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How to Get Into the Ivy League

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How to Get Into the Ivy League

Adam Aleksic, Editor-in-Chief

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Each year, hundreds of thousands of students apply to “Ivy League” institutions (those being Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, and Penn), and only a few thousand get in each year. Their names hold incredible weight in job applications and the prestige of their students is envied around the world. Sadly, there’s a lot of misinformation about what it takes to get in. Here are a few areas of concern that should be addressed.

Testing and grades

Standardized test scores today effectively serve as a filter to weed out weaker candidates. To have a comfortable chance of getting in, you’ll want above a 1500 on the SAT or a 34+ on the ACT. You needn’t take both, but you should weigh the merits of each type of test and decide what is best for you. Buy review books, sign up for prep classes (there are some free ones at AHS), grind on Khan Academy (also free), take practice tests, and do whatever it takes to get these scores, because without them your job is much more difficult. This process should begin over the summer before your junior year, as you prepare for the PSAT in hopes of a National Merit Scholarship (that can really help you down the road). Hopefully, a lot of the studying for that will carry over for the SAT/ACT, but you should still make sure that you’re consistently scoring where you want to be.

Unless you can’t afford them (in which case colleges are totally understanding), you should take 2-3 SAT subject tests as well. Find out your schools’ requirements for this and try to do some within the sphere of your intended major. Anything above 700, but preferably above 750, should be good to send to colleges. Less emphasis has been placed on this in recent years, but a good subject test score just might be the thing that gives you an edge over another applicant with otherwise similar stats.

Take as many APs as you can without burning out. Our school offers 22, and if you take advantage of about half of those you should be fine. Colleges want to see that you’re challenging yourself. Good grades and ultimately good test scores are paramount, however. Wheedle your teacher for extra credit if you have to, study for unit tests, don’t be ashamed to do APEX, and crunch as much as possible for that coveted 5 on the end-of-the-year test.

Your grades will not be flawless, but if you motivate yourself enough and work zealously, you can have a GPA of 98% or higher while still taking rigorous classes, which is about what it takes to get into the top 10 students of the class.

Extracurriculars

Gone are the days when a perfect 1600 and 4.0 GPA could guarantee someone admission into an elite school. Thousands of kids with immaculate transcripts get rejected each year, because they pour everything into academics and don’t show the admissions committees that they can bring something other than good grades to their institution. You need to actively put yourself out there and build a resume of extracurriculars with leadership positions.

Ideally, you should start something, excel in something, or change something. Increase output of articles in the school paper as Editor-in-Chief or start a geography bee or win a state-level tournament for your sport. Don’t just be a member. Be a critical member of the organization. Colleges care less about community service than you would think, but it’s still nice to show, especially if you can display commitment.

However, there’s a frequently cited myth that all you need is to be a well-rounded candidate, and by holding positions in several clubs, you’re more likely to get into a great college. This is only a half-truth. It needs to be more along the lines of what I call pointed well-roundedness. Show that you’re a multifaceted individual, but show that through a type of passion. Colleges aren’t actually looking for versatile people; they want a versatile student body, with each component doing something specialized. Holding a few sinecures in random teams or clubs is transparent to colleges as an attempt to make yourself look better. If you mold them around some type of driving passion, they work better for you. For example, a lot of my extracurriculars dealt with my key passions of language, geography, or logic. I had some defined interests, and all of my successes were from doing things I loved, which really shone in my application.

Enter some essay contests if you’re a humanities person, and absolutely do some competitions if you’re STEM-oriented. The more prestigious awards you win for your passion, the better.

Letters of Recommendation

These are extremely important to your application and must come from a junior or senior year teacher, so it’s important to foster great relationships with faculty at your school. You want your letter to stand out from that of the average student, and to do that you need to really have an affect on your teacher. Most schools require 2, but there’s nothing wrong with securing a third, just in case they have optional recommendations.

