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

This entry was posted in Advice, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Seniors, Advice for Sophomores and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

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

    • Jordan says:

      Freshman Year, I suffered some severe medical conditions. Unfortunately my grades suffered. I got a C+ in Honors Algebra 3 and a B in Honors Physics(semester 2 only) and a B in Honors Spanish 3-4. I got As in the rest of my subjects which included art, Honors English, and PE.I was able to retake all of the classes except Spanish and get As. From sophomore year, I received straight As in Honors Precalc, Honors Biology, Advanced Art, AP European History, Honors English, and Honors Spanish 5-6. During junior year I also earned all As in AP Calculus AB, AP US History, AP Biology, AP English Language, Honors Spanish 7-8, and Honors Chemistry. My GPA is 4.77 for the past 3 years. My SAT scores are 2300. Even though I retook the classes in summer school, will my former grades from freshman year hurt me? Also where can I indicate my circumstances on the application?
      Pertaining to extracurricular, I was wondering if I am spreading myself too thin. My biggest accomplishment was the book I wrote about nutrition for high school students as well as my health struggles. I also created a club at my school called the diversity club which I have done for 2 years. The other clubs I am in include Key club(4 Years), National Honors Society(2 Years), Calculus Squad( 2 years), Society of Women Scholars(3 years), and AP bioneers(1 year). I have also danced on the side, but I don’t have any notable accomplishments in dance. I have also been a youth leader at my church during 9th and 10th grade, but I had to stop when I became a lifeguard which I have done for the past two years. Before that, I was a math tutor and a babysitter. I love science and I was an intern at TGEN, a biotech company, over the past summer. I also was my school’s choice for HOBY all girls state. Is this enough or too much or should I emphasize one of these activities? Thank you so much.

      • Bill says:

        Jordan,

        Whether your freshman grades will hurt you depends on your school’s policies. Some schools will simply switch your summer school grades with your regular year transcript, some will not. If you are worried about this, stop by your high school counselor’s office and ask for clarification. If you feel like you need to explain these grades, our recommendation is to avoid sounding like you are coming up with excuses (obviously a medical emergency does constitute a legitimate and genuine excuse – but you still want to avoid sounding like you’re making excuses). One of the best ways to accomplish this is to have other people make excuses for you! If you later had one of the instructors whose class you performed less than exemplary in during freshman year, and you subsequently aced your later class with that teacher, you could ask them for a recommendation.

        As far as your extracurriculars go, it sounds like you are doing great! Keep up the good work!

        Hope this helps!
        Bill

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

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

  5. Catherine says:

    Hi, I’m a sophmore right now and I really want to go to Columbia University, and I was wondering, does freshman year grades count for your overall GPA? And what approximately would be a good GPA overall?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Catherine,

      Yes, every year counts, including freshman year (and even second semester senior year – while it’s true that they decide to admit you before they know your second semester senior year grades, they can choose to rescind their offer of admission if you completely let senioritis take over – I have heard stories of this actually happening). What counts as a “good GPA” depends on many factors: different schools calculate GPA in different ways. When I was at Bellaire High School for instance, regular classes were on the traditional 4.0 scale, but pre-AP, pre-IB, AP, and IB classes were on a 5.0 scale, so that a B in an AP class was worth an A in a regular class in terms of GPA. It was impossible to graduate with a 5.0, though, because we were required to take some regular classes in order to graduate (health, PE, speech, typing – although there were ways to try to minimize their impact by taking them by correspondence over the summer and taking as many AP/IB electives as possible). Thus, if you wanted to take an elective that was not an AP/IB course – like political philosophy, for instance – you were penalized, but if you took an elective that did get AP credit, like debate, you were rewarded (I have no idea why debate got AP credit, since there is no AP Debate exam – probably because the debate team would have been terrible if all the smart kids refused to take it because it was only a 4.0 class, and someone in the administration thought a strong debate team was more important than a political philosophy class). If you really played the game, I think the highest GPA possible was a 4.8 something, and the top 10% of the class had GPAs that were within about two tenths of a point from each other. So, during those years, a 4.0 GPA actually wasn’t good enough to be in the top 10%.

      Since then, I’ve heard they changed the rules so that only three AP/IB classes count as 5.0s toward one’s GPA each semester (I think the parents of all the mediocre children started whining that the old way was too competitive), and its entirely possible they’ve changed the rules again since. Other schools have completely different systems for calculating GPA: some count AP classes the same as regular classes, some give you a different GPA depending on whether you got an A+ or an A-, and some don’t even calculate GPA. You can see why I can’t give you a specific number to aim for – without knowing more about your school it’s impossible. If you go to a school that regularly sends some seniors to the Ivy League each year, then you should find them and ask them what their GPAs were. If a certain GPA worked for them, it will probably work for you in two years. If you don’t go to a school that regularly sends kids to the Ivy League, then you probably need to be the valedictorian or very close. I know that sounds tough, but thousands of kids do it every year. If you are willing to sacrifice all your free time, you probably can, too. :)

      Hope this helps, and let me know if you have any more questions.

      Best,
      Calvin

      • Catherine says:

        Well now I’m just freaking out! I have a few B’s by now :( and one C from a previous honors class. I’ve been trying to estimate my overall gpa and when I do, it comes along the 25th/50th/75th percentile of the GPAs from the batch of new freshmen attending Columbia this yea, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing! What do the 25th/50th/75th percentiles mean?

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Catherine,

          A few Bs can be acceptable; I got Bs each semester of AP Chemistry and a B the first semester of AP Physics. The C, unfortunately, may be harder to explain. If the C was in an AP/IB class and you managed to bring it up to a B or an A the next semester, that could help. It could also help if you can find some other way to show proficiency in the subjects in which you got Bs or Cs, such as top scores on AP/IB exams and SAT Subject Tests. For example, even though I got a B one semester of Physics, I managed to get a 5 on the Physics B AP exam at the end of the year. As for the percentiles, if you score in the 75th percentile, that means that 25% of students were better and 75% were worse; the 50th percentile means 50% were better and 50% were worse; the 25th percentile means 75% were better and 25% were worse. If you fall somewhere above the 25th percentile of admitted students, that’s generally a good sign. However, I would caution against comparing GPAs from different high schools, since different high schools often calculate GPAs in radically different ways and since a 3.5 from the top high school in the country may be worth more than a 4.0 from an undistinguished high school.

          With elite college admissions, all you can do is your best to jump through as many of these hoops as possible, and after that it’s the luck of the draw. My main advice to you is to relax. If you are fairly bright and hard working, you will do fine wherever you end up at college. The elite college admissions process in this country has grown into a ridiculous circus that people take way too seriously. You can go to the honors school at a public university in your state and become an affluent, successful doctor/lawyer/engineer/computer programmer/etc. and do just as well as an Ivy League graduate. And it will almost certainly be much less expensive for you and your parents. A good friend of mine did very well in high school (although she was not in the running for an Ivy League acceptance letter), and she ended up going to the honors college at the University of Houston where she majored in accounting and did very well academically. Her senior year she got an internship with Deloitte, one of the top accounting firms in the country, and at the end of the internship they offered her a (rather lucrative) job. Unless you want to work on Wall Street or in Washington D.C., not having an Ivy League undergraduate education is not going to a big obstacle in pursuing whatever career you choose (and even if you do want to work in the financial or public sectors, it’s still very possible to do so by going to an excellent public university). The Ivy League will not magically turn you into a Nobel Prize winning scientist, a great author, or President of the United States (and you might not actually want to be any of those things when you think about it, anyway). Basically, they admit students who are workaholics who know how to collect prestigious sounding credentials, and surprise surprise, many of them go on doing the same thing.

          I know the college application process can be stressful and frustrating. Just always remember that even for the most qualified students, acceptance to the most selective schools always depends on an element of luck. The kind of life you will one day have will be determined by you, not by what college you attend. Just make sure you work very hard and do your best, and I assure you everything will be fine.

          Best of luck,
          Calvin

          • Calvin says:

            P.S. – In addition to test prep, Test Masters also offers college admissions counseling upon request. Through this service we help students make sure their applications look their best by giving each student personalized attention. This often includes college research, discussions of extracurricular activities, and help editing essays. Most students wait until they start applying to use this service, but in my opinion the earlier you start planning for college applications the better. If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to call and ask about it. I myself often work with students on college applications and would be happy to help you, too.

  6. Areeba says:

    Hello Catherine,

    I am the Salutatorian in my year [junior] in my high school which doesn’t hold a really good reputation. Fortunately the difference between the Valedictorian and my GPA is only of a percent. I had B in AP english and Regular Geometry in my sophomore year. Rest is straight A and A+’s. I have been working really hard this year and hopefully will make straight A’s as the fall semester ends.
    My school offers only five AP courses and I am already in three of the classes. My GPA is 3.8. What would you recommend me to make sure I get admitted to Stanford University. I am quite involved in all the activities at school as well.

    Areeba :)

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Areeba,

      Keep up your grades (no more Bs), take as many AP classes as possible, and follow the advice in my other posts. Coming from an unknown school adds a degree of uncertainty to the elite admissions process. If you are from a sparsely populated state that might help. Take a lot of care over your application, and make sure you present yourself in the best light possible. If you know that Stanford is your top choice, apply early decision/early action, and visit if possible. Let Stanford know that they are your top choice and let them know what it is that is unique about Stanford that makes it stand out to you. Then cross your fingers and hope for the best. There is no guarantee that you or anyone will get in. If you can hold everything together I’d say you have a good chance, but whatever happens, remember that the kind of life you will one day have will be determined by you, not by what college you attend. Just make sure you work very hard and do your best, and I assure you everything will be fine.

      Also, if you want more specific guidance with your application, Test Masters offers college admissions counseling upon request. Through this service we help students make sure their applications look their best by giving each student personalized attention. This often includes college research, discussions of extracurricular activities, and help editing essays. Most students wait until they start applying to use this service, but in my opinion the earlier you start planning for college applications the better. If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to call and ask about it. I myself often work with students on college applications and would be happy to help you, too.

      Best of luck,
      Calvin

  7. Christine says:

    This is a great article! But I wonder, if I am a freshman and I got a C+ in an AP World History class, but I can bring my yearly average up to an A by the end of the year, will I be okay?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Christine,

      The short answer is…maybe. Even with perfect grades the answer is still maybe. However, I’m not exactly sure what you mean, and depending on what the situation is, a C+ could hurt more or less. If I’m interpreting your question correctly, it sounds like you got a C+ your first semester of World History, but you believe you can get an A your second semester. This is the best scenario, since it shows improvement over the course of the year. While admissions officers frown upon grades that aren’t As (and especially on grades lower than a B), the fact that you brought your grade up will make them more likely to ignore it. If you can get a 5 on the AP exam, that would be even better, because it would show that you went back and mastered the first semester material. If you can do that and avoid getting any other non-A grades for the rest of high school, I’d say you still have a good chance of admission to an Ivy League level college. If I misinterpreted your question, let me know and I will adjust my response.

