How to Get Into an Ivy League School

The Eight Ivy League Schools Are Among the Most Selective in the Country

Low Library at Columbia University
Low Library at Columbia University. Allen Grove

If you are hoping to attend one of the Ivy League schools, you're going to need more than good grades. Seven of the eight Ivies made my list of the most selective colleges in the country, and acceptance rates range from 6% for Harvard University to 15% for Cornell University. Applicants who are admitted have earned excellent grades in challenging classes, demonstrated meaningful involvement in extracurricular activities, revealed leadership skills, and crafted winning essays.

A successful Ivy League application is not the result of a little effort at application time. It is the culmination of years of hard work. The tips and strategies below can help make sure your Ivy League application is as strong as possible.

Develop the Foundation for Ivy League Success Early

The Ivy League universities (and all universities for that matter) will consider your accomplishments in 9th through 12th grades only. The admissions folks will not be interested in that literary award you got in 7th grade or the fact that you were on the varsity track team in 8th grade. That said, successful Ivy League applicants build the foundation for an impressive high school record long before high school.

On the academic front, if you can get into an accelerated math track while in middle school, this will set you up to complete calculus before you graduate from high school. Also, start a foreign language as early as possible in your school district, and stick with it.

This will put you on track to take an Advanced Placement language class in high school, or to take a dual enrollment language class through a local college. Strength in a foreign language and completing math through calculus are both important features of the majority of winning Ivy League applications.

You can get admitted without these accomplishments, but your chances will be diminished.

When it comes to extracurricular activities in middle school, use them to find your passion so that you begin ninth grade with focus and determination. If you discover in middle school that drama, not soccer, is what you truly want to be doing in your after school hours, great. You're now in a position to develop depth and demonstrate leadership on the drama front when you're in high school. This is hard to do if you discover your love of theater in your junior year. 

This article on college preparation in middle school can help you understand the numerous ways in which a strong middle school strategy can help set you up for Ivy League success.

Craft Your High School Curriculum Thoughtfully

The most important piece of your Ivy League application is your high school transcript. In general, you'll need to take the most challenging classes available to you if you are going to convince the admissions folks that you are prepared to succeed in your college coursework. If you have a choice between AP Calculus or business statistics, take AP Calculus. If Calculus BC is an option for you, it will be more impressive than Calculus AB.

If you are debating whether or not you should take a foreign language in your senior year, do so (this advice assumes that you feel you are capable of succeeding in these courses).

You should also be realistic on the academic front. The Ivies don't, in fact, expect you to take seven AP courses in your junior year, and trying to do too much is likely to backfire by causing burn out and/or low grades. Focus on core academic areas—English, math, science, language—and make sure you excel in these areas. Courses such as AP Psychology, AP Statistics, or AP Music Theory are fine if your school offers them, but they don't carry the same weight as AP Literature and AB Biology. 

Also keep in mind that the Ivies recognize that some students have more academic opportunities than others. Only a small fraction of high schools offer a challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.

Only larger, well-funded high schools can offer a wide breadth of Advanced Placement courses. Not all high schools make it easy to take dual enrollment courses at a local college. If you're from a small rural school without many academic opportunities, the admissions officers at the Ivy League schools take your situation into consideration, and measures such as your SAT/ACT scores and letters of recommendation will be even more important for evaluating your college readiness.

Earn High Grades

I'm frequently asked which is more important: high grades or challenging courses? The reality for Ivy League admissions is that you need both. The Ivies will be looking for lots of "A" grades in the most challenging courses available to you. Also keep in mind that the applicant pool for all of the Ivy League schools is so strong that the admissions offices are often not interested in weighted GPAs. Weighted GPAs play an important and legitimate role in determining your class rank, but the reality is that when admissions committees are comparing students from around the world, they will consider whether or not that "A" in AP World History is a true "A" or if it is "B" that was weighted up to an "A."

Realize that you don't need straight "A" grades to get into the Ivy League, but every "B" on your transcript is lessening your chance of admission. Most successful Ivy League applicants have unweighted GPAs that are up in the 3.7 range or higher (3.9 or 4.0 is more common). 

The pressure to earn straight "A" grades can sometimes cause applicants to make bad decisions when applying to highly competitive colleges. You should not write a supplemental essay explaining why you got a "B+" in one course in your sophomore year. There are, however, a few situations in which you should explain a bad grade. Also keep in mind that some students with less-than-stellar grades get admitted. This can be because they have an exceptional talent, come from a school or country with different grading standards, or have legitimate circumstances that made earning "A" grades extremely challenging.

Focus on Depth and Achievement in Your Extracurricular Activities

There are hundreds of endeavors that count as extracurricular activities, and the reality is that any of them can make your application shine if you have demonstrated true depth and passion in your chosen activity. This article on the best extracurricular activities shows how any given activity, when approached with enough commitment and energy, can become something truly impressive.

In general, think of extracurriculars in terms of depth, not breadth. A student who acts a minor role in a play one year, plays JV tennis one spring, joins yearbook another year, and then joins Academic All-Stars senior year is going to look like a dabbler with no clear passion or area of expertise (these activities are all good things, but they don't make for a winning combination on an Ivy League application). On the flip side, consider a student who plays euphonium in County Band in 9th grade, Area All-State in 10th grade, All-State in 11th grade, and who also played in the school symphonic band, concert band, marching band, and pep band for all four years of high school. This is a student who clearly loves playing her instrument and will bring that interest and passion to the campus community. 

Show That You Are a Good Community Member

The admissions folks are looking for students to join their community, so they clearly want to enroll students who care about community. One way to demonstrate this is through community service. Realize, however, that there is no magic number here—an applicant with 1,000 hours of community service may not have an advantage over a student with 300 hours. Instead, make sure you are doing community service that is meaningful to you and that truly makes a difference in your community. You may even want to write one of your supplemental essays about one of your service projects.

