At big-name schools such as Yale, you'll need not only top grades and mega test scores, but rave reviews from teachers and counselors, an engaging essay and success...

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Yale University

At big-name schools such
as Yale, you’ll need not only top grades and mega test scores, but rave reviews from teachers and counselors, an engaging essay and success in an outside-of-school activity.

It also helps if:

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• You have a talent the school’s short on (which one year could be a goalie for the hockey team, the next, a bassoonist).

• You’d enhance the diversity. Are you a farmer’s daughter? A native of Togo? (Sometimes just being a Northwesterner gives you a leg up, depending on how many others apply.)

• Your parents or grandparents attended (President Bush’s recent comment against this notwithstanding).

University of Washington

Public schools such as the University of Washington are bound to an admissions formula that begins with a look at grades and test scores.

“It’s fairly automatic for us to accept someone with a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT,” says Tim Washburn, assistant vice president for enrollment services at the UW.

Remaining applicants are scrutinized for rigor of courses, strength of their senior year and out-of-school activities.

UW doesn’t care whether your parents are alumni, Washburn says. It does seek out first-generation college students.