      Best,
      Calvin

  8. Ana says:

    Hi, thank you so much for writing this article. I am very very worried about college, I’m a sophomore in high school and my dream is to go to Yale or Columbia or UPenn. I really messed up freshman year because I didn’t really know much, I took all regular classes and got an A in all of them but a B in Geometry H and Latin 1 H (I really slacked off, this was before I was determined to get into an IVY). So last year I ended up with all A’s in my regular classes and 2 B’s in both my honors classes. In a 5.0 GPA scale my GPA is 3.92 but in a 4.0 GPA scale my GPA is 3.1. I am really really really worried that this might destroy my chances, I’m striving for ALL A’s the for the rest of high-school, could I still be able to go to Yale or Columbia or any of the ivies?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Ana,

      If you take more honors classes and make only As for the rest of high school that will improve your chances considerably. High standardized test scores are also a must. You should be proud of the work you’ve done, and I’m very glad to hear how motivated you are to excel academically. My advice to you is to remember to think about what happens after you get your acceptance letter. The goal of getting into your dream school is a great way to motivate yourself to work hard and make good grades in high school, but you should also be beginning to think about what you want to major in and what you want to do with your life after college. Never forget that college is just a means to an end; while learning is hopefully a life-long pursuit, college is over after four short years, and when you’re done you need to be prepared for what comes next. If you are possibly planning to be a doctor or a lawyer or to pursue some other graduate level degree after college, that might affect where you decide to go for college; medical school, law school, and business school are not cheap, and if they are a probable part of your future you may want to save money on your undergrad education. All three of the schools you mention cost upwards of $50,000 dollars per year to attend without financial aid. Even if you get in to one of them, unless your financial aid package is very good, you may want to go somewhere less expensive, especially if you plan to go to graduate school at some point. Often, the honors colleges at public universities are a much more cost-effective option for college, and if your application is good enough to get into an Ivy League school, state universities will often offer you generous scholarships in order to try to get you to pick them. These offers are well worth considering, since ultimately, if you go to grad school, no one will care much about where you went for your undergrad. Whatever you do, just work hard and stop worrying so much: remember, your success in life depends on you, not on where you go to school.

      Best,
      Calvin

      • Ana says:

        Thank you so much, you just made me less stressful and solved a lot of my questions! Actually this was my exact plan, to go to med school and I think that you are right, I should choose to go apply for an IVY for just Med School. Do you know any good places to go for under-grad? I was thinking John Hopkins, but I’m not sure.
        Also, thanks again, I’ve been worrying for a long time about this, now I think that I’m alright.

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Ana,

          Please, don’t let me discourage you from applying to any university – you might get in, and they might give you a good financial package. If you know for sure that you want to go to med school, you might consider applying to a combined bachelor’s and MD program. You can find a list here. As far as more affordable options for college go, you might investigate public universities, especially in your state. Private universities like Johns Hopkins can often be just as expensive as Ivy League schools, although you may find exceptions.

          Best,
          Calvin

  9. Archana says:

    Hi Calvin,
    This essay is really really helpful,
    I am going to be a senior in a couple of months, and my grades have been super smooth. I have given my SAT – I, and plan to give the SAT – II by the end of 2013. Also, I am doing my IBDP. My school does not offer AP, but I am planning to give an AP exam for econ. Though, AP is not very common in India. I also gave my IGCSE with all A+ for my 10th. My co-currics are fine, with debating, drama, dancing, basketball, photography and various volunteering services on my plate. Only a couple of my seniors have been able to make it to the Ivy Leagues, and are not the toppers, but one of the top 2-5%
    What I was wondering was, being an international student, I was wondering, what all do I need, in order to make my application suitable for the Ivy leagues?
    I have about a year to do all that I can, wherein I plan to do internships, volunteer works, and more school activities, and also studying.

    What could I do to make myself a better applicant?
    Thanks so much.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Archana,

      Sounds like you are on the right track! Just don’t let your grades suffer by stretching yourself too thin – it sounds like you already have plenty of extracurriculars. What you want to try to do now is get leadership positions in some of the clubs and organizations to which you belong, and make sure to document any responsibilities/accomplishments you can take credit for (organizing an event, managing the group’s finances, fundraising, recruiting new members, etc.). If you are able to get any awards for your extracurriculars that would be great, too. Keep in mind you don’t have to pursue all of your extracurriculars equally – you will probably have one or two that you really focus on. Also, when it comes time to apply, don’t forget my advice in Part VII: Application Strategy: when it comes to how many colleges you apply to, sometimes less is more.

      As for advice specifically for international students, at College Compass we are currently planning to write more articles for international students since so many international students comment on our posts. In the mean time, I can refer you to Voice of America’s blog for international students: The Student Union. I might specifically refer you to a few articles:

      How I Made Myself a Good Candidate for US Admissions (and Other Advice from a Successful Applicant) In this post, a Russian student gives advice about applying to colleges in the US. Note that she repeats my advice about applying to too many colleges!

      First Steps: Deciding to Come to the US is the Easy Part A step by step guide to applying to schools in the US.

      Student Visa Tips from Visa Officers Basically what it sounds like.

      Hope this helps! Also, in addition to test prep, Test Masters also offers college admissions counseling upon request. Through this service we help students make sure their applications look their best by giving each student personalized attention. This often includes college research, discussions of extracurricular activities, and help editing essays. Most students wait until they start applying to use this service, but in my opinion the earlier you start planning for college applications the better. If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to call and ask about it. I myself often work with students on college applications and would be happy to help you, too.

      Best,
      Calvin

  10. Chewy! says:

    Dear Calvin,
    Thank you so much for writing this! It’s so helpful! I’m a freshman in a pretty undistinguished high school (It’s not exactly #1 in the state or anything), but I have somewhat high grades. I take all the hardest academic classes I can take – AP Human Geography (Only AP they offer to freshmen), Honors Literature/Comp, Honors Biology, Spanish 2, and Accelerated Math 2. I have A’s in every class EXCEPT AP Human Geography. I had an 85 during the first semester, and I’m trying to get it to an A for the second sememster (Sadly, I don’t think I’ll make it, however, because the teacher is VERY tough with grades): ) In my old school, I easily pulled of an A in the same class, but in this school, the teacher is really difficult. Since it’s not exactly an “elite” school, I think the Ivy League Schools that I strive to get into will think that I was just slacking during my freshman year in AP Human. (Other people in the same county, but different schools, have easy A’s.) I hope to get a 5 on the exam because the subject isn’t all that hard and the because of the teacher’s toughness, she prepares us well for the exam. If I get a 5 on the exam, Will it nullify the B that I’m most likely going to have? I’m really interested in going to an Ivy League School, or at least a good school! Do I have a chance?
    Thank You! :)

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Chewy,

      Nothing completely nullifies a B, but getting an A this semester and a 5 on the AP exam will help. In fact, you should consider accomplishing those two goals essential to improving your chances of getting into an Ivy League school. A B or two won’t necessarily kill your chances, but try not to let it happen again. If your school doesn’t send kids to the Ivy League each year, you need to be at the very top of your class. You might consider transferring to a more competitive high school if there is one in your area. In the mean time, keep up the good work, take as many AP classes as possible (and get As!), and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  11. Jennifer says:

    Hi Calvin,
    First of all thank you for writing this article. It is extremely informative and helpful.
    I am currently a sophomore in high school and am taking 4 AP classes and I plan to take 6 both my junior and senior years. I have received straight A’s in all of my classes and have a GPA of 4.25 for the last three semesters of high school. I also play two sports and am involved in my school’s quizbowl and academic league teams. My dream is to get into an Ivy League like Stanford or Yale, and I was wondering if you have any advice for me. What can I do to make myself stand out from everyone else? Thanks so much.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Jennifer,

      It sounds like you are on the right track. Here are a few things that might help you stand out from the crowd: awards and prizes, leadership positions, National Merit Finalist status, and really good applications essays. So, you’ve proven that you’re smart and well rounded with your grades, sports, and quizbowl. Now you need to prove that you are above average at these things with a few awards/prizes. You may want to pick one sport to focus on – you don’t have to give up one, but it can be hard to try to pursue excellence in both at once, given your limited time. Ivy League-type colleges also love it when you have “leadership experience.” This usually means being president of a club or something like that. Academically, beyond straight As and lots of 5s on AP exams, getting National Merit Finalist or at least Semifinalist status by doing well on the PSAT your junior year is always a feather in your cap, and one that elite schools look for. You can find out what the score cut-offs have been in previous years here. You may have taken the PSAT for practice this year (many high schools offer it to sophomore free), in which case you can see how you’re doing. If you need to raise your score in order to get national merit, I would highly recommend a Test Masters SAT/PSAT course, which comes with a 300 point SAT score increase guarantee/30 point PSAT score increase guarantee. Lastly, the main place you really get to make a personal impression in your applications are in your essays. Really polish and perfect your essays, and follow the tips I recommend in the essay article of this series.

      Also, be aware that Stanford and Yale are very different places with very different cultures! Stanford will offer certain opportunities that Yale won’t, and Yale will offer you opportunities that Stanford won’t. Every elite college admissions application has a section where they ask you why you want to go to their particular school. One way you can stand out (and one way you can make sure you pick the right school for you) is by doing your research and knowing what makes each school you apply to special. Remember, just because a school is ranked one of the best in the nation doesn’t mean that you will be happy there or that that school is the best place for you to achieve your particular dreams. See my advice in the application strategy article of this series. In the mean time, keep up the good work and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  12. Archana says:

    Hi Thanks so much Calvin!
    So my SAT – I reports came in, and I scored a 2120. But my writing score was bad, do you reckon I should reappear?
    and as for Leaderships. I am the deputy head girl of my school, succesfully carried out hygiene workshops in rural india, and have worked as volunteer and coordinator in some of the local festivals like the literature fest that take place.
    I feel there is some factor that would be missing from my application, even though i can manage to get the grades I want, What do you think the admission officers are looking for? Is it the outstanding performance, or something else?
    I would really appreciate your help! Thanks :)

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Archana,

      2120 is definitely a score to be proud of, but if you’ve only taken the SAT once and you still have time before you apply to college, you should definitely consider taking it again. This isn’t because your score is bad – it’s just a good idea since colleges generally consider your best score from each section of the test, not your best overall score from one test. For instance, let’s say you got 760 on Critical Reading, 720 on Math, and 640 on Writing. If you take the test again, you might get, say, 640 on Critical Reading, 760 on Math, and 720 on Writing. Even though both times you got a 2120, colleges will consider your composite score to be 2240, because they would take the Critical Reading Score from your first test, and the other two scores from your second test. If you want to improve your writing score specifically, you might consider an online Test Masters course. The essay method in the course, for instance, consistently gets our students scores of 10, 11, or 12 on the essay.

