances are they will see through it, or be able to disprove it with a quick google search. Eventually, it will catch up to you. The point of all this is to actually be yourself, and to show them the best parts of yourself. If they don’t want you for who you are, you probably wouldn’t be happy there anyway. Don’t worry that your interests aren’t intellectual enough or impressive enough – remember, like the video games extracurricular, there are ways to dress up just about anything.
Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we discuss teacher, counselor, and other recommendations as well as supplementary applications materials. Best of luck!
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:
In this installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we continue our discussion of standardized tests, turning now to subject based tests such as AP, IB, and SAT II exams. How many AP Exams should I take? Do I need an International Baccalaureate diploma? What about SAT II exams? Read on, gentle reader, read on!
When it comes to AP/IB exams, the more you take (and get top scores on) the better. As I mentioned last time, you want to take as many AP/IB courses as you possibly can, and you always want to take the exams at the end and get as high a score as you can. When I was applying to college, many of my friends would even take AP exams for courses they didn’t take: for instance, the European History exam was very popular, since much of the material was already covered in the World History exam they were going to take anyway. They would just buy a prep book and study all the parts that weren’t covered in World History, then go take the exam without ever having taken an AP European History class (they got 5s, too). I never resorted to such methods myself, but I still ended up with 5s on seven exams (World History, U.S. History, Micro/Macro Economics, Physics B, Biology, English Language, English Literature), and 4s on two others (Calculus BC (Calculus AB counts that as a 5, I believe) and Music Theory (took this one freshman year – ear training is hard!)).
Some schools offer the IB (International Baccalaureate) program instead of AP courses (mine offered both, so I did both). From what I understand, the International Baccalaureate program is a relic of the Cold War that allows students who complete IB courses and pass IB exams to qualify for college admission in countries all over the world (mostly NATO countries, for practical purposes), and while it is still useful for students who want to study in Europe (I don’t know why you’d want to – the US is widely recognized to have the best university system in the world), today it is mostly an alternative to AP. If you do the IB Diploma program, you want to get as many 7s as possible, especially on your higher-level exams.
Just as a side note, after you get into your Ivy, AP scores of 5 and HL IB scores of 7 can often be used to place out of entry level courses and may count toward graduation requirements (my credits from AP and IB exams helped me graduate a year early from Columbia – although that may or may not have been a wise decision…).
Ivy league schools generally require you to take at least two SAT II subject exams as well. You can find a list of available exams here. In general, you want to take one humanities and one math/science. I believe I took three exams, actually: U.S. History, Math II (Math II includes precalculus and trigonometry in addition to the algebra and geometry covered on the Math I, so it’s better to take the Math II), and Literature (perfect score on that one). You definitely want above a 700 on each of these exams, and the closer you can get to a perfect 800, the better. These exams are more competitive than the regular SAT, because generally only students aiming to get into elite schools take them. Of course, you do have the advantage of only testing on your best subjects. It’s also wise to take an SAT II exam immediately after you finish the relevant course so all the material is still fresh in your mind from the final, AP, and/or IB exam you just took.
Hopefully, your high school teachers, coursework, and independent pre-test cramming will prepare you for these exams. If, however, you desire more preparation or an extra edge on the competition, you can get extra help from professional experts (Literature SAT II prep, anyone?), and many of the same companies that offer SAT and ACT prep services provide tutoring in these subjects as well.
Now that we’ve covered the nitty-gritty of grades and exams, next time we’ll start to turn to some of the more touchy-feely aspects of your application: extracurriculars.
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Last time, we discussed the number one, most important part of your application: grades. In this post, we will turn to the next most important, and easy to measure, part of your application: standardized test scores.
Should I take the SAT or the ACT? Do I need a perfect score? Do I have to be a National Merit Finalist? All these questions and more will be addressed in this post.
First of all, let’s discuss the two most common exams requested by almost all colleges: the SAT and the ACT. Elite, Ivy League-type colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT, and don’t have a preference between the two. It is thus common for aspiring students to take both exams and submit the scores from whichever one they did better on. Some students prefer one, others prefer the other. This blog has many resources dedicated to these tests, so I won’t dwell on comparing and contrasting them.
