Ivy Admissions: Can It Really Be That Hard? 

By Dave Berry

Ethan Bronner, in a particularly apt New York Times article on the difficulties of elite admissions, quotes former Dartmouth College dean of admissions, Karl Furstenberg, on the subject of the high number of qualified applicants.  Furstenberg said, "This makes our job harder, but it forces us to look at the intangibles . . . how many more excellent students can we turn away?"  Dartmouth's problem isn't unique, by any means.  Just look at the U.S. News rankings to see how much worse the situation is at those schools with lower acceptance rates than Big Green's. 

Finding the "Musicians" 

One of my personal passions is classical piano music.  Every four years, I look forward with great enthusiasm to the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which takes place in Ft. Worth, Texas.  The competition attracts the world's top young pianists who gather to compete for the piano world's top prizes.  This prestigious event is very much like the elite college admissions process. 

The sheer number of richly qualified entrants is staggering, much like Dean Furstenberg's situation was at Dartmouth.  In fact, so many wonderful and highly credentialed pianists desire to compete in the Cliburn that jurors have to travel to culture centers around the globe to audition and admit or deny competition applicants. 

So why am I droning on about some esoteric and generally little known music contest in Texas?  After all, this is about elite college admissions, right?  Well, I've already hinted at one interesting parallel: the overwhelming number of superbly qualified applicants.  Let's focus on Dean's Furstenberg's interesting observation about "intangibles" through the eyes of the Cliburn jury. 

The bar is significantly higher today than it has been in recent years for both elite admissions and music competitions because the talent pool has grown much larger.  There are a number of complex reasons for that, but we won't discuss them right now.  Getting back to our music analogy, I listened to one of the Cliburn jurors discussing his personal criteria for selecting a winning pianist.  He noted that merely "playing all the notes correctly" wasn't enough.  He was looking for the musicians, those players who could move him.  The musicians are those who can project themselves beyond the printed notes on the page, who can reach out and touch the judges.  They are the artists whose attention to detail and personalized playing are so successful that the juror wants to hear more from them. 

In today's super-competitive elite applicant pools, just about everyone has virtuoso numbers.  And therein lies the key.  This new "credential benchmark" requires Ivy/elite applicants to reveal themselves beyond sheer quantitative dimensions.  They must display their "musicianship," those personal aspects that add nuance and passion to the application's simple informational questions and essay prompts.  In pianistic terms, they must perform the notes that lie between the keys. 

What are your "between-the-keys" qualities?  How can you identify them?  When you do, how will you articulate them to the admissions committees? 

These are crucial questions.  Ponder them.  It will be time well spent.