      Your leadership stuff sounds very impressive. If you are still looking for an additional edge, elite colleges also like it when you can brag about awards and prizes that you’ve won for your extracurricular activities. If you have won any awards that would help you to stand out. If you haven’t yet, try entering a competition or two for your best extracurricular activities. Chances are you’ll get something, and remember that any award is great (no matter how easy it was to get). Also make sure you write really good admissions essays. I regularly help Test Masters students edit and perfect their college essays, and I’d be happy to do the same for you. Since you are in India, it may be possible to do this over the telephone or by email. If you are interested, please contact our office.

      Overall, it sounds like you’ve done a lot of hard work in high school and have a lot to be proud of. Good luck to you as you apply to colleges!

      Best,
      Calvin

  13. Christine Church says:

    Hey, I’m a freshman, and at my school, they only offer 1 AP course. I got a C+ in first marking period and a B+ in the second, and I’m hoping to improve even more in the next half of the year. Will that present a big problem for me?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Christine,

      Top colleges expect prospective students to seek out the most challenging coursework available to them and to excel in it. If your school is set up to be an International Baccalaureate school instead of an AP school (I’m assuming you’re in the USA), then it’s fine if you take IB exams instead of AP exams. If your school doesn’t offer an alternative to AP exams at all, then things may be more difficult.

      As I said in the article, if your school normally sends several students to elite colleges each year, then your best bet is to emulate their grades. If it’s more rare for your school to send a kid to the Ivy League, then you really have to be valedictorian or very close in order to get their attention. These schools tend to stick with high schools that they are familiar with, since they know that these schools regularly churn out students who are well prepared for rigorous coursework. With unfamiliar schools, they are taking a risk, since they don’t know what the capabilities of students who graduate from those schools are. You may thus have to work extra hard to prove yourself if you go to a school that is unfamiliar to Ivy League admissions officers. If there is another high school in your community that does offer a full range of AP exams and courses, then you might consider transferring to that school in order to take advantage of the more advanced educational opportunities they offer.

      If that is not an option, you might consider taking a number of SAT subject tests instead of AP exams. AP exams are important to colleges because they provide a standardized measure of your academic achievements in particular subjects. This measure is the same for students all over the world: a 5 on the AP biology exam is the same for a student in Florida as it is for one in Nebraska. This makes up for the fact that some high schools are more challenging/competitive than others. SAT subject tests can serve this same role to a degree, and may help you distinguish yourself if you come from a less well-known high school that does not offer many AP courses. I would suggest taking SAT subject tests immediately after finishing the highest level of the corresponding subject (take the Chemistry one after you finish Chemistry, the US History one after you finish US History, English after junior year English, Math after your highest level math class, etc.). In terms of scores, you will definitely want to aim above 700, and above 750 if possible, for each exam. If you feel you need help preparing for these exams, Test Masters offers SAT subject test preparation and tutoring. Only five subject tests are listed on our website, but we can do other subjects upon request.

      In the meantime, bring that AP grade up to an A this semester, study hard, and get a 5 on that exam. If you are serious about applying to an Ivy League school, this is a necessity. Test Masters can also help with AP tutoring upon request. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

      • Nikhil says:

        Hi Calvin,
        This series has been super eye-opening for me and I can’t thank you enough for all the great advice! I am currently in my second semester of sophomore year. Freshman year I got a B in Geometry H (1st semester), but i bumped it up to an A second semester. This year (1st semester) i had a B in AP Physics, but I’m hoping to bring that up to an A second semester. I have gotten straight As in the rest of my classes both years. Will these two Bs be a big problem when I apply?
        For my athletic extracurriculars, I play varsity waterpolo and do varsity swimming. Also, both freshman and sophomore year, I was captain of the JV waterpolo team. Additionally, I play waterpolo at Stanford club (we placed 13th in the country last year). For the volunteering portion of my extracurriculars, I have done community service in Nicaragua (building a school for the children in a rural community), and Shanghai (doing activities with mentally disabled adults at a retirement home). Lastly, I play violin for California Youth Symphony and we do concerts at senior centers every couple of months. What I am worried about however, is the “creative” portion of my extracurriculars. I am currently not involved in any clubs, but I want to start going to trivia or chess club. I was also considering starting a new club with some friends. Do you have any recommendations regarding creative extracurricular activities?
        I visited Columbia last year and was quite intrigued by the environment of the school. After going on the tour and meeting some students, the students gave me the impression that Columbia was a very “active” campus. All of the students also seemed to be interesting people from interesting backgrounds. After going on this visit, I am very interested in applying to Columbia. Just out of curiosity, what would you say separates Columbia from all the other great schools in the country?
        Thanks so much!
        Nikhil

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Nikhil,

          Assuming that you are taking all AP/pre-AP classes, you sound like you’re doing fine. Really try to bring your Physics grade up to an A and get a 5 on the AP exam. Violin in CYS should definitely cover the creative portion of your extracurricular activities, and joining or starting a club sounds good (it would probably be fun, too). Your volunteer work is also very impressive.

          As for Columbia, like any school, you need to try to match up what you want from college with what that college has to offer. It can be difficult to get this information out of admissions officers, because they are going to tell you that their school is great at everything (which, in effect, makes their school sound like every other Ivy League school). One of Columbia’s most distinctive qualities is its location in Manhattan. This means that if you are interested in pursuing a career in any of the industries that are very prominent in NYC, such as finance, banking, publishing, journalism, the arts, international affairs, etc., Columbia would be a great place to make connections and find internship opportunities (large investment banks and hedge funds recruit especially heavily from Columbia). Columbia College, like all Ivy League undergraduate programs, also takes its pre-med and pre-law programs very seriously and provides many resources to help prepare students on these tracks for medical school or law school (the placement rates of students into med school and law school programs are important statistics used to rank universities). There are also many other very strong departments and lots of interesting scientific research going on at Columbia, and if you ever watch PBS science programs like Nova or Nova Science Now, or read popular scientific publications, you will find that Columbia scientists are frequently interviewed about their often fascinating research. If you have a specific research interest, you should see if any of Columbia’s undergraduate faculty share this interest.

          The one thing about Columbia that disappointed me somewhat was the Core Curriculum. I was actually very excited about the core curriculum, and it was one of the reasons I chose to go to Columbia. I had long wanted to read the great classics of literature and philosophy under the guidance of expert instructors and to debate “the big questions” with similarly interested and enthusiastic students. Unfortunately, the students who were excited about these classes were definitely a minority, and because every Columbia College student is required to take these classes, the university has to recruit teachers to teach these courses who aren’t necessarily experts in most of the texts on the syllabi. It was okay, and I still got a lot out of those classes, but I had expected more. Yale, for instance, has a similar “great books” program that students can choose to take if they want to, which means there are fewer, more interested students and better teachers (although they try to squeeze an impossible amount of material into one year – for instance, you get one week to read War and Peace – but this has the plus side of causing students in the program to bond through the shared suffering of impossible homework assignments). While it is a noble goal for Columbia to try to expose all students to these texts, as we say in Texas, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink (Dorothy Parker has another apt version of that saying). While it is possible to get a great class full of interested students lead by an expert professor, most of the sections aren’t like that and the university makes it difficult to transfer into different sections of Core Curriculum classes.

          If you weren’t especially interested in the Core Curriculum anyway, then this caveat probably won’t play that big a part in your decision making process. As far as the “active” part goes, you can generally count on at least one major on campus protest per year (in my time, we had a hunger strike one year protesting Columbia University’s planned Manhattanville expansion and massive anti-Ahmadinejad protests the year he came to speak). In general, the atmosphere among undergraduates on campus could be described as permissive, irreverent, work hard, and for some, play hard. Though students come from diverse geographical, ethnic, religious, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the student body tends to be rather liberal or libertarian (social conservatives are a tiny minority). There are numerous student groups, including the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bach Society, and chamber music program (which you might be interested in as a violinist – I myself played violin in all three), as well as sports teams (although our football team is notoriously bad), several student publications, and the usual other kinds of student groups, a complete list of which can be found somewhere on the Columbia website. There is also an extensive alumni network, which can be very helpful career wise depending on what industry you want to go into. Columbia has many amazing resources that few other universities can offer, and if you are interested in any of them, Columbia would be well worth considering.

          Best,
          Calvin

          • Nikhil says:

            Hi Calvin,

            I took you’re advice: I just started up investment club w/ a couple of my friends and we are having a blast running it :). We are hoping to start up a school-wide investment competition soon.

            I remember being somewhat intrigued by the core curriculum because I had not seen this type of curriculum setup at many other schools, however I don’t think it would be that big of a deal for me if I were to get in. On the other hand, the location of Columbia is one of my favorite things about the school. The opportunities around Manhattan sound really interesting and I hope to apply to some other schools in that area.

            Regarding the “active” student body, the day I went to visit Columbia, there was actually a big protest on the steps of the library :) (though I don’t specifically remember what the protest was about).
            Anyway, I want to pursue a major in Engineering (maybe computer or mechanical, though I’m not quite sure yet). I know Columbia has a separate (and much smaller) Engineering school. Do you know anything about the success of the Engineering school and whether or not it is a good program?

            Lastly, it would be really great if you could clear up some things regarding APs in high school. My school technically only offers AP courses sophomore, junior, and senior year. As a sophomore, I am currently taking AP Mandarin, AP Physics B, and AP Computer Science + two honors courses (Algebra 2 H and Chem H). I know for a fact that I have the hardest schedule in my grade (also including a varsity sport :/), but from what I have heard from my friends, four (and sometimes even five) APs are not uncommon for sophomores (especially in some rigorous public schools in my area). Next year I plan on taking AP Stats and AP Brit Lit/Am Lit (not sure which one yet), and senior year i might take two or three more, however I am not sure if there is a number of APs I should be shooting for. Does it depend from school to school? (I know the average at my school is 4-5 APs). Also, on another note, my school doesn’t do class rankings. How would this make a difference in the admission process?

            Some information that might help you in your response: Our school’s acceptance rates in the past three years for Stanford, Yale, and Princeton are all within 15-25% (with Columbia and Dartmouth close behind in the low tens).

            Thanks again for the great advice! The insight into Columbia has also been really helpful!

