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.
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.
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 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 accomplishing much more today and 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! 🙂
In the admissions ball game, you are only as good as you are on paper. Although you may have spent hours on a particular activity in high school, if you do not capture that in the application in a meaningful manner, then you have done nothing in the admission officer’s eyes. And that means writing stellar application essays.
Remember the admissions officers never visit nor see you. All they get is the electronic pdf or 12 page printout that is your college application. Sure, you might argue there is the interview – but that accounts for a small portion of the admissions process and is typically done by alumni of the school – not the admissions officers themselves. So why do these amazing, well-qualified people still get rejected every year? Because they didn’t know how to write their personal statement.
Whether you get accepted or not really depends on how you present yourself in the application. All the blood, sweat, and tears that you put into your extracurricular and leadership activities are meaningless if you don’t know how to capture how your experiences shaped you in the personal statement, or the college application, in a meaningful manner.
Getting into an Ivy League college depends on how well you craft together that college application and demonstrate those personal qualities, leadership, and contribution to your community through the personal statement. The personal statement includes the supplemental essays for each university as well as the 650 word main common app essay. Ensuring that those essays form a powerful picture that represents the applicants personal qualities is the holy grail of college admissions.
I’ve seen students with perfect 1600 (or 2400) SAT scores and 4.0 GPA’s get turned down by the the Ivies. I’ve also helped and worked with lower achieving students with 1800 (out of 2400) SAT scores and 3.3 GPA get accepted into an Ivy League. In fact, I’ve always said the weakest student I’ve ever helped get into an Ivy League had a 3.3 unweighted GPA and 1180 on the SAT’s. Yes, you heard me right – and he was Asian American too – no hooks, no legacies, no NCAA athlete, nor URM.
Of course, getting tip top grades, strong SAT, SAT Subject, and AP test scores, and strong leadership and extracurricular activities help significantly with the process. In this day and age, getting those are almost required and a minimum threshold to get in. Pursue activities that you’re passionate about and demonstrate your well-roundedness and focus – we’ve all heard that over and over again. But you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?
There are literally tens of thousands of students with perfect 4.0 GPA’s, 1550+ SAT scores, National Merit Semifinalists, National AP Scholars, and the list goes on. These exams are no longer “enough” to differentiate one student from another given so many students boast these stats. The personal statement is the one differentiating factor that separates the 1600 SAT, 4.0 GPA student from the one who has a 1580 SAT and 3.9 GPA at the same high school. These stats are no longer “good enough” to differentiate one candidate from another – rather, they are typical scores and grades that the Ivy Leagues expect you to get.
The biggest mistake that students make is not taking their application seriously enough. This tends to happen with overachievers, who believe that their grades, test scores, and even national academic awards are enough to get them in. So yes, do pursue your passions and your interests, and work as hard as you can during your four years of high school. Just remember to capture and express all of your personal qualities in the college application itself, and write a genuine, palpable personal statement that helps the admissions officers understand the qualities that define you. Most of the time I can tell right away if a student will get accepted or rejected based on the essays alone.
I can’t tell you how many students every year tend to neglect the importance of these essays. If I were to give it a true weighting, I’d assign 50% of the admissions decision to the common app essay and recommendation letters, 25% to academics, 25% to extracurriculars. But this number can change drastically when the admissions committee is making decisions where nearly every strong applicant has perfect 4.0’s and top of the line 1550-1600 SAT scores.
In fact, I will bet that a student with a lower score, say 1300 SAT and 3.8 GPA with a stellar application and well written personal statement has a better shot than the 1600 SAT student with a poorly written personal statement at getting into the Ivy League. Princeton, my alma mater, states every year that if they could fill their entire class with valedictorians or 1600 SAT score students, they could do so easily.
At the end of the day, a strong student with high academic and extracurricular stats is only just that – another profile on paper to the admissions committee. That paper ultimately comes to life through the common app essays – who this candidate is, the applicant’s level of introspection and critical thinking, and the values and experiences that shape the applicant’s perspective. And sometimes, the admissions committee is even willing to overlook a student with low GPA/test scores if they can understand how that applicant thinks on a deeper level.
So how can you get into the Ivy League? Craft together a well thought out college application and personal statement that reflects the qualities that define you. Because at the end of the day, the bitter truth is that admissions to Ivy League schools is highly dependent on how well you present yourself on paper and draft your personal statement.