Every Ivy League school has its own set of characteristics and attributes that define its traditions as an institution.
Although they have a long history dating back to 1636 with the establishment of Harvard, followed by Yale in 1701, and Princeton in 1746, the Ivy League schools today carry on some of the same standards today, but also molded by the digital era and technology revolution.
As the acceptance rates at these premier institutions become more competitive than ever, the pressure on the nation’s highest achieving high school students has become sky high as parents begin training and guiding their children as early as elementary school.
Every year, I witness the heartbreak of a rejection letter, and the incredible thrill (and relief) of a student who has put in all his or her hard work to get that coveted Ivy League acceptance letter.
But what and who are these Ivy League schools?
While each institution strives to admit a diverse student body, you will find some characteristics that are prevalent among these elite institutions of higher learning. I’ve had the opportunity visit each and every one of these institutions during my college days at these peer institutions.
There’s certainly an amount of rivalry to be said of these universities. I’d say the rivalry for the most part is a friendly one and of mutual respect. After all, after getting in students rarely speak of their high school accomplishments. It just goes without saying.
Whether you’re interested in attending an Ivy League school or want to learn more about each of the institutions, I hope to shed some light on the characteristics of these Ivy League schools so that you may find one that is most suitable for you.
And hopefully, you can make your decision based on facts as opposed to merely the prestige of the institution.
Harvard’s admits roughly 1600 students per year where some of the brightest minds and burgeoning leaders. Most students will major in Economics, Government, Political Science, whereas departments are equally strong, including Biology, Chemistry, among others.
The students at Harvard tend to be extremely high achieving students. But not everyone there is smart.
Of all the universities, Harvard may very well be the most political in the fact that they accept nearly 15% of their students are legacies of parents.
In addition, there is the infamous “Z List,” a secretive list where Harvard tracks children of famous alumni and politicians. Students on the Z List get preferential treatment and are almost certain to be admitted. Malia Obama was certainly on Harvard’s Z list, for example.
At Harvard, students compete every year to get into the top companies, whether it’s Goldman Sachs or McKinsey. Landing a job or internship at these companies is a dream come true for many students. But just because you’re from “Hahvahd” doesn’t mean it’s a shoo-in, as you will be competing with many of your classmates to land a spot at competitive firms.
Princeton is known for its academic strengths, in particular mathematics, physics, economics within the STEM fields, and English, political science, philosophy, and psychology in the humanities. Unlike many of its Ivy League counterparts, Princeton is focused on an undergraduate education, and this is evident by none other than its 5200 undergraduates and 2500 graduate students.
Princeton is, plain and simple, an academic powerhouse – and this is evident from none other than its coursework. Princeton has a strong emphasis and focus on theory as opposed to applications. Unlike a school like Stanford or MIT, Princeton shines in its purest pursuit of knowledge.
Even in its introductory CS101 class, you will be finding yourself doing a practice set on the Traveling Salesman problem and applying your algorithmic thinking there as opposed to building a simple mock application of Facebook. The birth of the field of computer science began at Princeton where Alan Turing invented the first computer.
Princeton has a long history for its strengths in mathematics, with prominent Fields Medallists like John Milnor, Terence Tao, Manjul Bhargava, and Edward Witten. The Nobel Prize of Economics and Abel Prize was awarded to John Nash, perhaps the most prominent figure at the university, who supposedly wrote mathematical formulas and insights in the chalkboard at Fine Hall late in the evenings.
At Princeton, much of the social scene revolves around the eating clubs on Prospect Ave, known as “The Street.” Eating clubs are social scenes where students have their meals together by day, and turn into a night club in the evening. The Frist Campus center is also a hubbub of student activity and where prominent firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lazard, among others, like to recruit.
Yale is located in New Haven, Connecticut and is known for their strengths in English and Comparative Literature. That’s not to say that they aren’t strong in other disciplines in math, science, and economics, either – students at Yale are well equipped with academic and extracurricular opportunities and study with the world’s brightest.
Over 19 of the Supreme Court Justices are Yale alumni, including Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor. Bill and Hilary Clinto famously met each other at the Law School, which is considered the top law school in the country. Yale’s strengths in political science are truly unmatched as many of their alumni have gone on to assume prominent positions in Congress.
In the technology sector, Yale has prominent alumni including Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest and Emmett Shear and Justin Kan, founders of Twitch TV which eventually got acquired by Amazon.
I’ve always said that the beauty of these institutions isn’t necessarily the education received, but the incredibly bright and ambitious peers you meet. This was true for none other than the founders Twitch TV, the offspring of Justin.TV, a live video streaming that captured the daily lives of Yale undergrads.
Yale recently established a partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS), and established a campus where students could now apply to Yale-NUS and leverage the academic, extracurricular, and research opportunities from both universities. Yale-NUS is slightly easier to get into than Yale and is a great option should students choose to pursue it.
Columbia is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York and boasts an Ivy League education in perhaps the most bustling, active city in the world. With the easy access to the culture that New York has to offer, students get an incredible exposure to Central Park, Lincoln Center, and the Broadway.
Columbia is known for the Core Curriculum, where students receive a truly well rounded liberal arts education including contemporary civilization, literature, writing, art, music and the frontiers of science. Students may also apply to the Fu Foundation of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS).
Students study with the world’s leading writers, scientists, and scholars, all within reach and within the context of a diverse and international student body. Famous alumni include Barack Obama, the recent President of the United States, and Ruth Ginsburg, our Supreme Court Justice.