            Thanks,
            Nikhil

          • Calvin says:

            Dear Nikhil,

            SEAS (the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) at Columbia is an excellent program, and I have many friends who went to the engineering school. I’m not sure if it’s ranked quite as highly among engineering programs as Columbia College is among liberal arts programs, but it’s still an excellent choice (I think you might be especially interested in their financial engineering program, since you mentioned founding an investment club – just please promise me you won’t engineer the next financial crisis!). Also note that SEAS students only take half of the core curriculum. As for APs, it sounds like you are doing fine. At my high school usually only took AP World History sophomore year and took other AP Exams junior and senior year. As long as you are taking the most challenging courses available to you you are fine. I would recommend balancing the number of Math/Science and English/History exams you take, since being “well-rounded” is important to elite colleges. At the same time, remember that if you plan to apply to engineering programs then having 5s in Calculus BC and Physics C and/or Chemistry would be good for your application. In general, it’s a good idea to see what students who got into Stanford, Yale, Princeton, etc. did in terms of their courses/grades and emulate them. If it worked for them, it can work for you, too. The fact that your school doesn’t rank shouldn’t matter too much since elite colleges seem to be very familiar with it. Best of luck, and if you ever want any test prep, please consider Test Masters!

            Best,
            Calvin

  14. Angela says:

    Great post! College admissions are getting harder and harder these days… nervous as a freshman currently!

  15. Sofia says:

    Hi!
    This website has been just so useful to me. I would just love to go to Princeton or UPenn. Next year I am going to be a junior and I’m only taking 2 AP’s, Physics and Psychology (and all honors). I dropped APUSH because I thought it was pointless since I don’t want anything to do with history in college, was that a bad idea? I’m winning awards in clubs, have leadership positions, hospital volunteer work etc, but would taking ONLY 2 AP’s really affect my chances from getting into Yale Princeton or UPenn? Please please be 100% honest, I have been getting really worried over this. Thank you so much!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Sofia,

      Elite colleges like the ones you mentioned want their future students to take the most challenging courses available to them at their high school. Even if you don’t plan to use history ever again in your life, it would be a good idea to take it at the AP level just to show them that you can. As I said in this article, your academics are the most important part of your application, so they should be a higher priority than extracurricular activities. As long as you can continue to make straight As, I would recommend taking as many AP classes and exams as are offered at your school. My junior year I took AP Physics, AP US History, AP French, and AP English Language, plus I was enrolled in pre-AP Pre-Calculus, orchestra, debate, and Theory of Knowledge for IB. Basically, if your school offers it, you should take it.

      Hope this helps,
      Calvin

  16. Mark says:

    Hello Calvin, I’m a sophomore striving for schools like Columbia and Caltech because I’m hoping for a future in engineering. I took a practice SAT and got over a 700 in the math without practice and my predicted score will be around a 2250-2350. My gpa is a 3.9 unweighted because I had a terrible precalc and physics teacher last year and I was lost my first semester of calculus because of him. I got B’s in those classes because there is no curve and my teachers were bad, but this semester I have an A in Calculus and I am feeling comfortable for a solid 5 on the AP exam. If I continue to get straight A’s throughout high school and continue to take more AP’s and all honors classes would I have a shot at Caltech or Columbia? I never slacked off in school, my teachers for math and physics were just terrible, we never used our books and they were fired because they received too many complaints! If it helps I involve in many activities and lead in all of them, I have started a business, helped with research and stats at a nearby University, and I should make varsity for a sport next year. My dream school is Caltech, I know it’s not Ivy… But it is just as good. Do I have a shot if I continue to get straight A’s?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Mark,

      I know what it’s like to have terrible teachers: my sophomore year I had Chemistry with a teacher who was at least 80 years old. She had been teaching at my high school since it opened fifty years before. There was even one retired teacher I knew of who had had her as a teacher when she was in high school. She was older than a number of the more recently discovered elements on the periodic table. Every day she would open the text book and read to us in a weak voice until she looked up and realized that no one was listening to her admittedly pitiful attempts to lecture, whereupon she would smile weakly at us, open a drawer, and pull out a “nice little pop quiz.” I tried at first, but after a while I just gave up. Instead of cheating off the one kid whose dad was a chemist like many of the other students, I just used that class to do homework for other classes. We all concluded that she made up the grades in the end, since they had nothing to do with anything we had done in class. She gave me a B each semester. The next year she retired. Sometimes I still shake my fist at the sky and ask the fates, “Why??? Why???!!!”

      Fortunately, I did not want to be a chemist or a chemical engineer (not after that, at least). You, however, do want to be an engineer, so demonstrating excellence in math and science is a little more important for you than it was for me. While elite colleges do sometimes overlook a B or two, having any is always risky. You still have a reasonable shot, though, if you continue to excel and take a few steps to try to make up for those Bs. My advice to you is to try to demonstrate mastery of the subjects in question with standardized tests. Take one of the AP Physics C exams and get a 5. Get a 5 on the BC Calculus exam. Take the SAT Subject tests for these subjects and get above 700 (preferably above 750) on each of them. If you can demonstrate mastery through these tests, then that might make up for the grades somewhat, and improve your chances.

      If these teachers really were fired for their incompetence, you might ask your high school counselor if there is anyway he/she could make a note of that in your applications. I wouldn’t mention anything about it myself, since complaints coming from you will not carry much weight with college admissions officers (understandably – it would just sound like you’re trying to make excuses. Coming from a counselor such a complaint would sound more legitimate). Remember that your applications are all about emphasizing your strengths, not about apologizing for your weaknesses, so don’t worry about it. It’s in the past, so all you should do now is focus on doing your very best. Always remember that even for kids with perfect applications, getting into these highly selective schools is largely a matter of luck. You sound like a really bright, hardworking kid, so remember that wherever you end up, you’ll probably do just fine.

      Something you can do to help your chances is narrow down your list of top choices. Do you know what kind of an engineer you would like to be? You might search for top programs in a particular field. The US has no shortage of excellent engineering schools, so make sure you find a few that will be just right for you. See what I have to say about this in the application strategy article.

      Hope this helps, and keep up the good work!
      Calvin

  17. sophia says:

    Hi!! I am sophia. I’m in my sophomore year right now. During freshmen year, I got a C in p.e and two Bs in H. Geo and H. Bio; everything else were As. Then during my sophomore year, I took simple classes, with no Aps and just H. Eng. I took spanish 1/2 (I took two year of spanish in middle school) I have all As. Would colleges look VERY POORLY on this? I know that I didn’t challenge myself. i am taking most APs in junior year. I am hard-working but when I switched districts for high schools, my balance was shaken. I am in orchestra outside of school and play tennis. If I get good grades on my APs and win most of my tennis compettions with orchestra, would that somewhat improve my chances? My SAT score is pretty high and I am going to take SAT subject tests this year.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Sophia,

      You seem like a very bright, talented young student, and I’m sure the future holds great things for you. However, in all honesty I must say that from what you’ve told me, your application doesn’t sound like it will be competitive at Harvard or equally selective schools. These schools expect you to get straight As (with at most one or two Bs) and to take the most challenging classes available to you all four years. It’s not that you’ve done badly, its just that among the thousands of students who apply to Harvard each year, there are going to be plenty of kids who did get straight As and take all advanced classes (more than they can possibly admit, actually), and all other things being equal, they are going to take them over you. You should still apply to your dream school – you never know what the admissions officers will do – but just know that if you get in, it will be because you are very, very lucky.

      Does this mean your future is over and you should just give up? No! You should still take as many AP classes as you can and get As in all of them and 5s on the AP exams, because if you do that, you will still be an extremely competitive applicant to just about every non-“Ivy League” school in the country, and many of them can provide you with just as good an education as an Ivy League school can (and often at a fraction of the cost). And remember that not getting into your dream school straight out of high school doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. If you get stellar grades during your undergrad years, you can always go to the Ivy League for grad school. Or you might even be able to transfer to your dream school during undergrad. Let me tell you a story: in high school, I had a friend who was very bright, but she didn’t quite have the application she needed in order to get into the Ivy League. Instead, she applied to and got into NYU – an excellent but slightly less competitive school. She worked really hard her freshman year, made straight As, and applied to Columbia (my alma mater) as a transfer student. She was accepted, and when she graduated from Columbia, her diploma was exactly the same as mine. She now works as an editor in the publishing industry in New York City and is essentially living the life that we’ve all seen depicted in countless sitcoms about young professionals in NYC.

      The point is, don’t give up! Keep working hard, and push yourself to work harder than you ever have before. No more Bs, and certainly no more Cs in classes like PE that should be easy As! With education, you generally get out of it what you put into it, so make sure you always do your very best. Wherever you go to school, know that you are the one who will determine what your future will be, and if you work hard and plan ahead, you can achieve your dreams. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  18. Alisa says:

    Dear Calvin,
    Hi, I’m a rising junior who wants to go to Yale or Columbia. I was wondering how do colleges specifically Ivy Leagues feel about kids who have gone through struggles and have grades that reflect it. I worked to help my parents out financially while trying to balance school and my grades reflect the obstacles I had to go through since I have gotten mostly A’s but along the way some B’s, a C, and a D in my sophomore year. I am determined to do very well on standardized tests, get straight A’s for the rest of my high school years, and in extracurriculars as well but I am worried that these grades have affected my chances dramatically.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Alisa,

      Your extenuating circumstances would need to be fairly extraordinary in order for Ivy League schools to overlook Cs and Ds. You should still apply, and perhaps you could write about your experiences in your application essays. If you do make straight As and get excellent test scores for the rest of high school, you should be able to get into a very good school for college, whether it’s Yale, Columbia, or somewhere else. You might check out the other posts in this series, especially the epilogue I recently wrote. Good luck, and keep up the good work!

      Best,
      Calvin

      • Jon says:

        Dear Calvin,
        Hi, I’m currently a Freshman at an above-average high school. First of all, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this article; it contains a lot of good advice. I am very serious about getting into an Ivy league school (or into another high-ranked school such as Duke, Northwestern, or Amherst). I was able to get straight A pluses in my 5 core subject classes in my first and second semester (finals are in a week; wish me luck!). I have two honors classes and an “enriched” class that doesn’t count as Honors credit (this is the maximum number of honors classes that Freshmen are allowed to take in my school). However, I did end up getting a B in my engineering elective (this elective was unweighted). I know I might sound paranoid, but I’m really worried about how this slip-up might affect my chances of getting accepted into some top-tier schools. I’ve heard that Freshmen grades and elective grades aren’t all that important compared to grades in the 5 core subjects (math, English, world language, history, and science). I just wanted to hear what you thought about my B and if I’m over-reacting about. Thanks in advance!

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Jon,

          Yes. You are overreacting. Please calm down. One B in an elective is not going to be the end of the world. Just don’t let it happen again! If you make straight As in the most advanced classes your high school offers for the rest of high school, then you’ll be fine (if you get one more B it still probably wouldn’t kill you, provided that it’s in an advanced class – but don’t take that as permission to be a slacker). It is a good thing that you discovered these articles as a freshman – this way you know what you have to do and can plan in advance. Make sure you read the other articles in this series – you might even print out the checklist and put it in your locker as a reminder to stay on track! Well, you don’t have to, but I’d be flattered if you did. Remember, if you ever want any test prep help with SAT, ACT, or AP exams, you can get an edge on the competition by studying with experts like me at Test Masters. In the meantime, just keep your nose to the grindstone, keep up the good work, and good luck!