Earn High SAT or ACT Scores

None of the Ivy League schools are test-optional, and SAT and ACT scores still carry a bit of weight in the admissions process. Because the Ivies draw from such a diverse pool of students from around the world, standardized tests truly are one of the few tools the schools can use to compare students. That said, the admissions folks do recognize that financially advantaged students have an advantage with the SAT and ACT, and that one thing these tests tend to predict is a family's income.

To get a sense of what SAT and/or ACT scores you're going to need to get into an Ivy league school, check out these graphs of GPA, SAT and ACT data for students who were accepted, waitlisted, and rejected: Brown | Columbia | Cornell | Dartmouth | Harvard | Penn | Princeton | Yale

The numbers are rather sobering: the great majority of admitted students are scoring in the top one or two percentiles on the SAT or ACT. At the same time, you'll see that there are some outlying data points, and a few students do get in with less-than-ideal scores.

Write a Winning Personal Statement

Chances are you're applying to the Ivy League using the Common Application, so you'll have five options for your personal statement. Check out these tips and samples for the Common Application essay options, and realize that your essay is important. An essay that is riddled with errors or focuses on a trivial or cliché topic could land your application in the rejection pile. At the same time, realize that your essay doesn't need to focus on something extraordinary. You don't need to have solved global warming or saved a bus full of 1st-graders to have an effective focus for your essay. More important than what you write about is that you focus on something important to you, and that your essay is thoughtful and self-reflective. 

Put Significant Effort Into Your Supplemental Essays

All of the Ivy League schools require school-specific supplemental essays in addition to the main Common Application essay. Don't underestimate the importance of these essays. For one, these supplemental essays, much more than the common essay, demonstrate why you are interested in a specific Ivy League school. The admissions officers at Yale, for example, aren't just looking for strong students. They are looking for strong students who are truly passionate about Yale and have specific reasons for wanting to attend Yale. If your supplemental essay responses are generic and could be used for multiple schools, you haven't approached the challenge effectively. Do your research and be specific. The supplemental essays are one of the best tools for demonstrating your interest in a specific university. 

Be sure to avoid these five supplemental essay mistakes.

Ace Your Ivy League Interview

You're likely to interview with an alum of the Ivy League school to which you are applying. In truth, the interview isn't the most important part of your application, but it can make a difference. If you stumble to answer questions about your interests and your reasons for applying, this can certainly damage your application. You'll also want to make sure that you are polite and personable during your interview. In general, Ivy League interviews are friendly exchanges, and your interviewer wants to see you do well. A little preparation, however, can help. Be sure to think about these 12 common interview questions, and work to avoid these interview mistakes.

Apply Early Action or Early Decision

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale all have a single-choice early action program. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn have early decision programs. All of these programs allow you to apply to just a single school through the early program. Early decision has additional restrictions in that if you are admitted, you are obligated to attend. You should not apply early decision if you are not 100% sure that a specific Ivy League school is your top choice. With early action, it's fine to apply early if there's a chance you will later change your mind.

If you're on target for Ivy League admission (grades, SAT/ACT, interview, essays, extracurriculars), applying early is the best tool you have for improving your chances significantly. Take a look at this table of early and regular admit rates for the Ivy League schools. You are four times more likely to get into Harvard by applying early than applying with the regular applicant pool. Yes—four times more likely

Factors That You Can't Control

Everything I've written about above focuses on factors that you can control, especially if you start early. There are, however, a couple factors in the Ivy League admissions process that are outside of your control. If these factors work in your favor, great. If they don't, don't fret. The majority of accepted students do not have these advantages.

First is legacy status. If you have a parent or sibling who attended the Ivy League school to which you are applying, this can work to your advantage. Colleges tend to like legacies for a couple reasons: they will be familiar with the school and are likely to accept an offer of admission (this helps with the university's yield); also, family loyalty can be an important factor when it comes to alumni donations.

You also can't control how you fit into the university's efforts to enroll a diverse class of students. Other factors being equal, an applicant from Montana or Nepal is going to have an advantage over an applicant from New Jersey. Similarly, a strong student from an under-represented group will have an advantage over a student from a majority group. This may seem unfair, and it's certainly an issue that has been debated in the courts, but most selective private universities operate under the idea that the undergraduate experience is enriched significantly when the students come from a wide range of geographical, ethnic, religious, and philosophical backgrounds.

A Final Word

Perhaps this point should have come first in this essay, but I always ask Ivy League applicants to ask themselves, "Why the Ivy League?" The answer is often far from satisfactory: family pressure, peer pressure, or just the prestige factor. Keep in mind that there is nothing magical about the eight Ivy League schools. Of the thousands of colleges in the world, the one that best matches your personality, academic interests, and professional aspirations is very likely not one of the eight Ivies. 

Every year you'll see the news headlines heralding that one student who got into all eight Ivies. The news channels love to celebrate these students, and the accomplishment is certainly impressive. At the same time, a student who would thrive in the bustling urban environment of Columbia would probably not enjoy the rural location of Cornell. The Ivies are remarkably different, and all eight are not going to be a great match for a single applicant.

Also keep in mind that there are hundreds of colleges that deliver exceptional educations (in many cases better undergraduate educations) than the Ivies, and many of these schools will be much more accessible. They may also be more affordable since the Ivies do not offer any merit-based financial aid (although they do have excellent need-based aid). 

In short, make sure you truly do have good reasons for wanting to attend an Ivy League school, and recognize that failure to get into one is not failure: you are likely to thrive at the college you do choose to attend.