The Uphill Path to a Rich University for a Poor Student

Your grades are great. You're one of the sharpest, hardest working students at your school. Your peers know you're on track for big things if you keep it up. The elite schools should be happy to have you.

All your life, however, you've been pushing the rock uphill. Somedays having shoes on your feet and lunch in your backpack is a struggle. Finding a peaceful place to study is impossible. Day-to-day money problems seem more pressing than your academic success. It's not your fault, but it's your burden.

You haven't let that stop you. You have goals and you're going to reach them no matter what is ahead of you. 

You weren't born on the easy road, but you're Ivy League material anyway. That strength you built fighting against the world? Good that you have it because you're going to need it. Even if you deserve it, getting into an elite university won't be any simpler.

NPR's Anya Kamenetz identified five ways elite colleges shut out poor kids. It doesn't even seem like they're doing it on purpose. Despite their efforts to increase economic diversity, it's just in their nature to make it hard on low-income students.

The five factors Kamenetz listed were Legacy, Demonstrated Interest, Early Decision, Overweighting GPAs and Athletic Scholarships. Let's look at them one by one.


If one of your parents or grandparents went to the school, you may automatically get past the first round of admissions. There's nothing you can do about this. If you have an elite school graduate in your family tree, start there. Otherwise, see what else you can offer that sets you apart.

Demonstrated Interest

Universities want to feel wanted. They'll give you preference for visiting the campus. Easy for wealthy students to fly around, stay in hotels and research different schools. Not so easy for you.

Address this with the admissions department. Tell them you want to “demonstrate interest” but can't afford to travel. You're working, studying and in other ways being a dynamite candidate. Ask if they can fly you out and supply lodging. You're worth it, right? They should want to meet you.

Regardless, it's important to go. If you really think the school will benefit you, do everything you can to afford a visit. Road-trip with other students. Ask for help. See if someone is willing to fund the future of a bright young student.

Early Decision

You are three to five times more likely to be accepted into the Ivy League if you submit an early decision application. You promise to enroll if you're accepted and you'll get a quicker decision. The problem is, you may not have your financial aid in order. The applications are usually due around November. Applying early is a bold move.

You need to know this is your top choice and be willing to gamble on your scholarship potential. Rewards don't come to the shy and meek. Believe in yourself and go for it if it's the school you truly want.

Overweighted GPAs

Your GPA is the first stat on your resume for college. Those two digits and one decimal point attempt to sum up everything you've done in class. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses help this number by giving you a maximum of 5 rather than 4. A 4.0 is no longer the ceiling.

If you go to a small or under-funded school, AP or IB courses may be tough to find. Take all you can regardless of your anticipated career path. See yourself as a scientist? Take AP English anyway and ace it. That 4+ GPA may be the difference between MIT and somewhere else.

And talk to your local community college about taking advanced classes there. They may be free, offer college credit and give your GPA a boost.

Athletic Scholarships

Leadership in athletics will look good with your excellent scholastics. A sports scholarship can help you go where you want. Obviously, if you're great at football, basketball or other big-ticket sports and smart too, you can go where you want. But if you aren't?

Scholarship money goes to every sport, whether you see it on TV or not. Many of those sports are only available at wealthy, preppy high schools. Does your school offer skiing, golf, fencing, sailing or hockey? Harvard does.

Like Legacy, you can do nothing about your inability to compete for a water polo scholarship. Stick to what you can do.

Pursuing Your Dream

Now that you're aware of the extra hurdles between you and your dream education, get over them. Build the best resume you can. And directly address the challenges because the admissions department at your school of choice may not even recognize them. Hold them up for them to see clearly.

In all ways, recognize the world in front of you. Elite schools are harder for you to get into, but they may be worth it. Tackle the challenge like everything else in your life and dominate it.

And what if you still cannot get in? Or you did get in, but the financial aid package just won't work for your family?

It's more than likely that there are several schools that will be good options for you, and there is no reason for you to believe you have to go to just one particular school. Choose the school that is the best fit for you, academically, socially, and financially. Studies have shown that bright students are often successful no matter where they go to college, even if it is a school that is not their first choice.

Ready to find the best college choice for you?