Ideally, these adults should be something more than just your teacher. If there’s someone who you work with simultaneously in the classroom and in some club outside the classroom, you probably want to go with them. If there’s someone you had for multiple years in a row, and really got chummy with them, you probably want to go with them. Differentiate yourself from the generic applicant by really making an impact on the person chosen to write the letter.

Oh, and don’t go for some famous person you know through a relative or friend. A supportive letter from a coach goes much further than a missive from an ambassador or judge you don’t really know.

Essays

There are two types of essay you’re going to need: the Common Application essay and your supplementals. The Common App essay is going to all of your schools and should connect your extracurriculars into one of your overarching passions. Mine was a simple 500-word essay on how I discovered my interest in etymology. If you can somehow connect your pointed well-roundedness to it, so much the better.

Supplementals are sent to each school individually, and while some can be reused, it’s best to make sure that your responses to each school are tailored to illustrate why you are a good fit for their program. Do your research and connect your essay both to how you can contribute to the college and how you can benefit from the college. If possible, work in some more of your interests or passions.

Let your parents look at your essay, but also find someone who’s going to tell it to you like it is. You can’t trust your family to be fully impartial. If possible, try to find someone attending the school in question to look at your supplementals. If you’re taking a Senior Symposium class, pay attention to what is going on. Ideally, you should begin writing during the summer. Just make sure you’re not rushing to turn something in before a deadline.

For the love of all that is holy, please read up on common essay clichés so you can avoid them like the plague. Don’t talk about winning a football game. Don’t use gimmicky essays hooks. Write about what you love and let that show.

The Process

In ninth and tenth grade, the main things you have to do are take challenging courses, shore up some decent extracurriculars, and maintain good grades. Use that time to find a passion and begin learning about the process. This is a great moment to begin visiting colleges and see what you like. The real work starts in eleventh grade as you crunch for the PSAT. A lot of kids don’t take this too seriously; that is a mistake. A good PSAT score can get you a National Merit Scholarship and acceptance into elite summer programs.

For me, the PSAT naturally led into the SAT, but some might choose the ACT route. Don’t waste your time during the winter; prepare for all your tests and learn to hate the College Board. During eleventh grade, you need to be assiduously looking out for good recommendation letters and leadership positions in clubs. If possible, start something that can have an impact on your community. You should also apply for elite summer programs like TASP or SAMS, or get an internship/job if that’s what you need more.

The summer before senior year is when you should pivot into application season. Start writing essays, make sure any loose ends are tied up, ask for recommendation letters before mid-October, and learn the minutiae of the process. Write your essays carefully, and send off those applications.

Soon afterwards comes the onslaught of interviews. I found that these got better with more practice. It might sound corny, but just be yourself. Trying too hard to impress doesn’t come off well. Talk like you would to a parent’s friend and be confident in yourself.

If you ever see the word “optional”, don’t be fooled. It’s code for “mandatory”. Do all of your interviews. Don’t skip any supplementary essays. Little things like that are what gives you an edge over other tremendous applicants.

Finally, make sure you are aware of good resources. I found that Dr. Katherine Cohen’s book The Truth About Getting In has most of the information you need to succeed in the process. The subreddit r/applyingtocollege is a fantastic community of admissions officers, current Ivy League students, and panicked applicants, where you can read about people who got in, find someone to edit your essays, talk to alumni, ask questions, and more. College Confidential and Quora are also decent sites.

Remember that everything you do can add or take away from your application.  Failure to complete any of these steps can effectively prevent you from getting accepted, because there are thousands of other qualified candidates who have done it all. Don’t do anything stupid that might come back to bite you later, either.

Just in case, make sure you find a safety school you really love, and some targets that you would like to go to. For that pot of admission at the end of the rainbow, though, it’s a crapshoot. You could get wait-listed from Cornell and get into Harvard, or vice versa. A lot of very well-off candidates get rejected each year, and it’s fine if you don’t make it. Good luck in doing so, though! I hope this tutorial was helpful.

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