          Best,
          Calvin

          • Elle says:

            Dear Calvin,
            I’m currently a rising sophomore at the Brearley School – the fourth best prep school in America according to Forbes, and the number one prep school in America, according to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun. My freshman year grades are not looking very good, right now, but I believe that the state of my grades will ameliorate over the next three years. My final freshman grades are a C+ in World History, Bs in English and Math, and B+s in Spanish and Biology. At my school, there are no so-called “AP” classes, as all classes are supposed to be at the college level. In addition, I am also a straight A student at the Manhattan School of Music pre-college division, majoring in piano. Over the next few summers, I plan to aid a Cornell professor in DNA research as well as apply to the Columbia Science Honors Program during my sophomore year. In past summers, I’ve performed in numerous renowned international and national classical music festivals (such as the International Academy of Music in Burgos, Spain, and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana). With my freshman grades in this state, and if my grades over the next three years improve (I’m shooting for mainly As in sophomore year, and straight As junior and senior year), do I have a shot at attending the Ivy Leagues? Do my extracurriculars and summer programs help me? Thank you so much.
            – Elle -

          • Calvin says:

            Dear Elle,

            When it comes to grades, my best advice is to find students from your school who got into the sorts of schools you’re aiming for and ask them what kinds of grades/class ranks they had. You should aim to do at least as well as they did. Generally speaking, extracurricular activities don’t make up for grades. I do not know if being enrolled in a very competitive program will make up for not getting As since I am not familiar with your particular high school, which is why I advise you to find seniors who have been admitted to your top choice schools and ask them how they did. If you plan to apply to Ivy-League-type schools, grades will be the most important part of your application. If you plan to apply to music school, however, grades will be secondary to your piano playing. Your accomplishments on the piano do sound impressive, and you should be aware that there are many conservatory programs affiliated with elite academic institutions. For instance, I know that Julliard and Columbia have a program that allows Julliard students to simultaneously complete a degree from Columbia. If this is a path that interests you, you might try researching programs like that – remember that there are many paths to the Ivy League. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

            Best,
            Calvin

          • Elle says:

            Dear Calvin,
            Do colleges such as the Ivy Leagues or any top universities (Georgetown, Rice, UChicago) really pay attention to freshman grades? Both my father and I are completely freaking out, right now, and if my grades improve will the college admissions office pay attention to that? Thank you.
            – Elle -

          • Calvin says:

            Dear Elle,

            It’s not that freshman grades are especially important – it’s just that they affect your GPA and class rank, and having lower grades in freshman classes limits how high your final GPA and class rank can be. If you improve and get straight As from here on out, colleges will definitely see that, but when it comes down to it, college admissions is a competition, and if there are other kids at your school who got straight As (and if they have good extracurriculars, etc.), then colleges are going to take them first. Will they also take you? Only they can say for sure. I would say that if you get straight As for the rest of high school, you still have a good chance at getting into an Ivy League school, especially considering your musical achievements. However, what I really want to stress is that you should not base your sense of self esteem on what school you get into. Getting into an Ivy League school is not a measure of your worth as a person or even how smart you are. It is simply a measure of how well you conform to a somewhat arbitrary educational system and how much time you are willing to spend on a set of very arbitrary activities. Ivy League schools say “Jump!” and the kids who ask “How high?” are the ones who get in. Please, please remember that getting into college is never an end in itself. College is always a stepping stone from high school to the career path you wish to pursue. Instead of focusing on just getting into “the best school” you can, focus on how you can use college as a tool to get you to where you want to be afterwards. If you look at things this way I think you will realize that there are all sorts of paths (some more expensive than others) that will get you where you want to be. While there can be some advantages to an Ivy League undergraduate education, they are rarely absolutely necessary for any particular career path. If you still have your heart set on the Ivy League and nothing else, remember that if you don’t get in straight out of high school, you can always make straight As your freshman year of college and then transfer to somewhere else (that’s how President Obama got into Columbia). You seem like a very smart, disciplined, hard-working young woman, and I’m sure that if you take your education seriously and do your best, you are going to end up at an excellent undergraduate program. It’s good to use goals to motivate yourself, just please don’t get an ulcer in the process!!! For more information, please read my other blog posts in this series, especially the epilogue. Keep up the good work, and stop freaking out! (That goes for your father, too!)

            Wishing you all the best,
            Calvin

  19. Katharine says:

    Hi,
    In my freshman year I was scared of high school and had no idea what to take. I took 3 CP classes (all A’s) and 2 honors classes and got B’s in both of them resulting in a 4.0 GPA. In sophomore year I took all honors and got 2 B’s in Chemistry and Latin. My overall GPA now is a 4.33. I’m worried that this will affect my chances of getting into UPenn. My EC’s are amazing, I’m planning on publishing a book and won numerous state/national/regional awards in a club, built a school in India, plan on doing tennis junior and senior year etc… I also plan on getting 740+ on 3 subject SATs and a 22-2300 on the SAT. I’m taking 3 AP’s next year (and all AP’s senior year, and plan on getting 4-5’s on it)and all honors, if everything goes to plan would I have a chance of getting into UPenn even with my bad GPA? What if I possibly raise my GPA to 4.5 by senior year? I know my goals seem really hard to accomplish but I’ve been working really hard and they may just happen.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Katherine,

      You were scared of high school? Why? You must go to a really scary high school.

      On a more serious note, the Bs are not great, but if you take as many AP classes as you possibly can and get straight As for the rest of high school I’d say you still have a good chance at getting in. Your extracurriculars do sound amazing – maybe your book will make the bestseller list and you won’t even have to go to college if you don’t want to! Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

      -Calvin

      • Katherine says:

        Calvin,
        Thank you for the video and everything, it definitely lightened my mood! I’m taking 3 next year and 4-5 AP’s senior year. Do you think that would be enough? I don’t know if I can pull my GPA up to a 4.5 before/during senior year especially since I’m going to apply ED to UPenn. I was thinking if I don’t make top 10% I could apply to Duke, do you know what it takes to get into that school? Also, have you encountered anyone who got into an Ivy but wasn’t in the top 10% of their class?
        Thank you so much for your blog, I’ve been using it since last year and it’s been so reassuring and helpful!
        Katherine

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Katherine,

          Thank you! I’m so glad that you find my articles reassuring and helpful. To answer your question, ” I’m taking 3 next year and 4-5 AP’s senior year. Do you think that would be enough?” I would say that if you can take more than 3 non-elective AP courses, then you should if you want to have the most competitive application possible. Say you’re taking AP Science, History, and Math, but not AP English or AP Foreign Language. If they offer AP English and AP Foreign Language, you should take those, too. You might even add an AP elective as well, like AP Psychology, Art History, Computer Science, etc, if your school offers it and if it doesn’t interfere with your main electives. Basically, for the most competitive application, take as many AP classes as you possibly can and make As in them all! If you don’t think you can make As (with maybe one borderline B+) in all of them, then don’t ruin your GPA by taking more AP classes than you can handle. If you’re willing to do 3-4 hours of homework every night, though, then you probably can get As in all of them, and that’s what the most selective colleges expect.

          As for being in the top 10%, I would say that it depends on how big your school is. If you go to a small private school that has only 100 graduating seniors, then of course being in the top 10% isn’t going to be as important as if you go to a large public school with 1,000 graduating seniors. These schools understand that a top 25% student from a small, excellent private school can be just as good as a top 10% student from a large public high school. And as for what schools to apply to, ideally you want to apply to schools with a range of different acceptance rates. According to some quick google searches, Duke has an acceptance rate of 11% and UPenn has an acceptance rate of 12.3%, so they’re about the same. If you really like both of them, then you should apply to both of them, but from a statistical point of view, you probably have the same chances of getting into one as of getting into the other. While these aren’t as hard to get into as the most selective schools like Harvard, Stanford, Julliard, etc. (which usually have an acceptance rate of about 6%), you might also look at other excellent schools with slightly higher acceptance rates. For example, one slightly more forgiving (but still excellent) school I might recommend would be Rice, which is in my hometown of Houston, TX and has a 19% acceptance rate. As a native Houstonian, I have many friends who went to Rice, and although Rice kids can be a little crazy sometimes (i.e. – the 13th of every month) they all really seemed to like it there. Do some more research about different schools you might be interested in – the acceptance rates are just a google search away. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

          -Calvin

  20. Evan says:

    Hi, I’m a senior in a high school that has a very odd and difficult way of allowing students to take classes- they constantly change their policies from class to class, with some classes permitted to take APs freshman year and some told to wait until junior year and only take enough to receive an honors diploma with no explanation. I also move a lot, and my previous school did essentially the same thing. I receive good instruction, but I’m concerned that my application is not competitive with only three APs taken and one self-studied (I received only 4s on Chem and the self-studied course). I have a 4.0 unweighted, highly competitive SATs and ACT, am first in my class, and I am taking 5 APs (three hard math and sciences) this year, but aside from academics, my school’s overseas location makes it extremely difficult to participate in meaningful ECs (not a single service organization to be found on our campus), eliminates us from many state-side AND international competitions (math/science Olympiads, forensics/debate, writing, pretty much all of them except NMSQT) and the vast majority of scholarships, and certain official regulations make it impossible to charter chapters of politically affiliated organizations such as Young Democrats. Internships and original research are also off the table.

    I have a few strong hooks, but I feel like my school is actually working against me for getting into top colleges I feel I would do well in. I am working as hard as I can, getting into leadership positions and founding a service club, but I’m afraid that might not cut it since there are so few opportunities, plus the fact that my school “offers” APs but doesn’t allow us to take them all- though there’s no “official” rule against it. Would you have any suggestions about what I could do to help myself in the admissions process (for instance, how to impart this information to admissions without seeming whiny)? Or, if there’s nothing I can do, do you think my situation eliminates me from the pool of acceptable applicants?

    Sorry for the long post…I’m kind of stressing out.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Evan,

      Stop stressing out. If students from your high school regularly get admitted to Ivy League schools, then these universities will be familiar with your school’s wacky policies. These highly selective universities just want you to take as many challenging courses and tests as you possibly can at your school, and they understand that different opportunities are available at different schools. If you are outside the U.S., they will understand that you can’t do UIL or whatever. Do pursue whatever alternatives are available in your community. In short, just keep up the good work and let me know when you get your acceptance letter from your dream school.