5. University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania, or UPenn for short, is located in the heart of Philadelphia. Founded in1755 by Benjamin Franklin, UPenn strives to train leaders in commerce, government, and public policy through its liberal arts curriculum.
When high achieving students apply to UPenn, they typically aim for the Wharton School, which is the top feeder school into Wall Street as students vie for positions at bulge bracket investments banks. Famous alumni include none other than Elon Musk, who studied in the Wharton School of Business and double majored in economics and physics, and Warren Buffet, one of the most savvy investors in the world and the proponent of value investing.
I strongly believe that UPenn students receive really the quintessential college experience, as I’ve traveled frequently to hang out with friends at UPenn given it was just a 1.5 hour train ride from Princeton. From Spring Fling, which is an annual party where they host famous singers like Drake and Jay Z to perform, to all the magnificent restaurants that downtown Philadelphia has to offer, UPenn students get plenty of exposure to college life outside of mere academics.
UPenn also has specialized programs, such as the Jerome Fisher M&T program that blends together management and technology in an integrated curriculum. UPenn is known to pass out minors like candy, with minimal requirements to attain a minor in math or psychology, for instance, which helps boost the resume.
Located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown maintains a commitment to an undergraduate liberal arts education with its free spirited, open-minded students that comprise roughly 6,000 undergraduates. Brown is by far the most liberal of all the Ivy Leagues, empowering students to explore their creativity and unbridled passions.
Brown is known for its Open Curriculum, where students could have the flexibility to virtually take any courses they want to satisfy their distribution requirements and also design their own concentration should they pursue it. But just because it’s flexible doesn’t mean it’s easy – the courses at Brown, like most Ivy Leagues, are extremely demanding and challenging.
Brown allows its students to take all their classes pass/fail, which is unique among all the Ivy Leagues and so as to discourage the competitiveness of its student body. This is always an advantage for students who struggle in more difficult courses, but also allows the students to truly pursue their academic passions without having to constantly think about the grade they’ll earn.
Famous alumni at Brown include Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, and Emma Watson, the star in the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Lastly, Brown is has the famous Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), the only one in the Ivy League that combines an undergraduate education and professional studies in medicine in a single eight year program.
Dartmouth is the smallest Ivy League university and is famously known as “The College on the Hill,” located up north on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. Given its small size and rural area, Dartmouth’s tight knit community has forged strong bonds and friendships among its student body.
As Dartmouth uses a quarter system, students only take three courses at a time, but at a rigorous and lightspeed pace. The 10-week quarters provdie students opportunities to study abroad and pursue internships during the year.
You will find incredibly brilliant professors such as Thomas Cormen, the author of the famous Algorithms that is used by universities across the country. From Greek life to the Outing club to newspapers and political organizations, the students here get exposure to an excellent well rounded experience.
Dartmouth is truly a bubble and has almost a high school dynamic in that everyone knows each other or at least has seen each other on campus. In junior year, students will get tapped into secret societies, and has a unique social scene.
Dr. Seuss and Robert Frost are among its most famous alumni who played a role in literature and poetry, as well as Timoth Geithner, the 75th US Secretary of Treasury and American economic policy maker.
Located in Ithaca, Cornell has a rigorous academic environment that in spans the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Architecutre, Art and Planning and the School of Hotel Administration. Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration is the best in the country and offers a top notch education for those who seek this field of study.
Cornell is also known to have the strongest engineering program among the Ivy Leagues. This comes as no surprise given that engineering is usually among the most difficult majors and Cornell is known for its extremely rigorous academic curriculum.
Cornell has seven dining halls and a beautiful campus with gothic architecture that is the quintessential Ivy League experience. Bill Nye the Science Guy, an American science presenter and mechanical engineer, and Toni Morrison, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a famous American novelist, are famous graduates of Cornell.
The student organizations at Cornell are robust, with over 1,000 clubs ranging from A Capella, dance troups, Bridges to Community, among others, that foster personal awareness and belonging.
Cornell typically has one of the higher acceptance rates among schools in the Ivy League, but don’t mistake that for a knock on its prestige. Cornell is easily one of the most difficult Ivy Leagues to graduate from given its sheer demanding academic curriculum.
Outside of the Ivy League, there are also other top universities that deserve notable mentions.
Located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Stanford may very well be the 21st century version of Harvard. Not only are its academics superb, but what it lacks in history and tradition it more than makes up for given its standing at the forefront of technology and entrepreneurship.
Stanford recently announced that they will no longer publicize its acceptance rates, which is a first among its rival universities, and speaks to the incredible demand of students applying to the school.
Stanford has graduated its fair share of tech entrepreneurs, including the Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snapchat. With the close access to high tech Silicon Valley venture capital investors on Sandhill road and the larges companies in the world, undergraduates have a unique access that is truly unsurpassed.
Unlike Princeton, Stanford values application over pure intellectual pursuits, and how the application of knowledge could play a role in society amid the digital and technological revolution, which is a highly valuable undertaking.
The campus is also amazing with the rich Spanish colonial architecture and clean, well-kept dorms.
10. University of Chicago
From Milton Friedman to Eugene Fama, University of Chicago, or UChicago for short, has spearheaded many of the prevalent economic theories of our time, from Keynesian to monetarism to new classical macroeconomics based on rational expectations.
