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Admissions officers don't have specific pre-made profiles for ideal candidates, and they don't rely on any one factor to determine admission.
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updated 9/15/2006 5:24:06 PM ET 2006-09-15T21:24:06

It's hard to get into college these days: Since the baby boomers' kids came of age, the number of students in classrooms and the level of competition have both surged. Luckily, there are still a few ways to guarantee Ivy League admission — high SAT scores, lots of extracurricular activities, alumni in the family and the name of a prestigious private prep school on your transcript. Right?

Wrong. Admissions offices broke the record this year for the greatest number of valedictorian rejections.

Today, approximately 41 percent of America’s student population has a grade point average over 3.5. Yale has approximately 21,000 applicants annually and only 1,300 available slots. Ninety-seven percent of Stanford's new freshman class were ranked in the top 20 percent of their high schools, and 45 percent ranked in the top 1 percent or 2 percent. Harvard has an abundance of candidates with strong credentials, but it now accepts an estimated all-time-low 9 percent of them.

So what can desperate applicants do to get into the school of their dreams, and what old tricks just won't work?

Applicants continually search for a formula to attract the attention of admissions officers, but the only thing that always works is being an all-around student.

"We try to understand the student as a whole person, and also to understand how he or she has performed in the context of whatever academic and community opportunities he or she has encountered," says Jeffrey Brenzel, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions. "We seek academic excellence, evidence of leadership and integrity, and evidence of high personal impact on others."

In the past, desperate college applicants would jazz up their applications with a little volunteer work — working in a soup kitchen or cleaning up trash in public parks. But nowadays, you'd be better off tidying up your own bedroom. Colleges are aware that many high schools enforce community service requirements, and they're especially wary of students who volunteer their time for the sake of transcripts.

Says Bruce J. Breimer, head of college guidance at the prestigious Collegiate School: "One admissions officer told me, ‘If I read another essay about kids building houses in Costa Rica, I'm going to scream.’”

And you can forget about stacking up lots of pointless after-school activities. Among similarly qualified students, strong extracurriculars can give one candidate the edge. But admissions officers would rather see you excel in one club, rather than just show up at ten.

“It's most important to do something with enthusiasm, passion and commitment,” says James Miller, director of admissions at Brown University.

Maybe your plan is to wow the admissions office with a fantastic essay? Keep dreaming, Shakespeare. A stellar composition can't salvage an  application, says Harvard's current director of admissions, Dr. Marlyn McGrath Lewis. "We never base our decisions on essays. We read them carefully, but we understand how easily they can be purchased or written by anyone. They can certainly illuminate a case, but we'd be foolish to base our decisions on them."

Even good grades won't keep those thin rejection letters at bay. Admissions officers understand the difference between an A in an easy class and a B in a hard one. And increasingly, top colleges have staff members who become experts on high schools in specific regions. They know which schools engage in grade inflation, and which tough ones issue few high marks.

So what does ring a school dean's bell? Admissions officers don't have specific pre-made profiles for ideal candidates, and they don't rely on any one factor to determine admission. Instead, they aim to compose a diverse student body with a diverse group of individuals.

"We define diversity as interests, experiences, values and background," says Christoph Guttentag, Duke University's head of admissions. A proficient glockenspiel player can be just as desirable as a football MVP — it simply depends on what a college is lacking.

Knowing the tricks can only get you so far. In the end, to be an ideal candidate for a college, a student must work hard, develop a sense of passion, yearn for intellectual and personal stimulation, pursue activities outside of the classrooms in a profound way — and remember to breathe in the process. Says the Collegiate School's Breimer: "Be yourself. Don't try to beat the system."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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