What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

This is the foliage of destiny.

So, you want to go to an Ivy League college for undergrad? Great! The only problem is, so do lots of other kids. College admissions at the nation’s most elite schools are more competitive than ever. According to the respective colleges websites, for the class of 2015 Harvard had a 6.3% undergraduate acceptance rate, Yale 7.4%, Princeton 8.5%, Columbia 6.9%. So, if you’re an ivy hopeful, what do you need in order to make sure you’re in that top percent that gets selected? This new blog series, brought to you by College Compass and Test Masters, should be your definitive guide to getting that acceptance letter from your dream school. I myself navigated these treacherous waters successfully in 2007, when I was admitted to Columbia, so I should make an excellent Virgil to your wide-eyed Dante as we descend through the circles of…elite college admissions.

“Never fear, Dante. As long as your GPA is pure, they cannot harm you.”

This first post is dedicated to the number one item these colleges look at on your application: your grades. There’s no getting around it, grades are the most important determinant of college acceptance anywhere, but there are many caveats that universities’ admissions officers usually don’t tell you. When I was touring some of these Ivy League type universities during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, there would always be someone at the info session who asked, “Do I/does my child need straight As in order to get into this school?” and the admissions officer would invariably give some nebulous response like, “We strongly prefer straight A students.”

So, if you don’t have straight As, are you done for? Not necessarily. During my time in high school, I received Bs in both semesters of pre-AP chemistry my sophomore year and in my first semester of AP Physics I, and I still got in. So it is possible to get a few Bs here and there and still get accepted to the Ivy League; however, some Bs are better than others. Notice that these Bs were in pre-AP and AP classes, and that the B in Physics the first semester went up to an A the second semester, showing improvement (I also managed to pull off a 5 on the AP Physics B exam, which I imagine helped “make up for” the B in the eyes of the admissions officers).

In general, you need to take as many AP (Advanced Placement) and/or IB (International Baccalaureate) classes as you can, depending on what program is offered at your school (my school offered both, so I did both AP and IB). These classes not only help you stand out from other applicants, they also are the classes that will best prepare you for the work load you will face when you actually get to Harvard or Stanford (actually, the classes there will probably be harder). If you don’t want to take all AP/IB classes, you might ask if you really want to go to one of these elite colleges in the first place, since you will essentially be signing up for four years of classes that are even harder than your high school ones.

Another way grades play into college admissions is class rank. At these info sessions I attended, another common question was “Do I/does my child need to be valedictorian in order to get into this school?” Again, admissions officers would often be evasive. The real answer is that it depends on what high school you go to. I graduated 40th in my class, out of about 800 seniors, putting me just at the top 5% of my class; however, I went to a very competitive public high school that sent many students to top colleges every year, so many of these schools knew my high school’s reputation, and knew that at my school the difference between valedictorian and 40th was only a tiny fraction of a GPA point. If you go to a high school where the top 10% regularly gets into the Ivy League, then you need to be in the top 10%. If you go to a high school where only the valedictorian gets in, then you need to be the valedictorian. If you’re not sure, ask seniors who have already been accepted where they are going to college and what their class rank was. Chances are if they got into a prestigious school, they’ll be happy to tell you. Alternatively, you can try asking your high school counselor, or if you have one, your high school college admissions counselor.

This is how champions are made.

Why are grades so important to these colleges? Why can’t you slack off in class, then make great scores on your SAT exam or AP exams or whatever in order to prove that you’re just as smart as that straight A kid? Because Ivy League schools aren’t just interested in kids who are smart. They want kids who are smart AND hard working, kids who are willing to jump through hoops and bend over backwards in order to be successful. You have to remember that the goal of these schools is to turn out as many successful (read as: rich/famous/renowned in their field) alumni as possible, because the more U.S. Presidents, Oscar winners, Nobel laureates, and Fortune 500 CEOs they turn out, the more publicity they get, the more grant money they get, the more donations they get, the more kids in the future will apply to their school, the more selective they can be, and round and round it goes. Being able to successfully play the GPA game is to them an indicator that you might be able to play all the various games that can lead to fame, riches, and prestige. And to do that, it’s not enough to just be smart. You have to work hard every day, turn in all your homework, participate in class, and study for every test.

Harvard Admissions Statistics, Yale Admissions Statistics, Princeton Admissions Statistics, Columbia Admissions Statistics

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

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