The UChicago Economics department, considered one of the world’s foremost economics departments, has awards 12 Nobel Prizes Laureates in the field of Economics, more than any other university in the world. UChicago’s influence on public policy, law, economics, political science, and business has been revolutionary to modern day society. Overall, UChicago has one of the highest concentrations of Nobel Laureates of any university in the world.
The undergraduate education is unparalleled, and often noted for its intense academic rigor within the context of a liberal arts education. The graduate professional schools are outstanding as well, including the Booth School of Business, the Law School, Pritzer School of Medicine, and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies.
Located in Hyde Park, south side of downtown Chicago, the university has a wonderful blend of culture and an intellectually stimulating atmosphere that makes it one of the dream schools for the most ambitious of high school students.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT for short, has one of the most brilliant mathematicians and scientists of any undergraduate university. If you look through the prestigious competitions like the Putnam Mathematics Competition, you will find a heavy concentration of undergraduates placing in the Top 500.
Or, if you look through the students who competed in the annual Intel Science and Engineering Fair or Regeneron Science Talent Search, you will often find a heavy concentration of them attending MIT.
That is because, quite frankly, MIT values strong math and science students as opposed to its Ivy League counterparts, which often may seek other future world leaders or a diverse student body with strengths in the humanities as opposed to strictly math and science talent.
To uphold the school’s often eccentric and mathematical nature, the majors are labeled by course numbers. The largest degree programs at MIT tend to be Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (Course 6-2), Computer Science and Engineering (Course 6-3), Mechanical Engineering (Course 2), Physics (Course 8), and Mathematics (Course 18).
MIT has strong professional schools including the Sloan School of Management, which is commonly ranked the #1 undergraduate business school in the country, in addition to UPenn Wharton and Berkeley Haas. Famous alumni include Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist known for his work in quantum mechanics.
The California Institute of Technology, or Caltech for short, is a small, private research university located in Pasadena, CA established in 1891 and is often ranked as one of the world’s top universities. Famous alumni include Linus Pauling, the Nobel Laureate in chemistry, and Kip Thorne, the recently Nobel Prize winning physicist.
Caltech boasts a small student of roughly 960 undergraduates with the highest average SAT scores in the country. The prerequisites to graduate are intense, including differential equations, applied mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, which is atypical of other universities.
Caltech has a friendly rivalry with MIT, where each year its respective students will pull pranks on each other during the Campus Preview Weekend for freshmen. MIT has stolen Caltech’s antique Fleming Cannon and transported it across the country to its own campus.
In fact, interestingly enough, one of the questions in Caltech’s application is for the applicant to describe a time when they pulled a prank on someone. Clearly, this imbedded as part of the school’s unique and frisky culture.
The Caltech Beavers compete in 13 intercollegiate sports in the NCAA Division III’s Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. While sports isn’t something boasts about, it is commonly known that if you attend Caltech you can more likely than not qualify to compete in their varsity sports teams.
I was recently interviewed by US News and World Report editor Courtney Rubin on my process for the early action/decision entitled “The Early Edge.” The early action is an excellent way to take advantage of the higher acceptance rates at these competitive universities. Certainly, one might argue that the early action pool is also much more talented and competitive than the regular decision pool. But when you have a chance to signal to the university that they are your indeed first choice, I always advise my students to take that opportunity and put your best foot forward.
In the article, I discussed that the early action round may also be an opportunity for an applicant to test the waters of their application. This usually only applies if you are a very strong candidate, and for some reason just happened to get rejected by one of the easier early action universities that we expected to get into (ie, Georgia Tech, University of Michigan). Perhaps we wrote something risky in the personal statements that we expected to have a huge payoff, but didn’t happened to work, for example. As a result, we may take a safer approach and recalibrate for other universities in the regular round.
This is a more nuanced and strategic approach that I see very few college admissions consultants take. From my view, the personal statement is a matter of risk and reward, and sometimes we have to make these decisions whether to write something more controversial and risky to stand out, or take a safer, conservative route to land that acceptance letter. I won’t mention what my students write about here, but these are some elements that my students and I work together to consider.
The early action process is statistically a great opportunity to take advantage of. Let’s take a quick look at the numbers. Stanford boasts an acceptance rate of ~4%, but their early action acceptance rate is over 10%. Princeton and Harvard boast an acceptance rate of 5%, but their early action acceptance rate is 15%, nearly triple the overall acceptance rate. Cornell’s overall acceptance rate is around ~12%, but their early decision acceptance rate is nearly 25%! So yes, I absolutely recommend my students to take advantage of that early action/decision to leverage the high acceptance rates to increase their odds of getting in.
When the top universities in the world have such low acceptance rates hovering in the single digits, you have to play the probabilities to your advantage. Let me make a factual statement: If you don’t apply, you have a zero chance at getting in. Yes, you heard me. And I think we can all agree on that statement, objectively speaking. In fact, last year I worked with a student who was rejected from Rice, waitlisted from Dartmouth, but accepted to Yale. Most people would argue that Yale is a better university than Rice or Dartmouth, but when push comes to shove, we are playing with probabilities at the end of the day.
You can mitigate the low acceptance rates by applying everywhere (yes, you heard that right – all 8 Ivy Leagues/Stanford/UChicago/MIT/Caltech – type schools), as well as putting your best foot forward by crafting together a powerful application for each university.
Taking advantage of the high early acceptance rates at these schools definitely helps. But I’d also like to warn that getting deferred or rejected in the early round does not mean the end of the world. I’ve had students who were deferred early to Stanford, but ended up getting into Harvard and Princeton, for example. I’ve also had students who were accepted early to Stanford but rejected from Duke, Columbia, among others. What does this mean?
