Getting Into America’s Top Colleges is a Family Affair

The rankings of American colleges shift slightly from year to year and from publication to publication. While it is mainly perception or variations in determinants that change those rankings, an elite group of colleges always come out at, or near, the top of every list.

These colleges include:

  • Harvard
  • MIT
  • Princeton
  • Stanford
  • Yale
  • Georgetown
  • Columbia
  • Dartmouth
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Amherst
  • Williams
  • Cornell

If you don’t see one of your personal top-ten picks here, don’t be concerned. Not only are rankings relative, but there are 10-20 other colleges considered by many to among the elite. Regardless of which colleges and universities make your personal top-ten list, getting into those schools is an activity that is years in the making. Yes, there are the gifted few who find getting into Harvard a simple matter of selecting from a cavalcade of “big envelopes”(acceptance letters). But for most, the quest to gain acceptance into America’s top colleges begins with lessons learned and decisions made early in life.

To me, it starts with intention. Any parent can attest to the fact that the words, “I want,” are among the first few mastered by toddlers. Well, “I want” doesn’t cut it much past age 7 or 8 when children should be taught the difference between merely “wanting” something and “intending” to get that thing. If parents are away, “wanting” the cookies that reside on the top shelf of the cabinet above the refrigerator isn’t going to get the job done. But if the same child “intends” to get those cookies, he will have to “earn” them by devising some means of reaching higher than his arms will take him. The same is true of gaining admission into America’s top colleges. Wanting is not good enough. Children at a young age should be taught the difference between desire and intention. The lessons can be implanted into small objects or objectives of desire such as time to play a computer game, going to a friend’s house or TV time. The desire to have any of these gratifiers is not the thing that should be rewarded. It is the accomplishment of an activity that earns it that should be.

“Show me how much you want to play your new computer game.”


“Show me by first taking out the trash (or finishing your dinner or cleaning up your room or helping me put the dinner dishes in the sink).”

The best things in life, including admission to America’s top colleges, are not wished into existence; they are earned into existence.  There are a thousand different ways to impart this crucial lesson in reality during the early stages of a child’s life. Set expectations high and teach your children what it takes to reach them. You can start with a simple lesson in vocabulary:



noun:  A strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen



A thing intended; an aim or plan

As we have written before in our test-prep manuals:

Intention is the key to accomplishment. It is desire squared. It is a trigger that releases your personal motivation and points it in a straight line. Saying that you intend to do something is not the same as saying that you want to do something. If you want to be a professional athlete, that is a dream. If you intend to be a professional athlete, that is a goal.  An intention is something you strive for, whereas a dream is something you hope for.

If your child says, “I want to go to Harvard,” you should say that merely wanting to go to Harvard is not the key to Harvard’s front door.  When compared to intention, want implies failure, and provides you with a convenient excuse when you fall short of your goal. Your reply might be:

“That is wonderful, but do you intend to go to Harvard?”

In response to the inevitable awkward silence, scrunched up face, and tilted head, you might just use that very moment in time to teach a lesson whose impact lasts a lifetime.

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