As to what score you need, consider the following: College Board currently states that at Harvard, the middle 50% of admitted students scored 690-790 on the Verbal section of the SAT, 700-800 on Math, and 690-790 on Writing; on the ACT, the middle 50% received a composite score of 31-35. So you don’t need a perfect score in order to get into Harvard (although that would help you to stand out). The ACT composite score is pretty self-explanatory, but for the SAT scores, remember that kids who scored 690 on Verbal probably got closer to 800 on Math, so a combined score of 2100 is probably a safe lower limit that you want to try to surpass, since that’s the score you would get if you got 700 on each section. For a really solid chance at getting in, I’d recommend aiming for a 2200-2250 combined score, and of course, the closer you get to that 2400, the better prepared you are.
The good thing about these standardized tests is that practice really does make perfect. I am firmly convinced that with enough practice, any college bound kid can make a perfect score on these exams. There are only so many things these exams test, and after doing practice, you begin to recognize the same old types of questions and vocab words coming up again and again. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can get your score as high as you want. A friend of mine at Columbia from Korea said that at her high school, they had an entire class just dedicated to the SAT, so they did SAT prep every school day for at least a year. If you did that you’d get a pretty amazing SAT score, too.
I also strongly recommend taking the exams multiple times. Most schools allow you to mix and match Verbal, Math, and Writing scores from different exams so that you can take your highest scores from each exam. In my case, I got an 800 on Verbal and a 790 on Writing one time I took the SAT, and a 760 on Math another time, but I still got to say I got a 2350 overall. The first time I took the SAT was in 7th grade, as part of Duke TIP’s 7th Grade Talent Search program (back before they added the writing section), and then, if I remember correctly, I took it two more times early in high school before taking it the two “real” times my Junior and Senior year. It is true that you can take it too many times your Junior and Senior year, but colleges don’t really care about exams you took before then.
I would thus recommend taking the standardized exam of your choice once your freshman or sophomore year of high school just to see what it’s like – four hours of test taking is taxing, and it’s nice to be able to familiarize yourself with the exam in a low stress situation where your score isn’t really going to count for college admissions. Then I would take it again at the end of your Junior year and at the beginning of your Senior year. There are, of course, many test prep services available where you can take classes or receive one-on-one help from SAT and ACT experts like me (if you would like to actually study for these exams with either me or one of my distinguished collegues at Test Masters, click here). If you feel that you could benefit from the structure and expert feedback provided by these programs, I would highly recommend you sign up for one during the summer between your Junior and Senior year (although starting earlier can help a lot, too).
For 1,300 years in Imperial China, entry into the elite civil service was determined by rigorous standardized exams that could last up to 72 hours.
As for the PSAT, preparing for the SAT will prepare you for the PSAT. The main differences between the two exams are that the PSAT is shorter and doesn’t have an essay section. The PSAT determines your national merit scholar status, which can be quite a feather in your cap, since the names of students who qualify as National Merit Semifinalists are released to colleges across the nation so they can start recruiting you and offering you scholarships. The PSAT score you need in order to qualify for national merit varies from state to state, since only the top 0.5% of scorers in each state qualify for consideration. Thus, if you live in a more populous state, or in a state with more money, or in a state with a better school system, it’s going to be harder to qualify because you’ll have more competition (if you want your state to have a better school system, register to vote when you turn 18 and start participating in state and local government!). You can find a list of score cutoffs here, and a more thorough explanation of the national merit process here.
Do you have to be a National Merit Finalist in order to get into the Ivy League? Well, in 2007 I was one of 56 National Merit Finalists at my high school (Bellaire Senior High School, in Houston, Texas – a public school, mind you!), and I think that included most of the people who got into elite colleges, so I would say try to make Semifinalist status at least. To prepare for the PSAT, you might consider doing some SAT prep the summer between Sophomore and Junior year, since the PSAT is normally taken your Junior year. Test Masters summer prep courses were like an annual rite of passage for most of my friends at Bellaire, so if it can work for them, it can work for you, too.
Next time on “What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?” we discuss AP, IB, and SAT II exams. In the mean time, keep studying!
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