It simply means that the college admissions process isn’t perfect. There are real human beings (admissions officers, if you will) who are analyzing these applications behind closed doors. There isn’t a single algorithm or formula that determines your fate, but there are factors that you can take advantage of to increase your probabilities of success. As one of the top college admissions consultants in the country, I’ve seen all shades of the spectrum when it comes to navigating this complex college admissions process.
All my students submit highly compelling applications that put their best foot forward to maximize their odds of success. In fact, I’ve had students tell me that they don’t care what happens in the end because they know there’s nothing else they could have done to present the best possible application to the admissions officers. They’re not only confident in my process, but they know themselves that we’ve finagled every crevice to put them front and center as compelling applicants. After we’ve spent tremendous time and energy poring into the personal statements and polishing that final application before submission, we leave it in the hands of the admissions gods to determine their fate.
But I can’t emphasize how important it is to polish that application to make sure it’s picture perfect. Because if you don’t, even if you play the odds, you’re not playing with a very strong hand that would give you an opportunity to get admitted. And that’s what exactly IvyCollegeAdmit program accomplishes – perfecting an application that would maximize your odds of success.
As rising high school seniors prepare for another competitive admissions round this coming application cycle, a big factor to watch for this year’s application cycle is the discontinuation of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition. For those who are new to this, the Siemens Westinghouse competition is a highly prestigious research competition offered for high school students across the country that selects students based on their cutting edge research performed typically through university affiliation or through highly competitive summer programs.
In the past, the 18 page, double spaced research paper for the Siemens Competition is submitted in September, and students find out their semifinalist standing (usually top 500 or so in the country) in October, right before the early application deadlines. Many of my students have gone on to win semifinalist and regional finalist in this competition, which is extremely helpful and an award that they include before the early application deadline due November 1st.
Now that this competition has been discontinued, it generally means a few things:
The sophomores who placed semifinalist or higher in the previous year’s Siemens Competition have a significant leg up on this year’s (Class of 2023) application cycle students. Very few sophomores place in the Siemens Competition, which is primarily given to juniors.
The Intel Science Talent Science and Engineering Fair carries an even greater weight than before. In the past, those with ISEF awards were considered strong, but now that the Siemens Competition has been discontinued there are fewer students to compete with (minus the overlap – both Siemens and ISEF semifinalists).
Students who attend a competitive summer science program this year don’t reap the same awards they would have in the past. The juniors who attend competitive science summer programs this year still have an opportunity to compete in the Regeneron STS competition, but that one carries less weight because they won’t find out until January/February, after they have already submitted their application. Last year I had two students who placed Top 300 and Top 40 respectively in the Regeneron STS competition, including one who won a $25,000 scholarship.
The Siemens Competition requires an 18 page, double spaced research paper typically under supervision of a mentor through a university lab. The Regeneron STS competition also requires a research paper, but also a personal statement in addition to the research report. Again, the application essays and personal statements for summer programs, national research competitions, and of course, the college applications continue to play a significant role in the process.
Attending a science summer program is helpful for this year’s rising juniors as it demonstrates one’s intellectual curiosity through research, but it carries less weight due to the inability to compete in the Siemens Westinghouse competition. While the exact percentage of Siemens Competition semifinalists (or higher) who attend Ivy Leagues or top 10 universities is difficult to find, as a former Siemens Competition semifinalist myself and with peers who did place in the competition, it’s one of those things that does increase one’s chances to the top universities.
These research competitions are the type of competitions that Ivy League admissions officers have looked for in applicants for years – Intel Science Talent Search, Intel Science and Engineering Fair, Siemens Westinghouse, and Regeneron STS have given students a leg up when it comes to getting in. But that does not mean everyone gets in simply because of these competitions – especially those who write subpar personal statements and don’t know how to present their narrative through the applications.
The 2018 results are finally in for the Class of 2022!
75% of IvyCollegeAdmit students were accepted into Ivy League universities.
This year, I worked with a total of 16 students for the 2018 application cycle for the Class of 2022. Needless to say, given the competitive admissions climate and acceptance rates hovering at anywhere from 4-7% for the Ivy League or top 10 universities, IvyCollegeAdmit students performed incredibly well. My students have been accepted to and will be attending:
Berkeley MET / Brown (1)
This marks a total of 12 out of 16 students, or a 75% acceptance rate to the Ivy League and/or Top 10 university – an incredibly strong track record when the average acceptance rate at these schools hovers anywhere from 4-7%. This was by far the most competitive application cycle in history. Here’s some sample acceptance letters from this admissions cycle:
Outside of the Ivy League/Stanford/UChicago/MIT/Caltech schools, my other students still performed phenomenally well, including acceptances to Berkeley, Georgia Tech Biomedical Engineering program (ranked #1 in the country), University of Michigan, UCLA, Carnegie Mellon, Northeastern, and Boston College, just to name a few. This year also marks the second year of the relatively new inaugural Berkeley MET program, which accepts 40 students in the entire country for a less than 3% acceptance rate. One of my students was able to secure a spot in this highly competitive program.
My students hailed from several Bay Area high schools as well as the East Coast, including Harker School, Lynbrook High, Gunn HS, Aragon High, Saratoga HS, Juniper Serra HS, Milton Academy, University High, Lexington HS, Highland School of Technology, Auburn HS, among others. Roughly 60% of my clients are from the Bay Area, and another 40% are from all around the country, including East Coast schools.