      Best,
      Calvin

  21. Maham says:

    Hello,
    I’m an international student who follows the British education system and I did my GCSE’s (freshman+sophomore) years in London, while I’m currently doing my A levels (junior+senior) in Bangladesh (my dad works in the embassy, so we tend to movie around quite a lot).
    I had 2 A*’s, 6 A’s and 4 B’s for my GCSE’s, amounting up to a GPA of 3.9, whereas for my A levels (which are as hard as, if not harder than AP’s) I’m predicted to have 3 A’s and 2 C’s. This combines to give me a GPA of 4.1 out of 5.0/3.2 out of 4.0.
    When I combine both my GCSE’s and A levels, my GPA is rounding up to a 3.95 out of 5.0/3.69 out of 4.0.
    My question is, if my overall GPA is not completely horrendous (which, I believe they aren’t?) will the individual 2 C’s in my junior+senior year be a problem in the admission process?
    Also, my C’s are due to the fact that I had to move between continents and adjust to a completely new environment between my GCSE’s and A levels. So, will the universities be taking this into account?
    And overall, what are my chances of elite universities (ivy leagues) as well as say, the top 20 liberal arts colleges? And should I be targeting these colleges for myself? Also, hypothetically speaking, if my SAT score was 2300, and something between 700-800 for each of the three subject tests, then would my chances improve?
    Thank you so much for all your help and I’m very sorry for that awfully long question(s) above. Thank you!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Maham,

      When it comes to highly selective college admissions, Cs are always problematic. They say they want straight As and for the most part, that’s what they expect. They might overlook a few Bs or even a C, but you had better make sure that the rest of your application is amazing. I would say definitely aim for a 2300 or above on the SAT, and don’t forget about SAT Subject Tests. Now, because you’re on the British system they may view your grades slightly differently, but generally they want you to get the best marks that are possible in whatever system you’re in. It does sound like you’ve had a pretty amazing international high school experience, so you might write about your travels in your admissions essay. While I wouldn’t dwell on your grades, in such an essay I could see a passage like this:

      “But moving around so much wasn’t always fun and games. In fact, sometimes it was really tough. I would have to make new friends, figure out a new school, and adjust to a new culture. Juggling friends, grades, and [insert extracurricular activity here] was hard, and sometimes I let one of them slip. But with time, I learned how to overcome these challenges, how to be self reliant, how to pick up everything and start anew. If I can succeed anywhere in the world, then I’m sure I’ll have what it takes to meet the demands of [insert university]’s famously rigorous curriculum.”

      This makes a quick, veiled allusion to the apparently negative grades and puts them into a positive context: overcoming challenges, personal growth, developing an unstoppable workaholic spirit – stuff college admissions officers love. Also, they will totally eat up a story about learning to appreciate other cultures. However, if you mention it at all, I wouldn’t say more than that. You may want to write an essay about something else anyway, depending on what other talents and experiences you want to write about. Of course, if you do want to include something like the above passage in your essay, make sure you rephrase it in your own words. Please do not plagiarize!

      While the most selective schools may frown on those Cs, I would still apply, because you never know what they’re going to do exactly. Slightly less selective schools probably won’t care that much, and I’m sure that if you keep up the good work and make the rest of your application really shine you will get into an excellent college. In the mean time, study hard and make straight As for the rest of high school!

      Best of luck,
      Calvin

  22. Alyssa Tsuboi says:

    Hi Calvin!
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the Ivy League process! It has helped me a lot. I am currently a senior with a weighted 3.94 GPA and I have taken 6 AP courses. I have gotten a couple of Bs throughout the year, and I’ve scored over the 2000 mark on the SAT. Yet I feel like because my Bs I am a weaker candidate for Columbia, somewhere in the top 25%. However, junior year I was school-wide Vice President, and this year I am President. My question is, how much do leadership roles affect the strength of my application? Will it make up for my grades?

    Thank you!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Alyssa,

      The only way to know for sure is to apply and see. If we’re talking like, two Bs, it’s probably not a big deal (I had three on my transcript – 2 in sophomore Chemistry and one in junior year Physics). Your extracurriculars are very impressive. See if you can’t raise your SAT score a little more (until you get a 2400 there’s always room for improvement, and every point helps). It sounds like you have a strong application, and I’m sure that wherever you end up for college you’ll do fine.

      Best,
      Calvin

  23. Amani says:

    Hello,
    I am currently taking three IB classes. I have an A in each class. However, I am taking regular Precalculus. I find that I am really struggling with the material. I would like to know whether I should drop precalc and go back to algebra 2? I’m worried that my grade in precalculus will ruin my GPA

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Amani,

      Have you already taken Algebra 2? If so, I don’t see how you could retake it. I would definitely encourage you to seek help from your teacher during lunch or after school if you are struggling. I’m sure he/she will be happy to help you – it’s what teachers do best! If you put in the time and effort and get the help you need, either from a teacher or a private tutor, I’m sure you can master precalculus. As with just about everything in life, practice makes perfect. Keep up the good work and best of luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  24. brian says:

    do they only look at your semester grades, or quarter grades?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Brian,

      In the U.S., generally they only consider semester grades. What they actually look at is your high school transcript, so whatever shows up there is what they see.

      Hope this helps,
      Calvin

  25. Erie says:

    Hi, I’m into my first semester as a freshman and I really want to switch from my current school, Debakey to Bellaire. After extensive research, I have finally decided that Bellaire is the best high school for me and I will be committed to work extremely hard there to get into Princeton or UPenn, the goal that has driven me throughout my entire academic career. But the problem is I feel like it may be too late for me to compete there. At debakey I took health, PE, and study skills/ speech for one semester but they are full courses. If I transfer to Bellaire, how will my schedule work out. Would it be speech, PE and an elective? Many of the people I know who go there have already taken health and speech in the summer by correspondence, can I do that next summer or do I have to continue the courses? I want to be in the top 10% but I feel like my late decision is really costing me. I really want to do well at Bellaire because I love visual arts and have won many contests but the art department at Debakey is almost nonexistent (not many opportunities there to do what I love.) I have a 4.5 GPA now (all pre-ap except algebra 2, health, PE, and studyskils/speech. What is the top 10% for Bellaire? Basically I am just confused about the best classes for me to take in the second semester (9th grade) to get the best GPA possible ( at least in top 10%) Once I know Im on the right path, I can focus on working hard instead of worrying that Im being held back.
    Thank you so much,
    Erie

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Erie,

      Typically, academically competitive sophomores at Bellaire take AP World History, Pre-AP Chemistry, Pre-AP Algebra 2 or Pre-AP Pre-Cal, Pre-AP English, and a Pre-AP Foreign Language, plus an elective or two. For you, one of those electives would probably be Pre-AP Art. At Bellaire, Health is usually covered as part of PE, and it is possible to test out of speech if you do debate for a year (this is a popular option with some students because at Bellaire, Debate is a 5.0 class). Similarly, if you take AP Comp-sci you can count that as your computer requirement and take a typing test.

      I believe you are asking if the administration will require you to finish the health, PE, and speech courses you began this semester if you transfer to Bellaire next semester. I do not think so, because according to the sample schedule posted on the BHS website, Heath and PE are normally broken up between Freshman and Junior year. I would try to take as few 4.0 classes as you can in school and complete as many of them as possible by correspondence or through the methods mentioned above. This is because you want to take as many 5.0 classes as possible in order to raise your GPA.

      If you want to have a chance at getting into UPenn or especially Princeton, you need to be at least in the top 5% at Bellaire, which basically means taking as many 5.0 classes as possible and getting As in all of them. You should also consider doing IB in addition to AP. Good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

      • Erie says:

        Dear Calvin,
        Thank you for your thorough advice! I have asked a lot of people and no one gave such experienced and helpful answers as you did. I have 2 last questions and my decision to go to Bellaire will be final. So, basically I am required to be in two 4.0 classes (at Debakey) that competitive students at Bellaire won’t be taking (study skills and magnet algebra 2). I am in the fall semester for 9th grade and I really want to transfer to Bellaire for the spring semester of 9th grade. I was just wondering if two extra 4.0 classes for a semester would pull me out of the top 5%. Basically its like having two B’s in a pre ap class for a semester. Even if I take a complete AP/ IB course with all 5.0 electives and never get a single B would these two 4.0’s from Debakey affect my GPA? What would you say the top 5% is at Bellaire? And last question, would you say AP or IB courses are better for ivy leagues in your opinion?
        Thank you very much,
        Erie

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Erie,

          I think it would still be possible to be in the top 5%. If you read the blog post above, I explain that I myself got Bs two semesters of pre-AP Chemistry and one semester of AP Physics, plus I had to take a few required 4.0 courses. Note that courses taken by correspondence do count as 4.0s on your transcript – what you’re doing is freeing up space in your schedule for more 5.0 classes that will raise your GPA and class rank. For the Ivy League, AP and IB count the same. Doing both is even better! Especially since Bellaire offers both AP and IB, the most selective schools would be very impressed if you did both (IB isn’t that much more work than AP anyway). Fancy pants schools like Harvard generally want students to take the most challenging course load offered by their high schools, so your best bet would be to do both if you’re aiming for the most selective schools.

          Best,
          Calvin

          • Sai Pandrangi says:

            Dear Calvin,
            My name is Sai Pandrangi and I’m a sophomore at HBHS. I have a college dream of going to Northwestern, Duke, Rice, Brown, and UCLA. I have gotten all A’s in my life. However, my first and second quarter of this year I got a C+ and C in APUSH. My teacher isn’t doing a very good job of teaching. I want to be able to bring my grade up to at least a b+(Maybe an A-) by the end of the school year. What do I need to do? My teacher has not been much help. I don’t know how to help myself for the tests and even the AP exam. What would you suggest to do?

            Thanks,
            Sai Pandrangi
            Sophomore@HBHS

          • Calvin says:

            Dear Sai,

            My sophomore year of high school, I had an eighty year old chemistry teacher who had been teaching at my high school since it had opened 50 years before. There were retired teachers at my high school who had had her for chemistry. She was definitely past her prime. A typical class would go like this: she would open the text book and start reading from it. After a while she would look up and see that no one was paying attention, so she would smile weakly, open up a drawer and say “How about a little pop quiz?”

            She literally made up the grades. There was one kid who had a dad who was a chemist, and most other kids would copy whatever he wrote down on his tests and quizzes and homework. As for the rest of us – if she liked you or thought you were smart you got an A. Otherwise a B. If you got on her bad side, a C or worse. We also suspect she might have been just a little bit racist against Asians. She gave me Bs both semesters. I didn’t learn any chemistry. She retired the next year.

