(2010.04.01) Strategy for Getting Into an Ivy League University

Having taken the most rigorous classes offered at their high schools and produced a nearly unblemished grade point average (GPA) and having achieved high scores on standardized tests for college admissions test (including the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests) after numerous hours of preparation, high-achieving high school students will have done just about everything in school that their parents expect. As a result, many of these students start to dream about the possibility of attending an Ivy League university; however, many of these students do not fully realize the difficulty of gaining admissions to one of these prestigious institutions.


Admissions to an Ivy League university is extremely selective. The percentage of students admitted to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (the so-called “HYP” schools) hovers around 8% to 10% annually. The percentage of students admitted to Cornell University—which has an undergraduate enrollment of about 14,000, making it the largest of the Ivy League universities—topped out at about 20% last year. By comparison, the percentage of students admitted to the top-tier campuses in the University of California system, UC Berkeley and UCLA, is about 22% to 24% annually. The reality is that the vast majority of students with dreams of attending an Ivy League university will not realize their dreams.


To increase a student’s chances of realizing his or her dream of gaining admissions to an Ivy League university, the student must go beyond simply doing well in high school courses and getting high scores on standardized tests for college admissions. A student may be among the best and brightest students in his or her high school, but when you multiply the number of high-achieving students at a typical high school by the number of high schools in this country, you can easily understand that it will be difficult for most of these students to stand out from the crowd. Similarly, while achieving high scores on college admissions tests is necessary for admission to very selective universities, doing so is not enough because most applicants to these universities will have achieved similarly high test scores. It is a common belief that for a student to be a competitive candidate for admissions to an Ivy League university, the student should achieve an SAT Reasoning Test score of at least 2250 out of a possible score of 2400. Moreover, a student should achieve a score of about 750 out of a possible score of 800 on each of the SAT Subject Tests. (Most four-year colleges require two SAT Subject Test scores; some require three Subject Test scores.)


So, what exactly are the Ivy League universities looking for in a candidate? 


Highly selective colleges look to admit a well-rounded class; they do not necessarily look to admit simply well-rounded students. What this means is that the students who tend to stand out in the admissions process are students who have demonstrated interests and extraordinary achievementsA common misconception that students have about the college admissions process is that colleges expect students to complete a certain number of community or volunteer service hours or prefer one type of extracurricular activity over another. In general, there is no preconceived notion of the ideal candidate for college admissions. While receiving recognition for one’s achievements at the state and regional levels is more impressive than receiving a school-level award (and national or international level recognition is perhaps the most impressive), the reality is that most students are not highly recruited athletes, musical prodigies, or owners of patents and copyrights issued by the federal government. 


It is possible for a student to stand out by demonstrating an unusually high degree of interest in an academic subject—for example, the student can take courses at a local community college after completing the highest level of coursework in that subject at his or her high school. A student can also distinguish himself or herself by producing an extraordinary achievement in what is considered to be a more common activity. Starting a literary magazine at the high school or organizing an event to raise funds for a humanitarian cause could be impressive because of the impact that the student makes in his or her community and what it shows about the student’s level of interest and motivation. 


Colleges are looking for indications that the candidate possesses strong leadership skills, an uncommon level of curiosity and passion, and a strong sense of identity, maturity, and direction about his or her future. These personal qualities and characteristics are not produced overnight; rather, like a tree that requires constant nurturing and attention, they are developed and molded over time—typically several months and oftentimes many years—through conscious and sustained effort.


However, even the most well-groomed student may find disappointment if he or she fails to adopt an appropriate strategy for applying to college. Given the difficulty of gaining admissions to an Ivy League university, students are well advised to apply to several colleges and universities—within and outside of the Ivy League system—in order to increase their chances of success. It is common nowadays for students to apply to 10 or more colleges and universities.