2018 Acceptance Rate
University of Chicago
Ivy League Average
The average acceptance rate at the Ivy League or top 10 university was roughly 6.7%! Despite this the lowest acceptance rate in history, IvyCollegeAdmit students had a 75% acceptance rate to at least one of the Ivy League or top 10 universities, which is truly an incredible feat and more than 10x the regular acceptance rate at the creme of the crop colleges.
We were able perform remarkably well because of the powerful applications that we crafted together to the universities. While we may have made it “look easy” in the most competitive application cycle in history, we poured a tremendous amount of time and energy into the personal statements, supplemental material, application review, and interview preparation to get these results.
I am very proud of my students, their achievements, and the spellbinding applications that resulted in an impressive outcome for the Class of 2022 in perhaps the most competitive admissions process to date. The Ivy College Admit program has continued its excellence of success and extremely high track record of placing students into the most competitive colleges in the country.
Here’s a sample of some additional acceptance letters from this admissions cycle for the Class of 2022:
Note: Past performance is not indicative of future results given the highly competitive nature of college admissions.
College admissions isn’t perfect. There are a lot of flaws when it comes to college admissions, in particular the somewhat vague and mystical standards of admission at the Ivy League and other comparable universities. As a high school student, you’re placed into a system where you have to go above and beyond what is considered the standard requirements for admissions to gain acceptance.
At Oxford, Cambridge, and top universities in Asia, this is less so. You take a national exam (or series of exams), and if you fall within a certain score, then you will more or less get into a particular school based on a sliding scale. Admissions is clear cut, highly objective, and standardized. But in the US, that’s not the case – in fact, far from it.
Getting top SAT scores, GPA, and AP exams by no means guarantees or promises anything – and in fact, sometimes you’re expected to go above and beyond to have a shot at the very top universities. This includes extracurricular activities, national competitions, summer programs, and the list goes on.
But how do you expect a high school student who’s approaching this for the first time to be aware of all these opportunities if they’re not stated explicitly as requirements or standards of admission? Granted, the lucky few who are aware of these outside opportunities (such as math/science Olympiads, competitive research programs, extracurricular activities, etc.) start preparing as early as middle school.
But those from a less fortunate and lower socioeconomic background aren’t aware of these opportunities, but they’re still (more or less) held to similar standards for admission. So what the US needs to do is standardize the requirements for admission so that everyone has an equal opportunity.
The SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Exams more or less accomplish this, but not if so many students are getting perfect scores to such extent where the value of these exams become almost meaningless when it comes to admission to the top universities like HYPSM. Perhaps we should have a second battery of exams for the very top students and make those standardized or required so that the standards for admission more objective.
What we end up with, however, is a system where assuming you have the top test scores, grades, and extracurriculars, your ultimate admission depends on the application and personal statement you package together. So admissions to the Ivy League becomes a borderline essay writing contest where the top students are accepted based on the quality of their personal experiences expressed through the essays.
And on the flipside, there are students who have weaker scores and grades who get in every year. At any top 10 or so school, roughly 50% of the class has 4.0’s or higher, 30% with 3.7-3.99, and 20% with GPA’s significantly lower than 3.7. So how do the students with GPA’s lower than 3.7 get in? Certainly, athletes, URM’s, and legacies definitely play a factor, but 20% is still a significant portion of the student body. Again, it comes down to the personal “unique” experiences and qualities expressed through the essays.
It’s not a perfect process, and certainly not a fair one. It’s as if the admissions committee were to judge your character and personality through a 650 word typed personal statement and supplemental essays – a far from a perfect process – without truly getting to know who you are. But ultimately, you have to play the hand you’re dealt.
Getting into a top university is no easy feat – especially for Asian Americans. We all know that college admissions is competitive, but how competitive is it? In fact, when I speak to parents and students across the country, one of the common misconceptions I encounter is that students and parents don’t really understand how competitive it really is. And while stories of students getting into one of the HYPSM float around, those numbers are far fewer than one may realize.
Let me break down some numbers for you. Assume a given class has on average 1600 students. This may vary by school – for example, Harvard’s undergraduate class size is ~1700, Princeton ~1300, Yale ~1400, etc. With a class size of 1600 students, roughly 20% of the class size are Asian American. While this percentage has slowly trickled up higher over the past 3 or so years due to more lawsuits about affirmative action, we can safely assume that number.
So let’s take 20% x 1600 = 320 per class. Let’s assume there are nine of the very top schools HYPSM + Columbia, Penn, Chicago, and Caltech – that means 9 x 320 = 2880 < 3000 spots in the entire country. And if you only consider HYPSM, that means there are only 5 x 320 = ~1500 spots in the entire country for Asian Americans to get in!
The odds of getting one of those spots is extremelylow. Compare and contrast that to another school like Berkeley, which doesn’t bias against ethnicity and race and has a much higher acceptance rate for Asian Americans – in fact, 50% of the student body is Asian. So when you hear of an Asian American getting into one of the top universities, understand that is an incredibly difficult feat – you really have to be stellar in your academics, extracurriculars, and of course the application in order to seal the deal.
So ~1500-3000 spots in the entire country given the millions of applicants that apply every year. Will one of those spots be yours? Feel free to schedule an initial consultation today to gain insight into how to navigate the college admissions process.
