The Ivy League: How to get in (Legally)
9 minute read
If you’re a billionaire hedge fund manager, a Harvard professor, a criminal mastermind, and/or part of a long line of Princetonians, no need to keep reading. If not, but you have a curious and driven kid who wants to know how to get into Ivy League schools, this post is for you.
You may already know there’s an entire industry built around helping you navigate the Ivy League admissions system. Consultants are available to read and improve your child’s essays, determine which extra-curricular activities they should do, coach them on how to act at the interview, sure-fire SAT prep, amazing ACT prep, and so on. Also out there are roughly two gazillion YouTube videos about how so-and-so got into Yale, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, etc. These resources are helpful, even priceless. But it’s a lot to take in at first.
So for sanity’s sake, let’s start by ignoring the factors you have zero control over—issues like legacy, feeder prep academies for elite schools, race, affirmative action, government interventions, pandemics, etc. Let’s look at the basics and prioritize those things that can make a big difference.
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No, your child does not need to be valedictorian or receive a perfect 4.0 GPA or 1600 on their SAT for admission into Ivy League colleges. However, numbers-wise, grades should be up there. GPA is the first filter admissions folks use to weed out the less qualified candidates.
For the GPA, a 3.8 or above is the norm. This is an unweighted GPA, meaning that classes are scored the same no matter how difficult they are. But the level of class difficulty will be taken into account separately. Administrators want to see that prospective students are pushing beyond the norm and like to see AP and Honors classes on school transcripts. That doesn’t mean your child should take the hardest classes for every single one of their subjects, but they should be pushing themselves in the things that really interest them. Your school may not even have a lot of AP or Honors classes, and that’s ok. Students can also demonstrate their academic prowess in their extra-curricular activities, which we’ll get to in a bit.
Regarding testing, SATs in the 1460 to 1580 range or ACTs in the 33 to 35 range are the norm. A growing number of elite college admissions, such as Harvard’s, are currently test-optional and no longer require students to submit them. In these test-optional applications, independent research is uniquely powerful for helping students distinguish themselves. Yale and Columbia explicitly mention “Research Projects” in their supplementary application materials. Test scores aren’t nearly as mission-critical as they once were.
So for grades, how can you help your kid excel academically? Establishing a culture of academic excellence early on is important. Setting up good study habits and routines, checking in early and often, and, most importantly, staying positive and celebrating the wins are ways you can help. This might look like finding after-school tutoring or online help. It might mean helping them divide their studying and project work into manageable chunks and helping them set reminders in a calendar app. It might mean identifying and eliminating distractions. Or it might just mean helping them create or find a good study space.
One unusual tip is to take your child to their dream school for a visit. It may plant a seed of ambition while also normalizing the idea that going there is possible. Zain E. Asher, a CNN international anchor, wrote that her mom took her to visit Oxford when she was still in middle school. Having a concrete vision of the place helped her study harder to get there.
One of the most frequently used words when people talk about how to get into Ivy League schools is “well-rounded.” But what that means is confusing. Being well-rounded doesn’t necessarily mean doing a hundred disconnected things. In fact, scattered activities may be a red flag that students are padding their applications. Students who center their activities around a particular passion can also find a higher level of mastery than kids juggling too many interests. This notion of unifying your extra-curricular activities (which can be many or a few) with a personal goal is called a theme or a throughline in college prep circles. And proving a certain level of excellence in this area of interest, such as by winning awards at competitions or publishing work, is called a spike.
Administrators like to see both themes and spikes. They like seeing that a student has taken a deep dive into a subject and achieved mastery and even leadership in that area. It’s evidence of curiosity, discipline, focus, and ambition—all necessary for success in college and beyond. Of course, a multi-talented student is also welcomed when they can show what connects their disparate activities. They like to see the “why” behind extra-curricular choices, and that “why” usually has something to do with their primary passion.
And that is why a passion project is a great way to pursue one idea or to combine various extra-curricular interests into a cohesive whole. These projects can also be showcased in various ways such as competitions or publications to achieve those spikes we mentioned earlier. Encourage your child to pursue projects that are the most meaningful to them and help them share that passion with the world. Their project may be on an unfamiliar subject. Not a problem. You can help them by connecting them with experts who do know and can help them grow their skills and connections in their chosen field. If you need help finding such a mentor, you and your child can search through our listings by interest. We’ll talk more about specific ways to incorporate this project throughout the various parts of the application, but just know that it’s highly useful in every part.
