“Mom, I’m going to Princeton!” How To Get Your Child Into the Ivy League

My daughter Alexandra briskly walked on Nassau Street with the Class of 2012, black cap firmly ensconced on her head, long black robe lightly sweeping the sidewalk. The 1,235 candidates for bachelor degrees snaked their way into a semi-circle, filed down a concrete pathway and took their seats on the front lawn of the oldest building on the Princeton University campus: Nassau Hall, built in 1754.

The procession included marshals, faculty and administrative officers, college deans, the provost, the university orator, and chair of the board of trustees. A brass band regaled the audience. Squirrels raced up and down the blossoming, spring-kissed trees.

Students, along with parents, relatives and friends, sat on the edge of their lawn chairs — arranged in the form of a fan — facing the national historic landmark, once the hub of the American government during the Revolutionary War, and listened to the 265th Commencement exercises in the cool June morning.

We listened to the invocation and greeting, the Latin salutatory oration, the Valedictory oration, and the awarding of teaching prizes. Then the Dean of the College, Valerie Smith, presented the class of 2012 to President Shirley Tilghman, advising that the candidates had fulfilled the requirements. Tilghman, with the Latin  “admito,” conferred the degrees from the podium. A few of the graduating seniors threw their caps in the air and bellowed. Others released balloons.  The audience’s euphoric clapping hands spanked the air.

For my daughter, the four-year road to Nassau Hall is best described by two words: hard work.  She studied all day, every day, pulled constant all-nighters, fretted over writing a senior thesis (similar to a master’s thesis), and participated in numerous professional and service organizations. She had fun, too. She played the French horn in the orchestra, performing twice in Europe, and danced many nights until dawn at the Eating Clubs, Princeton’s version of fraternities and sororities.

No doubt Alexandra’s success was made possible by intellect, ambition, passion for learning, perseverance, hard logic, pure and open mind and heart, and an inclination toward helping the under-privileged.  But behind her stood….guess who?  And behind me, two friends, veterans of the process, – Mayra Martinez and Olga Cancio – who offered advice at critical steps of the eight-year Ivy League preparation process.

Below I share a twelve step plan that will help you get your student ready for the rigorous Ivy League admissions competition.  The top four universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT – accept only between nine and ten percent of applicants, so competition is fierce. Today, however, nearly all universities are demanding similar qualifications from their freshmen applicants. These twelve steps will give you an advantage at any university.

First Things First: Does your Student Have What It Takes?

Before you launch an all-out offensive and jump into the fray, consider this most important point: does your child have what it takes? If the child doesn’t like to read or study, or if he or she is not an “A” student by the end of elementary school, it will be highly unlikely that an acclaimed institution will open its doors. Be realistic. No child can go to a top college if he or she does not have academic aptitude or is not fully committed to the goal from the beginning.

You must set the Ivy goal in middle school — if not by fifth grade — at least.

The Twelve Step Plan

  1. If your child demonstrates academic prowess in elementary school, test her for the gifted program.  Go to a private testing company. If the child’s IQ reaches the magic number, she is placed in gifted and advanced classes which will challenge an eager learner.
  2.  Upon entering middle school in sixth grade,  find an interest for which your child feels passionate, such as debate, band, creative writing, or golf and encourage her to stick with this all the way through high school. Besides this central activity, get your student involved in a variety of service clubs and sports.
  3. Once in middle school, make sure the student places in the highest level of math. A tutor may help here. This will ensure the student will make it through at least AP calculus by senior year. Competing in math club is an excellent activity.
  4. Upon entering high school in ninth grade, plan the student’s curriculum for the next four years. Don’t forget to include two years of a foreign language. A high grade point average, beginning in ninth grade, is crucial. To reach this goal, the student must take Advanced Placement and college courses. Sign up your student at the local community college: she doesn’t have to be dually enrolled to take classes. This step is imperative to boost the GPA. A high average will ensure your student ranks high in her class. If she becomes the Valedictorian, or Salutatorian, the better it will be for her.
  5. Look around for the best tutoring services for the SAT, but don’t use them yet. Start the student off on the Standardized Aptitude Test in ninth grade. Have her take the test again in tenth grade. Enroll the student in several SAT
    workshops: the practice is invaluable.  The SAT gives you a print out of where the student went wrong; in eleventh grade hire the best tutor you can afford and fix the problems indicated in the print-out. Have her retake the test until she achieves a score of at least 1400. That is the magic number.
  6. Encourage the student to join three to five clubs – fencing, debate, band, math club. Whatever it is, make sure your student is an officer. If in band, she must strive to be first chair and choose to play a scholarship instrument: French horn, tuba, viola, and bassoon. The point is to make the student stand out.
  7. Make sure the student joins the National Honor Society, an important service club, and become an officer. President is best, of course.
  8. Help your student design and execute a compelling community volunteer project. Choose something for which the student has a passion. For example, if he or she is in band, suggest she form a musical quartet that performs to raise money to send an orphan to music camp.
  9. Activities during the summers between sophomore and junior years and junior and senior years are crucial.  Find a pre-college summer program offered by a multitude of universities throughout the nation. For example, Carnegie Mellon University offers academic and music programs each summer. Scholarships are available. A summer internship and a summer job are two great alternatives.
  10. Coach your student to write killer college essays. Have her use descriptive, interesting language. Paint scenes. Limit exposition. Take the essays to a professional editor.
  11. If your student is Chinese- African- or Hispanic- American, or the first in the family to go to college, tell admission officers. Ethnic background and social-economic class are factors in the admissions process. Diversity is a key word.
  12. Call in all the forces of luck. There is no guarantee that any student who has put in place the above steps will be admitted. Hundreds of thousands of students throughout the nation are following the formula, and they are just as talented and intelligent as your own child. Let the metaphysical element of luck take over.  You have done all you can do.

Obstacles to Getting There

Are you a single mother and think you can’t possibly do the work involved in the race to the Ivy League?  Guess what? You can.  Single moms out there, you too can be part of your child’s success! Just think of the application process as a part-time job. Create a four-year timetable of tasks. Be methodical. You can do it.

I became a single mom when Alexandra was five and her twin brothers were two and a half. At the time, I vowed that lack of a father would not affect them in any way. I was lucky to be endowed with a stubborn disposition and a high paying job to pay for the extras:  athletic programs, tutors, music lessons and educational activities that all played a role in Alexandra’s success.

Don’t have a lot of cash? Tap the resources of your community, city, state and numerous national and local philanthropist organizations.  Research scholarships. There are numerous books out there that will help you with the process.

It’s Not About You

A strong partnership must exist between parent and student to make it all happen. All the effort in the world could not have made a difference if Alexandra had not cooperated and set the same goals for herself.

Persistence: Better than Talent

This post is a testament to what you can do if you set a goal, rely on yourself, and believe you can accomplish what you have set out to do. Never give up. The personality trait of perseverance can be more valuable than talent.

Out of Princeton

After graduation, I spent the entire month of June with my daughter. We sat for hours at sidewalk cafes, explored museums, ate tons of Gelato, and strolled on the beach. I accompanied her in the difficult quest to find an apartment in New York City, which has a one percent rental vacancy rate. Luckily, one came up in the financial district near her first professional job.

During this time, we bonded in ways that never could have been in possible while she was in high school, and I also wrote a new book: Out of Princeton: Reflections on the Ivy League, Motherhood, Education, Ageing, the Writing Process and the Mother-Daughter Bond. I wrote the book by hand in two thick notebooks. Now the real work begins: the grueling editing process.

Alexandra, you have given me so much to think and write about.  You will always be my little daughter.