            So, look on the bright side! Things could always be worse! However, no matter how bad your teachers are, colleges don’t care. There are no acceptable excuses in their eyes. You NEED to bring that grade up to at least a B for your semester grade. Fortunately, you should be able to get by in APUSH by memorizing the textbook. It’s mostly just memorizing names, dates, events, and -isms. Nothing a few flashcards can’t help with. When it comes to projects and papers, ask your teacher for help. Go in during lunch and after school. Finish a draft of a paper early and bring it to your teacher for feedback so you can figure out exactly what he or she wants before you turn it in for a grade. Ask other APUSH teachers at your school for help, too. During class, write down everything your teacher says. See if you can find an excuse to transfer to a different teacher’s class next semester. Whatever happens, know that there are no excuses. You cannot blame your grades on your teachers. Ever. If there are kids in your class that have As, then it is possible to get an A even with that teacher. Ask them what they are doing. Try to study with them. Also, not that you would do this, but just because I feel I need to say this, DON’T CHEAT. If you get caught cheating you can kiss your dreams of going to one of those colleges goodbye. One student in my class plagiarized an essay and got caught. You can imagine what it was like when he needed to ask teachers and counselors for college recommendations. As far as the actual AP exam goes, the APUSH textbook should prepare you for all the factual info you need. The only things you might worry about are the essays. There are many APUSH guidebooks for sale online or at your local bookstore that should give you an idea of what is required for the essays. Just make sure you sit down and do timed practice for each kind of essay until you’ve got them down. I know it’s tough, but you can do it.

            Best of luck,
            Calvin

  26. Jay says:

    Dear Calvin,
    I attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology; previously #1 in the nation. It’s a highly competitive magnet school where every student attending would have been top in their class at their base schools.
    In order to challenge us, the classes at TJ are EXTREMELY difficult; so much that in fact some say that TJ is more difficult than most colleges. In accordance with this, grades are not very high; most students generally have at least one B; maybe even lower. Do colleges know how difficult different schools are, and if not, is going to an excellent high school like TJ actually detrimental to me?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Jay,

      Yes! Colleges do know that some high schools are much harder than others and they take that into account! While you might think that transferring to a less competitive school could give you an advantage in terms of class rank, this isn’t always true. Highly selective colleges understand that being #40 at a very competitive high school can mean more than being valedictorian at a not so great high school. I would not worry about that. Also, being in a highly competitive environment can help you achieve more than you would otherwise, since you are surrounded by students with the same goals (and the strongest bonds of friendship are those forged through shared suffering…I mean, shared studying). See if you can find out which students from your high school got into your target colleges in previous years, and see if you can ask them what GPAs and class ranks they had. Whatever they had is what you need to have. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  27. Samira says:

    Hi Calvin,
    I’m a junior in high school and I was wondering if you could help me. For both freshman and sophomore year, I overloaded myself with extracurricular activities along with an extremely rigorous course load. I took all honors freshman year. During that year, my uncle died in a car accident which impacted me greatly. As a result, my grades dropped and I ended with a C+ in geometry when I used to have a 98 or 99 average in the class. I did math team, Harvard Model Congress, quiz bowl, Indian classical singing, speech and debate team, while searching for volunteering opportunities. Sophomore year, I took all honors along with the only AP offered to sophomores, AP Statistics. I realized that I was trying to take on way too much so I quit most of my clubs and kept Indian classical singing while pursuing competitive fencing.
    However, the fencing club was an hour and a half away from my home and it started to become really hard to balance everything. Statistics was the most difficult course of all of my courses: even those who were considered math geniuses could only scrape by with Bs. I ended with a C in the course. As you can guess, I was absolutely devastated. I had gone from being a straight A+ student in middle school, my teachers and friends all said that I was guaranteed to go to Harvard, my dream school. Over February and April breaks, I volunteered with my fencing club and got a volunteering position over the summer which I enjoyed very much. In the meanwhile, I was studying for my AP courses that I’’m currently doing: AP Biology, AP US History, and AP Spanish. I skipped a level of Spanish, doing sophomore honors Spanish as a freshman, and I have gold medals in the National Spanish Exam. I’m volunteering at another hospital right now and I hope to become a literacy tutor over the summer.
    I guess what I’m trying to ask is, are my chances absolutely ruined for going to Harvard, or any Ivy League school? I have learned from my failures and I’ve become much stronger. I am a hard worker and I’m doing everything I possibly can to make up for my lower math grades. Please help me. (I’m sorry for the very long post!)

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Samira,
      Honestly, your chances of getting into Harvard right now probably aren’t very high. Cs really hurt you when applying to the nation’s most selective schools. There are a number of things you can do as far as damage control goes. When it comes to personal hardships and calamities like the loss of your uncle, it’s best if you do not mention them in your essays. Your teachers and counselors, however, can and should mention them if you believe they would help explain your grades. When you ask teachers for recommendations, you should do as much of the work for them as possible. Write up a sheet that will remind them of all your accomplishments and remind them of a nice anecdote or two from your time in class with them. On this sheet you can also list unusual challenges that you have had to overcome, and they can argue on your behalf that some lower grades can be explained by extenuating circumstances. When you ask them for recommendations, make sure to have a conversation with them about things you want them to mention. Doing well in your other math classes, especially more advanced ones (AP Calculus?) can also potentially help show colleges that your lower grades were temporary lapses rather than indicators of lack of ability.
      If you’ve done your research and Harvard or another Ivy League really is your dream school (and not just the most prestigious school you’ve heard of – reputation alone is NOT a good reason to apply to a school), then you should still apply, but know that at this point it’s a long shot and make alternative plans as well. There are many excellent schools that are a little less selective (10 to 20% acceptance rate rather than 5% acceptance rate) that you might have a better shot at. Also, realize that the honors programs at state and local universities can give you career outcomes that are JUST AS GOOD as those Harvard can if you plan to pursue a traditional path like pre-med, pre-law, engineering, comp sci, etc. You don’t even really need an Ivy League undergraduate diploma in order to pursue a stellar career in academia – you might be surprised to learn that many professors who teach and do research at Ivy League schools didn’t start out there.
      It doesn’t do any good to look back and wish you had done things differently. However, looking to the future, I hope my articles have shown you the importance of making a detailed (yet flexible) step-by-step plan for achieving your goals. Know that even if you don’t get into Harvard for your undergraduate degree, if you plan ahead you can go there for graduate school (the process of getting into an Ivy League for grad school are similar to those for getting into one for undergrad – instead of extracurriculars, you have internships/summer jobs/research/publishing/etc.). Regardless of where you end up for college, I’m sure you are a very smart, talented young person and if you work hard and plan ahead, you are going to have an amazing life. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!
      -Calvin

  28. Alima says:

    Thank You so much for this post. It gave me a bit of hope. I’m that type of student who works hard(like really hard)to get the grade I want. I have pretty good ranking, GPA, as well as challenging courses. I applied to Columbia also so I’m hoping they see that potential in me.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Alima,

      I’m glad you have found my articles heartening. If you have everything on the checklist, you should have a good shot at getting in. Remember, though, that being accepted always depends on an element of luck. There are valedictorians with perfect SAT scores who get rejected every year. If you aren’t admitted, that doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t good enough. If you are admitted, that doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone who was rejected. What is important is that you are proud of your achievements for their own sake and that every day you push yourself to be better than you were the day before. If you do that, you will be successful no matter where you go to college. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  29. Helena says:

    Hi, I go to a pretty selective high school with about 40 Ivy acceptances yearly (top 10% of the grade). Freshmen year I had all A-s in honors classes and a B- in musicianship because my parents were against my taking it and because I cannot hear differences in pitch. Sophomore year I was determined to improve my grades, and made all As in honors, with a B+ in AP Biology. However, junior year, knowing that I personally HAD to get straight As in every single class I was taking (including four APs: Lang, APUSH, Spanish, and Stat), I became so fearful of grades and assignments (reverse psychology) that I did really poorly the first semester with B+s in all the APs except Spanish (A-) and A- in all the other honors classes (precalculus, chem). By the way, I have been getting As in Science Research these past two years. I am really worried that I am afraid that I will make any more mistakes because I calculated that I needed a 94 in the next semester in order to bring my B+s to A-s. Worst comes to worst, I will have accumulated 3 B+s in APs, 1 A- in AP Spanish, A- in precalculus, and most likely As in chemistry and AP science research. I am so worried because this will give me a 4.04 weighted GPA, which with my last year’s 4.28 will only give me a 4.16. This will put me in the top 20% of the class, something I have never dreamed of happening because I had always thought that I could easily be in the top 10%. (with a 4.21+). Junior year hasn’t been good for me at all, with a lot of anxiety and stress and most importantly, I just realize that no matter how much I want to do well and plan it all out, I lack some intrinsic motivation. I just cannot do it, it seems like. Whereas I was so disciplined and hardworking and determined in sophomore year, this year everything seems so abstract. Do I still stand a chance at the IVY LEAGUE colleges? I do not know what I can do…Btw, I am Asian so that more or less weighs against me. Harvard has always been my goal since I could first remember, but right now any Ivy would be fine. Most importantly, I cannot forgive myself for messing up the most important year due to lack of motivation, lack of discipline, lack of work ethics, etc. Will this cause me not to be accepted?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Helena,

      First, I would ask you why you want to go to an Ivy League school. Because everyone says they’re the best? Because your parents want you to? Because all your friends are trying to get in? If you don’t feel motivated, then it may be because in your heart going to an Ivy League school doesn’t seem that important to you, even if everyone around you says it is. I fully believe that all students should try to push themselves to do their best academically, but it’s also true that doing what it takes to get into an Ivy League school is extremely time consuming and thus requires high school students to make sacrifices for their grades. You are clearly a very bright, capable student, and if you continue making As and Bs for the rest of high school I am sure that you will get into a good college that will allow you to get the education you need to pursue the career of your dreams. If you make straight As and get 5s on all your AP exams and have great extracurriculars, etc., etc., then you might have a chance at one of the Ivy League schools, but Harvard is probably a long shot at this point. Whatever happens, don’t give up! The higher your GPA, the better your choices will be when it comes time to decide where to go to college. Even if you don’t get into Harvard by making straight As for the rest of high school, those As will help you get into a better school than a mix of As and Bs would. Never give up on your grades and never stop trying to be the best you can be. Also, realize that even if you don’t get into your dream school straight out of high school, you could still get there eventually as a transfer student or as a grad student. I highly recommend that you read the last post in the Ivy League series for more thoughts about Ivy League admissions. In the mean time, keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  30. Clare says:

    Hi Calvin! I am a sophomore currently enrolled at a public high school that offers both AP and IB courses. The gateway into these programs is through Pre-IB classes. Currently, I am in AP US History (Junior Class), Pre-IB French 3, IB Chem I (Junior Class), Pre-IB Honors Algebra II, Pre-IB Biology, Pre-IB Language Arts, and one unweighted elective. I ended this semester with a 4.8 weighted GPA. As far as extracurricular go, I have participated in Youth in Government (a program sponsored by the YMCA in which students write legislation and then spend four days at the state capital as representatives/senators debating and voting on legislation) and the school tennis team. I am also a leading position in a club called Women Lead to Change (participants find organizations to sponsor and work for the organization through volunteer work and spreading word of the organization) as I am in charge of keeping up a weekly blog concerning our club’s activity. I am also planning on applying for my school’s National Honors Society. I’m not worried about my GPA or the classes I am taking, for they are the most difficult my school has to offer, but I am concerned about my extra-curriculars. Do I have too little? I play the flute, soccer, and love taking nature photography, but I only do them in my free time (the limited amount of free time I have…). What do you think I should do? Do I have enough extracurriculars? Should I do more community service over the summer? The issue is that with all the classes I’m taking, it is difficult to find time to participate in many clubs during the school year…Thanks!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Clare,

      It sounds like you are right on track. You only need two or three extracurriculars that you are serious about and do all four years. The others can be less serious. Summer is a great time do extracurricular activities that you may not have time for during the school year. For instance, you might try doing music or soccer during the summer. I don’t know what’s available in your area, but there may be a summer soccer league or summer youth symphony or music camp you could do. It’s just nice if you can do these things as part of some organization.