A research or passion project lends itself particularly well to the application essay. The admissions committee is reading this personal essay to find out your child’s unique way of looking at the world. What is your kid curious about? How did they pursue that curiosity? How ambitious are they? Working on a project gives your child so much material to work with. They can talk about how they arrived at their topic, their relationship with their mentor, details from the project, challenges they faced, ways they would like it to grow, and questions the project has them still mulling over. Their project tells the story of what makes them tick and what they are truly capable of.
One of the most often overlooked subjects when discussing how to get into Ivy League schools is this area of recommendation letters. While the essay gives the admissions board the basic sketch of who your child is, letters of recommendation paint it in. These letters are read very closely for more insight into your child’s interpersonal skills, personality traits, and attitude toward learning. These are rated as highly as grades. The most powerful letters come from enthusiastic teachers or mentors and counselors who know your child well. Ideally, these are people who will rant and rave about what a wonderful human being your child is. These letters can make your child really stand out and have the power to tip the scales in their favor.
That’s why it’s very important for your child to build good relationships with at least a few of their teachers or project mentors, as well as with the school counselor, early on. Outstanding recommendations based on good relationships take time and can’t be faked. Working with a teacher or mentor on an extra-curricular project is a powerful way to get to know faculty better. Based on all the extra time spent together, a teacher or mentor will have a lot more to say about your child and their progress.
Ideally, your child should write a thank you letter that they include along with the initial request for a recommendation. In this letter, they can include things they learned from the teacher, experiences in the classroom they’ll never forget, and other tidbits that will help jog the teacher’s memory and help them write a unique recommendation. This letter is especially useful if your child is reaching out to a teacher who likes them but who is not super close to them, or if it has been a while since their class or activity ended.
Another often overlooked key to admission to Ivy League colleges: the guidance counselor! Encourage your child to reach out to their school counselor early on and share their projects with them. Not only do counselors play a crucial role as recommendation writers, but they can also serve as important mentors throughout high school and during the whole elite college admissions process.
The best time for your child to start asking teachers for these letters is in the spring of their junior year of high school. For more help on recommendation letters, read and share this complete guide with your child. It comes complete with a timeline and helpful documents you can share with the teachers to help them out.
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Not all applicants will get offered an interview. These interviews are done by elite college alumni who are there to give yet more insight into your child’s personality, goals, and passions. If your child is offered an interview (most are optional), by all means encourage them to do it. In addition to giving the school more information about them, it also gives your child a chance to ask questions and learn more about the school.
They will likely be asked about what they want to study, what their passions are, and their favorite extracurricular activities. If your child has completed a project, they again have a lot of material to work into the conversation. They can discuss how they came up with the idea for their project, their relationship with their mentor, skills they learned, and how they would like to take their project further.
It’s also a good idea for them to research the school and find out if there are any clubs or classes that they would like to join to carry their interests further. They will need to discuss what it is about that particular school that attracts and excites them. They should also prepare some good questions to ask the alumni. Questions such as: What was your favorite thing about this school? What advice do you have for someone like me? What do you think is unique about this school? They should avoid asking alumni factual questions that Google could just as easily answer.
Help them practice the interview with you. Interviewing is an art, and most high school students don’t get a chance to practice. Remind them that being polite and thanking the alumni for their time also goes a long way. Showing ommon courtesy all by itself never got anyone admission to Ivy League colleges, but it never hurts either.
Many schools have additional areas in the application where applicants can attach links, recordings, images, videos, or research publications they have worked on. This is where your child can showcase their project! It’s a good idea to introduce this additional content and highlight how it reflects who they are and their interests. MIT has a place to specifically enter a maker portfolio (even MIT’s motto speaks to project work), and all Ivy League schools have places to submit supplementary artistic or academic research materials. Research projects can actually give your child a powerful edge over other applicants, especially in the world of test-optional applications and applying to elite institutions. Note that all colleges favor quality over quantity since they have so many applications to go through.
For inspiration on how to get into Ivy Leagues and for more insight into the entire elite college admissions process, check out:
Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable by Zain E. Asher
Acceptance: A Memoir by Emi Nietfeld
Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College by Andrew Ferguson
The Road to Yale: Application, Essays, and Resumes that Wowed Yale Admission Officers by Shixia Huang, Grace Li, and Sharon Li
Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Students Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves by David L. Marcus
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