The modern day 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score student is no longer impressive.
Back then, the Ivy Leagues had a rubric called an Academic Index that was used to rank students according to their academic profile on the basis of their GPA, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Exam scores. Stronger scores and more exams would correlate to a higher Academic Index, which would be one of the factors for admission. In addition, the extracurricular profile would get assigned a graded score (for some schools it was on a scale of 1-5, or 1-10), and that score would be assigned to the candidate as well.
But over the course of the past few years, the bar has been raised significantly and the standards for admission have evolved tremendously. The Academic Index is no longer relevant, and in its place is a rubric that requires much higher standards to demonstrate academic proficiency. Whereas a top academic index would simply mean top grades and test scores, nowadays that’s no longer the case. Too many students have 4.0’s and strong SAT scores to make those academic stats the norm, and instead you now have to do much more on top of that to get in.
The same goes for extracurricular activities. Back then, being involved in school activities and well-rounded was enough to merit a strong extracurricular score. But now, the standards are much higher and you need stronger ingredients to get in. It’s not unusual to see high school students with anywhere from 10-15 different extracurriculars on their resume (15!? How on earth do you do 15 activities, you might ask?) on their application to demonstrate the degree of their involvement.
As a consultant who has consistently placed students into the top universities every year, I understand both the level of competition and academic/extracurricular profile that is required to gain a spot at these coveted universities. While certainly I will evaluate a student’s course selection and standardized test taking schedule, what’s more important is developing a strong academic and extracurricular profile for the student so that the applicant can compete against the country’s best and brightest.
For a math and science student, it may mean qualifying for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), or entering into the prestigious Intel Science and Engineering Fair, for example. For a student in the humanities, it may mean placing a spot at the Telluride Association Summer Program, or earning a 1st place award in a competition within Model United Nations, for instance. The national competitions are what separate the boys from the men, or girls from the women – not merely grades and test scores.
The problem becomes thus two fold:
Are students and parents aware or knowledgeable of these outside academic competitions or extracurricular activities that would increase a student’s chances at acceptance?
How do you begin to prepare for these competitions or gain a leadership position in these extracurricular activities to increase your odds of success?
Sometimes, I will meet parents and students in their senior year with only strong grades and test scores and maybe 2-3 awards, and they think that their child who has a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score is going to Harvard. Well, you’re in for some tough luck because it’s too late to compete in those national competitions. At that point, it’s a matter of padding your extracurricular activities which you can still accomplish, as well as writing strong personal statements and application.
You still have a shot at getting in, of course, but at a diminished probability due to lack of awareness of taking advantage of all those opportunities outside of the standard requirements of admission in GPA and standardized test taking. In the college admissions world, if you really want the best shot at getting in, all the stars have to align.
During our consultations,I guide the student onexactly the steps and strategies needed to perform well at these regional and national academic competitions and earn a leadership positions in these targeted extracurriculars. We ensure that no stone gets left unturned, and no opportunity gets left out depending on the student’s interests and intellectual capabilities, whether in the humanities or the math/sciences.
In the college admissions world, there are certainly high impact activities and low impact activities. A seasoned admissions consultant like myself understands the difference among the opportunity set of activities, and sets expectations and priorities straight for my students so that they know exactly the path to pursue and the activities to tackle to make them competitive in the eyes of the admissions officers.
Just to give an example, let’s take the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), for instance. Many students prepare early on to qualify for this national competition, which would dramatically raise your academic profile in the eyes of the admissions officers.
So how do you go about getting a research internship?
How do you know which research project to take on?
How do you write your research paper to increase your odds of getting an award?
These are just some of the common questions that I guide my students through – and this is just for one competition. The truth of the matter is that there are literally hundreds of competitions, and understanding ho how to take advantage of these opportunities while effectively maximizing your resources in terms of time and effort to achieve these milestones plays a tremendous role in my quarterly consultations that I have with my private consulting clients.
Over the course of our time together, it’s common for some of the email correspondences with my clients to span over 100 emails per given year, including questions about how to raise their academic and extracurricular profile, essays to summer programs, as well as college applications, depending on the year the students joins. That’s how closely I work with my students to help them get into the university of their dreams.
And while I often emphasize the importance of the personal statement to get in (and still do), the weaker the grades, scores, and extracurriculars, the lower the chances – that’s without a doubt. I’ve had a much easier time getting a strong student academically and extracurricular-wise than a student who is weaker.
For weaker students, the personal statement may sometimes be enough to sway the minds of the admissions officers, and that’s where we really shine and I know I am going above and beyond to help the candidate. I’ve always said the weakest student I’ve ever helped get into an Ivy League university had a 3.3 unweighted GPA and a subpar SAT score. Like I said, it has happened before but it’s much harder to accomplish.
Parents and students who think that a 4.0 and 1600 SAT score (while it sounds great in a dinner table conversation with friends and family) are enough to get into a top university are in for a huge surprise. Because those stats are no longer considered impressive in the eyes of the admissions committee – those stats are considered very average. In fact, there were 12,000 students who applied to Stanford last year with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
In today’s digital era, the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score student 10-15 years ago means accomplishingmuch more todayand requires much higher standards to be considered truly competitive and creme of the crop. Given extremely low acceptance rates of 4-5% and a rising population with millions applying to college every year, along with the improvement in the quality of education and resources, you can imagine why that may be the case. Some students I’ve worked with have been preparing as early as 5th grade so that they are way ahead of the curve by the time they enter high school when all the marbles are on the table.
