7 Facts About Ivy League Admissions

The competition to get into America’s top schools is fierce. In fact, even as enrollment numbers have declined in other areas of higher education, the already minuscule admission rates for the most elite schools continue to shrink. If you’re applying to one of these top schools, it goes without saying that you’re a strong student. But if you have fantasies of going to an Ivy League college, you should know that your academic excellence does not alone guarantee you a spot at your dream school. The science behind who gets in and why is far more abstract, and possibly a little random. So aside from excelling in high school, crushing your exam scores, and building a robust extracurricular resume, what else can you do to improve your chances of getting into an Ivy League school?

7 Facts About Ivy League Admissions

For a deeper read on the declining admission rates at top schools, check out our look at Application Inflation and the Illusion of College Selectivity.

Otherwise, read on for 7 Facts About Ivy League Admissions.

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  1. 1

    Ivy schools want what they don't already have.

    Sara Harberson, explained it clearly, “When you are in a big admissions office like the one [I was in] at Penn, and you’re reading easily tens of thousands of applications in a year... [at] a highly selective college: they want what they don’t have” [emphasis added]. This year, more than ever, these top schools highlighted the percentage of first-generation college students and underrepresented minority students. It’s clear that the Ivy League is able to recruit the best and brightest, and they are doing that among groups that have previously been overlooked.

  2. 2

    The best way to impress an Ivy school with your activities is to do something truly newsworthy at one of them.

    Just doing a lot of the same activities as everyone else doesn’t add much to your application, even if you did them extremely well or did a lot of them. Only if your contribution could have grabbed the attention of a reporter will it grab the attention of an Ivy League application reader.

  3. 3

    Essays and recommendation letters are extremely important, especially in the sense that either one could ruin your chances if they contain the wrong kind of thing.

    During an interview with Academic Influence, MIT Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill told us that “Admissions officers want to know: What kind of community member are you going to be if given the chance to attend?” The quickest way to tell one of these admissions officers that you are going to be a bad community member is to write an annoying, trite, cliched or extravagantly boastful essay or to have someone write a lukewarm recommendation letter.

  4. 4

    Your actual test scores are not important for the simple reason that you shouldn't even be applying if you are not in the right range.

    If you are an athletic recruit, that range might be totally different than it is for someone who is applying without that particular hook. But be sure that your scores are in the appropriate range before even entering the application process. Once you’re in the right range, the exact number on your test score will be almost irrelevant, unless you happen to ‘break the curve’ by getting a 1600. That usually counts for a bit of extra consideration, even though about half of the perfect SAT or ACT scorers still get rejected from the top Ivy schools.

  5. 5

    Athletics are one common explanation for how a qualified (or even a slightly less-than-qualified) student might get in while another qualified student does not.

    But if you are just talking about two students, neither of whom has a ‘hook’ like being a recruited athlete or a first-generation college student, then it really comes down to chance. There are simply too many applicants who look just as good as you do, no matter how high-achieving you were. Therefore, the best you can do is to improve your chances by applying to all the Ivy League schools as well as a host of other highly selective schools that are equally selective in order to improve your chance.”

  6. 6

    If you are very good at a sport that the Ivy League recruits, make sure to talk with coaches and try your hardest to get recruited.

    If you are not in this category, the best chance is to become very good at one of your extracurricular activities, preferably not something that other academic high-achievers do. It used to be said that top schools wanted you to be either ‘pointy’ (extremely good at one thing) or ‘round’ (very good at many things). But recently it seems that ‘pointy’ is always the better strategy. Just make sure you enjoy whatever it is that you decide to become very good at since the stark reality is that, even if you succeed at being very good, your chances of getting into one of the eight Ivy schools, or into one of the highly selective schools that is typically ranked alongside the Ivy Leagues, are very low.”

  7. 7

    Win an international academic competition that is well-known and regarded as prestigious.

    As we point out in our article on the secret to gaining admission into Harvard and MIT, the one thing you could do to outshine your peers is to win an international academic competition that is well-known and regarded as prestigious. If you think you have what it takes, it’s worth a shot. You can’t win if you don’t enter!

Now that you’re armed with a few more tips, you may wish to determine whether one of these top schools is right for you. For help making that determination, check out Should I Go To an Elite College?

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