Road-Blocks on the Way to Applying to an Elite College

Most families are excited to find that one of their children has the grades to apply to an elite school. But does your student have a realistic chance of getting in?

Ok, so you know schools like Harvard or Yale have extremely low acceptance rates of about 5-7%. But it turns out for some people the acceptance rate is much lower than that. 

The system is simply weighted to favor the wealthy. The most selective schools even recognize their lack of economic diversity. They say they want the best and brightest from low-income families. They offer aggressive scholarships and financial aid, but their demographics aren't changing. Many exceptional low-income students are still not applying.

What is your student up against?

Are the Ivy League and other top universities not finding elite poor students or are they not looking for the right things? NPR's Anya Kamenetz wrote about five ways top colleges are excluding low-income students. It doesn't seem to be intentional discrimination. It's just how the upper-crust is built.

Kamenetz identifies Legacy, Demonstrated Interest, Early Decision, Overweighting GPAs and Athletic Scholarships as five central reasons low-income students are not getting in.

It's easy to see the endless obstacles in your way and get frustrated. Don't get angry or settle for less than your child deserves. Arm yourself with the facts of reality. Knowledge is power, as you've no doubt taught your young genius.

Let's address each factor and do our best to maximize the potential of your student.


Universities give preference to applicants with alumni parents or grandparents. They may automatically get bounced past the first round of admissions. You can't change history, but you should study it. If your family tree includes a graduate from an elite school, use that advantage. If not, see what you can do to make up for this lack. 

Demonstrated Interest

Colleges want to know that you want to be there. Is Yale insecure? Making a campus visit displays that your child is passionate about attending. Not visiting implies a more casual desire. This certainly favors the affluent.

Some families can make a hobby of flying from school to school, sniffing the books and interviewing teachers. You struggle to create one weekend trip a year. How can you demonstrate interest?

Address this with the admissions department. Communicate your wish to see the campus and walk through the halls before deciding. Ask for some help. You've demonstrated interest. The ball is in their court.

Perhaps you know people willing to invest in the bright future of your child. Is anyone willing to pitch in on a ticket, a room or a meal?

Early Decision

College is a huge choice. It takes careful consideration. It takes money. Once the financial aid and scholarship decisions arrive, then you know what you can afford. By then, however, you'll have missed out on your chance to apply for early decision. These applications are due typically around November.

Early decision applications mean you get an answer sooner and agree to attend if accepted. They are three to five times more likely to be accepted. Applying for a school you may not afford is a confidence move, but it may be your best chance to get a thumbs up.

Again, this system favors those who can pay full price for the school of their choice. Financial aid and scholarships are a bonus, not a requirement.

Overweighted GPAs

Is a 4.0 the top? Not if you can get five points for an Advanced Placement or Intentional Baccalaureate course. These are plentiful and encouraged at well-funded high schools in wealthy neighborhoods. They're harder to find elsewhere but you can't pass up on the chance for a 4.3 GPA for your young one. Even if you're raising a promising journalist or communications major, that AP Physics course may be a necessity.

The community college may be another source for accelerated learning. Courses there may be free for high school students. They'll display an appetite for learning, offer college credit and may bump your child's GPA.

GPA is the most basic statistic for measuring your student's achievement in class. Do everything you can to boost it.

Athletic Scholarships

A full-ride for hoops would certainly help, but not every student is built for that. The big six sports, which are available at nearly every school, are baseball, basketball, soccer, track and field, swimming and football. But that's not the only path to athletic tuition money.

Elite universities give scholarships for a wide range of sports. Unfortunately, many only are offered at the preppier high schools. Crew, squash, hockey, rugby, skiing and others may give affluent students a boost but may be unavailable to yours. 

Like legacy preference, there's little you can do about this. Seeking out and earning a golf scholarship could be out of you league.

But don't count out the value of achievement in athletics as well as scholarship.

Is It Worth It?

Know the factors that could keep your student from an elite college. Address them clearly to the admissions department. Show that you know how the cards are stacked.

And if they don't let your child in? Have a backup plan and forget it. There is no substitute for work ethic, character and ability to learn, no matter what name is on top of your degree.

Ready to find the best college matches for your student?