Getting into a top university is difficult enough, and they’re crapshoots for anyone given the incredibly low acceptance rates. But if you really want to maximize your chances of getting in, you need to do everything right to get that acceptance letter. And that means a stellar academic and extracurricular profile and of course, a powerful application to seal the deal.
Note: A stellar academic/extracurricular profile with a weak application can lead to rejections, and vice versa as well. No one said college admissions was easy! 🙂
Let me tell you a story. Imagine that you had a friend named John.
John was a varsity track and field athlete, volunteered at a senior citizen center, and was involved in some non-profit, but only had decent but not stellar grades and scores. In every subject that you took with this guy named John, you seemed to edge him out in different ways – from SAT scores (John only had a 1520 – nothing to blink twice at), so-so grades with a unremarkable 3.8 GPA, and average SAT Subject Test Scores – 760 on Math Level 2, 750 on US History, and 720 on English Literature.
John was your competitor that you’d never acknowledge publicly, but you knew you were smarter than John in every aspect – you crushed your SAT’s and got a perfect 1600, earned a 4.0 GPA, 800’s across the board on your SAT Subject Tests, and even scored top 500 on the prestigious USA Physics Olympiad. Everything you did seemed to be better than John, who you appreciated for his efforts but you still secretly knew you were better in almost every category. The only thing that John probably had over you was the attractive girl he asked out on his prom date while you were too busy focusing on how to get a leg up on him in college admissions.
Senior year rolls around, and you quickly learn from your best friend that John is applying to the same early school as you are! Both of you want to attend the prestigious Stanford University in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Who doesn’t these days? With the California sunshine and and the close proximity to billion dollar startups and easy access to venture capital, it’s almost a no-brainer.
Even though it’s sunny side California, you can taste the advent of winter from the colder-than-usual water bottles that your parents bring home from Costco. As both of you wait anxiously for the results, you learn on October 16th that you just placed semifinalist in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition. A flood of euphoria rocks your inner core as you let out a scream just loud enough to be inaudible and avoid laser-like stares in the middle of the library. Meanwhile, John is carrying on as usual, hanging out in the middle of campus with his varsity letterman jacket, and occasionally wrapping his arm around his newfound girl. Walking past John, you enviously flash him a smile and think secretly to yourself that there’s no way he would ever get in over you now with your prestigious award.
Flash forward a few weeks and it’s now December 15th. The day the acceptance letters come out. Ice cold runs through your veins as you brace yourself for the next 5 pivotal minutes of your life. Click.
“Unfortunately, we’re sorry to inform you that you have been deferred from Stanford…” A stone drops in your stomache. Tears flood down.
As you shut off your computer and grab your jacket, you walk outside only to hear sounds of cheers and screams outside. You see John high fiving his classmates and jumping up and down, waving his iPhone in the air. John just got into Stanford.
What the hell just happened?
Welcome to the world of college admissions.
What went wrong in this situation, and what could you do to prevent this? As a private college consultant for over 8 years, I’ve seen stories like this time and time again. More often than not, a high achieving student gets rejected from a top university, while another strong-but-not-great student gets in. Too many students are laser focused on the raw stats and numbers – a slightly higher SAT score, a slightly higher AP exam, etc. and tend to neglect the most important part of the whole process: the college applications and personal statements.
Sure, the grades, scores, and awards certainly help – but if you have all that and still write subpar personal statements that fails to reflect the voice that defines you, then you’re in for some tough luck. As emotions vacillate from acceptance to deferrals to rejections throughout high schools in the country, just remember that the most important ingredient to never overlook is the personal statement. Because at the end of the day that can mean the difference between an acceptance or deferral/rejection. And maybe even your future prom date.
I get asked questions about college admissions all the time.
Should my child play the piano or the oboe?
I just scored 790 on my SAT 2 Math subject test, should I retake it to get an 800?
Should I perform 100 hours of community service, or 500 hours of community service?
What are my chances to Stanford with a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score?
Should I take AP US History or double up on an AP science my junior year?
While these are all fair questions to ask and I guide my students through every step of the way in my private consulting program, I can tell you that even if you get a 4.0 GPA, 1600 SAT score, perform 500 hours of community service, and play the oboe, you won’t get into Stanford or any other Ivy League if you don’t know how to present yourself in the application, in particular writing thought provoking, compelling personal statements. This is the biggest misconception about college admissions – that with the top scores, grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurricular activities that you will ultimately get admitted into the university you’ve worked so hard for.
And if you’re one of the people who do believe that’s what it takes to get in, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Because getting in isn’t just about having a patent under your name or finding some groundbreaking innovation as a high school student. Even if you have the top scores, grades, national awards, and groundbreaking extracurriculars, you can still get rejected from every Ivy League school. I’ve seen this time and time again.
On the contrary, however, I’m not saying you should get low grades and scores, either. But after a certain point and threshold, your chances of getting into a top university highly depends on how well you write the personal statement and package the rest of your application – not on your raw academic and/or extracurricular achievements.
Every family and student I’ve spoken to who approached the college admissions process for the first time is surprised by the amount of sweat and tears that is goes into application season. And those who aren’t prepared early on for this whirlwind are quickly left in the dust and a state of panic, wondering how to approach this most crucial part of the college admissions process that will determine where the student will matriculate for the next four years.
