How to Get Into an Ivy League School: Advice from a Harvard Graduate

How to Get Into an Ivy League School: Advice from a Harvard Graduate

The eight Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell—are full of intrigue for students and parents everywhere. Along with them, I’d also group in Stanford, MIT, UChicago and a handful of other highly selective colleges and universities. Although they're not technically in the Ivy League, the same admission standards apply, and their acceptance rates are just as low, if not lower. These schools are often seen as the gatekeepers of that elusive educational golden ticket, and if you're like thousands of high school students all over the world, you want to know how to get in. 

Disclaimer: There is no secret formula to gaining admission to any of these schools. But understanding what they’re looking for in student applicants may help demystify the application process and guide you in the right direction.

Ivy league institutions and other top colleges and universities are looking to fill their campuses with impactful individuals. Any time anyone associated with a school does something remarkable, it reflects well back on the school. The more remarkable acts a school can associate itself with, the more impressive that school appears. For many schools, recruiting a dynamic freshman class is integral to sustaining this process. To maximize potential output and reduce potential risk, top colleges invest in students with proven records of excellence. It is up to the prospective student (that's you) to demonstrate such merit when applying to any of these institutions of higher learning.

So, if you're interested in applying to the Ivies, here’s my advice:

1. Be Brilliant.

Exceptional grades in rigorous courses and excellent standardized test scores are predictors of academic potential. The majority of Ivy League students are stellar in this regard. The colleges want to make sure that students who are accepted can handle the academic workload, and past achievement is the best way to assess future success.

This isn’t to say you must have straight A’s, but your transcript should not be riddled with B’s and C’s (unless you have a valid explanation). The average SAT score is about 1500 for most of these schools, and the average ACT score ranges from 31-35. However, many applicants have perfect GPAs and standardized test scores. You certainly want to aim for scores within the middle range of an Ivy League school to give yourself a legitimate shot at admission.

2. Be Engaged.

There are a plethora of ways to keep yourself busy throughout high school, and plenty of students will get involved in a variety of activities to demonstrate well-roundedness.

While it is great to be involved in a number of different areas, Ivy League schools are looking for future world-changers. How can anybody predict which of today’s 17- and 18-year-olds will develop into tomorrow’s world-changers? If we’re being honest, no one can truly predict who will change the world, but we can certainly use clues from one’s past to infer about one’s future.

Ivy League schools want students who have shown in-depth passion in an activity, ideally over a number of years, because it represents genuine commitment and offers insight into what the student may pursue on their campuses. And even if a student changes his or her mind, the school knows that the student has that capacity to go deep in a certain field and may apply that dedication to another area. High schools students have founded nonprofits, written code and developed apps, published multiple works of fiction/nonfiction, and broken national athletic records (to name a few) to get where they are today. Usually, these students are exceptional because they love what they do. It is imperative that you find what you love and pursue it as deeply as possible.

3. Be Authentic.

Students who are unashamedly themselves will almost always stand out in a crowd. People are drawn to reliability and trustworthiness, and colleges are no different in this regard. It can be difficult to express your true self amid all of society’s pressures, but those who do will find it a rewarding experience.

Much of your personal character is demonstrated through your college essays, interviews, and recommendations. It goes without saying that you'll really want to nail these aspects of your college applications. You have complete control over what you write about in your essays, so let your voice shine through and write about topics that you genuinely want to share with others. Authenticity is infectious, and colleges appreciate students who bring this quality to the table while remaining intelligent and thoughtful.

4. Be Lucky.

Collectively, the Ivy League averages an admit rate of under 10%. For every 10 students who apply, 9 are rejected. At a few of these schools, the rate of admission is as low as 5-6%. I mention this to drive home the point that there is a measure of luck involved, but applying to the Ivy League is not a free-for-all shot in the dark. Some applicants will have greater luck than others, and the factors involved are usually out of your control.

Are you an Ivy legacy student? Are you a recruited athlete? Do you attend an elite preparatory school? If so, your luck just went up. Additionally, each school has yearly institutional needs (geographic diversity, lack of students in a particular major, special talents, etc.) based on the composition of the undergraduate class, and if you happen to meet one of those needs, you could be in luck.

So, what can you do to be a better applicant? Well, hopefully, you’ve picked up on the fact that you should integrate as much of this advice as possible into your everyday interactions because it’s applicable beyond just applying to an Ivy League institution. If you can adopt these recommendations and practice them as often and consistently as possible, you will likely find success no matter where you end up attending college.

At the end of the day, each Ivy League institution (much like each non-Ivy League institution) offers its own unique experience. When considering applying to any one of these schools, you should conduct extensive research to determine which schools best match you and what you’re looking for in a college or university.

I’d advise against pursuing these schools simply for name-brand value or because of external pressure from family or peers. You are the one who will be attending college for the next few years, so it is vital to find schools that resonate with your current passions and will prepare you for your future ambitions. If you do adequate research, you may just find that an Ivy League institution isn’t your cup of tea. Remember, there are more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States! It is a fallacy to believe that everyone who attends an Ivy League school will be happy and successful or that everyone who doesn’t attend one will be miserable.

However, if you do find that an Ivy League school offers an environment in which you'll thrive, by all means, put together a competitive application, and go forward with the confidence that you'll make your future alma mater proud. 


Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."

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