What adds to this level of misconception are all the stories that parents, families, and students hear through the grapevine from their inner social circles. Soon enough, as you can imagine, rumors spread like wildfire and everyone has their own conception of what it really takes to get into a top university. “I heard Eric was accepted to Princeton because he was a semifinalist in the Chemistry Olympiad and Siemens Competition. Mark was accepted to Stanford because he won a gold medal in Tae Kwon Do. Dave got into Harvard because both his parents went there.”
Don’t get me wrong, getting those awards help. If you’re you’ve placed in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair or became state champion in the national debate competition, those awards will help get your application noticed. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get in. In fact, far from it – I’ve had high achieving, high octane prospective clients who reach out to me for help on their transfer application who literally got rejected to all the top schools they applied because they didn’t spend enough time on their application.
I feel for those students – and it’s definitely unfortunate given how hard they worked. I mean, you just spend four years of your life working your tail off and you got dinged everywhere. We can certainly blame the ultra low acceptance rates as a culprit, but the question is did your application or personal statement give you a chance at getting admitted in the first place? How strong of an application did you really put together? If you put together a strong application and it still didn’t work, certainly you can rest in peace that you tried your best and gave it your all. But if you didn’t, then you just shot yourself in the leg.
Personally, I’ve edited and read thousands of essays, in every shape or form. Most of the time I can tell right away when a personal statement has gone awry – that there is a very evident flaw in the essay that would diminish an applicant’s chances of admission. Or other times, the essay was just really mediocre and didn’t really put the student’s strongest foot forward.
While I certainly can’t guarantee everyone into a top university, I can tell you that my students are extremely pleased with the essays that they write. Not only are they satisfied with their personal statements and their completed application, but they are content that they performed to the best of their ability and did everything in their power to get admitted to these highly selective schools. After my students go through my program, there is no regret – we’ve put their best foot forward.
Just browse through College Confidential, a popular college admissions forum, and you’ll see students posting their stats – many with very strong academic and extracurricular profiles, but still getting knocked down in the process. Sure, it’s competitive. Acceptance rates are at all time lows and it will continue to be more competitive every year given the significant increase in applicants and the limited number of spots. The biggest misconception when it comes to college admissions is that you can get in with simply a strong academic and extracurricular profile alone.
What I don’t hear often enough are what are the steps and approaches that one took in their application. What did Eric, Mark or Dave write about in their personal statement? How did they construct a compelling story that demonstrated to the admissions officers their personal qualities that ultimately got them that acceptance letter? And while these are definitely more private and personal information that admitted students often don’t share, these are ultimately the factors that got the student in and separated them from the thousands of other applicants out there.
And I can guarantee you that’s something parents and students who have gotten into these top universities won’t tell you. Because what’s the point – why would they? They simply aren’t incentivized to and prefer to boast about how great their child is rather than sharing about what a great application they put together, perhaps with the help through a private college consultant like myself. Don’t make that mistake and neglect the application.
I highly suggest reading the essays and personal statements of successful candidates that did get accepted to top universities and understand on a more granular level why a particular student was admitted. It’s because the admissions officers can identify with the voice of the essay and understand the student on a much deeper and personal level. And once you get to that point and package together a compelling application, you know you have a strong shot at one of these top universities.
One of the biggest mistakes that you can make in the college admissions process is not taking your application seriously enough. And not knowing how to write the personal statement.
In that case, your best bet might be to hire a professional college consultant who understands how to help you craft a powerful personal statement and package your application together.
Most students simply don’t know what it takes to write a killer personal statement. And why should they? High school students have been brainwashed by their teachers in their AP English Language & Literature classes into thinking that superior writing means backing up your thesis with evidence and quotes from their literature books, and occasionally apply a flashy showcase of byzantine vocabulary I haven’t heard since taking my SAT exam over a decade ago. But this type of essay is the complete antithesis of what a strong personal statement should look like when it comes to college admissions.
The admissions officers aren’t looking for your analysis of Peter Singer’s philosophical constructs on utilitarianism, nor are they interested in learning about a historical analysis of the Second World War. They’re interested in who you are as a person. And how your experiences have shaped your perspective and the personal qualities that ultimately define who you are. They want to see the level of self reflection and introspection in your writing and how you think about and approach the world around you. Writing that type of personal statement simply doesn’t come naturally to most high school students.
Even as I write this, I am surprised by parents’ reactions when they find out come May that their child has been rejected by every single Ivy League school he/she has applied to, despite getting top grades, scores, and extracurriculars. All the blood, sweat, and tears that was put into academics and extracurriculars in the past four years goes out the window. This is not uncommon this day and age – in fact, it’s the norm. Don’t be surprised. As I’ve said before, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. In this day and age, you have to fight tooth and nail to get into one of these top universities, and the essay is where you stand out.
I’ve seen students every year, including valedictorians of their classes, who went through the process themselves who reach out to me to help them on their transfer application because they literally got turned down by every single Ivy League school. It could easily happen to you. There were 12,000 students who applied last year to Stanford with a perfect 4.0 GPA, and Princeton has stated repeatedly that if they can fill an entire class of valedictorians, they can easily do so. Don’t be one of those students who find out too late in the process and realize their mistake after they’ve already been rejected – it could easily happen to you.
That’s why if you want to have your college application done the right way, hire a professional college consultant to help maximize your chances of getting in. Consider it an investment in your education that will open up doors for the rest of your life. Whether it’s working in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, a degree from a top university goes a long way. That’s precisely why I founded Ivy College Admit – I’m here to help.