      Also, now that you are a sophomore, you should start thinking about leadership and awards. What leadership positions are available within Youth in Government and Women Lead to Change? What awards can you get by doing those activities? To really seal the deal for Ivy League admissions it’s good to have a “wow” factor in your application – something unique and impressive that makes the admissions people go “wow!” Winning awards can be one way to get there. Alternatively, if you are having trouble finding awards you can win, you can just do something self-evidently awesome. For instance, if Women Lead to Change does things over the summer, you might consider trying to lead and organize an ambitious volunteering project over the summer or something like that. Also, even though you don’t spend that much time on it, you might consider submitting some of your photography to contests – who knows, you might win something. It might also be nice to compile a portfolio of your photographs to submit as supplementary materials with your application.

      If you feel like you have time during the school year, you *might* consider joining either your school’s band/orchestra or a soccer team (probably not varsity), but only if you can do it without sacrificing your grades. Otherwise, just do those things during the summer. Remember, your grades are the most important. You sound like you are doing great just as you are though and I expect you will get into an excellent school if you keep up the good work. Best of luck!

      -Calvin

      P.S. – I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but Junior year’s gonna be crazy, so don’t overextend yourself.

  31. Michelle Chen says:

    Hi Calvin,
    Currently I am an international student and a junior at Garrison Forest School, Maryland. The second trimester just ended and I unfortunately got a C in AP Chem. I have asked many teachers at my school and they all said AP Chem is the hardest course at our school. Most of my classmates got grades in B range. I am super worry that would my C grade under these circumstances affect my chance of getting into an Ivy league school? I got straight A’s and one B+ (English) in my freshman year, straight A’s and two B+ (Mod-Civ and Honor Precal) in my sophomore year, and right now by the end of the second trimester, I got straight A’s in English III, French III, American History, and Honor Physics, but I got a B in AP Calculus BC and a C in AP Chem. I am working on my SAT I, SAT II and TOEFL right now. Besides my academic achievements, I have played the piano for 14 years and got the first place in a state competition in 2012. I volunteered in Beijing at an international Exposition and I will be a volunteer in Bali for two weeks this summer. I am involved in Academic Mentor Program at my school since my freshman year. I will have a 3D Portfolio and an Architectural drawing profile by the end of this year as well. Right now my big trouble is my AP Chem grade. I will not major in Chemistry (In fact I was not even going to take this course. Although I signed up for this course at the end of my sophomore year, I eventually decided not to take it. But bad luck, because of some miscommunications they signed me up already and I could not change it). I also have a trouble on deciding my major and minor. I am interested in both Environmental Science, or Economy, or Biology, and Architectural or Architectural Design.
    Do you have any points to make on my grades if I am aiming for Ivys? Or any suggestions?
    Thank you so much!

    • Michelle Chen says:

      Two more things. Right now I am also the Co-head of a music club.
      The AP courses that I am going to take next year are AP Biology, 3D Portfolio, and Advanced Calculus. Besides, I am going to do WISE (Women in Science Engineering) at John Hopkins University. (My school has this program with John Hopkins)

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Michelle,

      Of course, I can never predict where you’ll get in with certainty, since there simply aren’t enough spots available for every highly qualified candidate to go to an Ivy League school. That said, if you still want to have a chance at an Ivy League school, it’s got to be straight As from here on out. Your extracurriculars all sound good, but in the coming months, remember: never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars. You are going to have to plan ahead, be organized, and not procrastinate if you are going to successfully juggle everything. Above all, you are going to have to put in the hours. Basically, buckle down, put your nose to the grindstone, and don’t look up until you get your final grades at the end of senior year. It will be a tough slog, but if you want it, you can do it. If you make straight As for the rest of high school it’s going to help you a lot in the college admissions process whether you go to an Ivy League type school or not.

      As far as deciding your major(s) goes, it’s good that you’re thinking about that now, and while you won’t have to make a decision for a few years, you should start taking steps to narrow it down. Try doing internships or volunteering at companies or with individuals who are pursuing careers that interest you to see if you think you would actually like them. Also, when you get into college, you could just go with whichever program(s) that college is strongest in. When doing your college search and deciding where to apply, it’s always a good idea to have a few majors in mind so you can make sure that you apply to schools with strong programs in fields that interest you. Also, when you look at colleges, make sure you find a dream school (very hard to get into – Ivy League), a reach school (a school you can probably get into), and a safety school (a school you definitely can get into) for most of the majors you might be pursuing. Remember that even for Valedictorians who spend their summers saving starving children in the third world, admission to the most selective colleges in the country is still partly luck of the draw, so it’s important to have back up plans no matter how good your grades are. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  32. amy says:

    can i get in with a 2.0 gpa? the only good thing i have going for me: I am an olympic gold medalist and speak fluently 6 languages.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Amy,

      First of all, let me congratulate you on your Olympic gold medal! I am truly honored to be corresponding with one of the most amazing human beings on the planet. Winning an Olympic gold medal will definitely impress Ivy League schools as well, since it represents years of hard work, self-discipline, and determination, qualities that will make you successful in just about any field. Indeed, winning an award that names you “best in the world” at something is one of the only ways to make up for a less than stellar GPA. That said, you still need to show them that you are prepared to handle the academic rigors of an Ivy League education, so it would be in your interest to try to bring up your GPA. You are perhaps the only person I have encountered for whom the rule “never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars” doesn’t apply. Obviously, your athletic pursuits are the most important things in your life right now and you don’t want to take away any time from training and practicing, but I’m sure that if you put just a fraction of the effort that you put into your training into your school work, you would see amazing results. I think you’ll find that training your mind is very similar to training your body (except your schoolwork will probably be way easier than pushing your body to the limits of what is humanly possible). It just takes discipline, efficient and accurate practice, and some time. I’m guessing the last one is going to be the main issue for you. You might have to kiss any precious free time you have goodbye, but if you really want to go to the Ivy League for college that’s a choice you’ll have to make. See if you can’t put a little more focus on your grades and start making As from here on out. Once again, you really are an inspiration and I wish you all the best. Keep up the amazing work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

      • Helen says:

        Hi Calvin,
        This might be a little out of context but do you now if Colombia’s Summer programs for high school student is also highly selective?I’m a junior in France in a class “Sport and studies” ,so we were all already selected on our marks,physical condition and alpine ski level (about 15% of acceptance).I only have had A and B’s and my general average is A+ this year ,I am also going to work in a real state agency this summer and have been part of the Youth Parliament of Alpine Convention and speak 3 languages,french,english and italian (and german and spanish but not very fluently ) .And I also finished 1st in a regional championship and 6 in a national ski race a few years ago,does it counts for the admission?I was thinking of applying in the “Introduction to Business,Finance and Economics” course.Do you think I stand a chance?

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Helen,

          Honestly, I’ve never heard of this program before, but it sounds kind of similar to one I did at Oxford University the summer between my Junior and Senior years. My guess is that you will get in if you apply. The program isn’t cheap and there isn’t any financial aid offered, so that probably limits the number of students who apply and makes it easier to get in. If you can, I would definitely do it. It’s basically like a vacation that looks good on your resume/college applications, and it will probably be very interesting and lots of fun (I definitely get misty-eyed and nostalgic when thinking about my month in Oxford). It also seems like they admit lots of international students, which is good for your chances of getting in. Make sure you thoroughly review all the information on the program’s website:

          http://ce.columbia.edu/high-school/nyc

          Bon chance!

          Best,
          Calvin

          • Bemnet says:

            Hi!
            My junior year is coming to a close and it has been… eye-opening to say the least. I’ve visited Columbia and it is my dream school, but I’m not too sure whether or not I can get in or even handle it there. I don’t go to a very competitive school at all and my school doesn’t rank or anything but they do offer a lot of APs. My cumulative grade as of right now is a 3.7 unweighted, but my SATs and subject scores aren’t very high. I previously took it a few months ago and got an 1850 because my math score was bringing me down and in my bio subject test I got a 670. With my grades, I’ve failed all my math exams consistently… I just do not perform well on the tests but I’ve gotten As and Bs in the classes, resulting in Cs for the semester grades. It’s the only subject area I’ve ever gotten a C in! I am an African-American female, low-income who will be the first person to go to college in my family. Do you think I still stand a chance? My schedules are rigorous (for me at least) but I steadily improve my grades each year. I am running for president of NHS, I am the top editor for the school newspaper, run my own advice column, I volunteer at a hospital, and I’m taking 3 AP classes next year with a college course. I love reading and writing both fiction and non-fiction but I just suck (for lack of a better word) at math. Even if I go to a top-tier school, will I be able to handle the intense math classes that would be required for a science major of some kind? It’s the college math that scares me the most since I’ve never had a math teacher that really got the material to me and numbers just don’t mean much to me. So yeah, what do you think my chances are at Columbia or any top-tier school when math is such a problem for me?
            Thanks!!

          • Calvin says:

            Dear Bemnet,

            Junior year is notorious for being the toughest year of high school, and it’s when many students start thinking about college and realizing what different colleges expect. The Cs in your math classes will be a serious strike against you when applying to Ivy League-type colleges like Columbia, and your test scores aren’t quite where they need to be in order to get in either. Now, you can certainly improve your test scores over the summer. If raising your SAT score is important to you, I would recommend you take a Test Masters course over the summer. We offer a 300 point score increase guarantee and we also offer online and telephonic courses that are available to anyone regardless of location. The courses are a great deal compared to similar programs offered by our competitors, and they really work – I teach some of them myself. If a course is not an option for you, you can still study and prepare on your own. I would recommend that you use College Board’s Official SAT Guide, which contains many valuable practice exams. As with everything, on the SAT, practice makes perfect.

            Concerning the difficulty of college courses, realize that college will be as hard or as easy as you want it to be. If you want, you can take Physics for Poets as your science credit, major in psychology, take only easy classes, and have a pretty stress-free college existence (but maybe not so many job prospects when you get out), or you can be a pre-med and study constantly just to pass (but maybe get into med school if you do well enough). This is true at any reputable university, from Columbia to community college. If you want to pursue a science-related major, it’s going to be tough at most universities and require math. The least math-intensive science is biology, which could be useful if you want to go to medical school, graduate school for biology, work in the health care industry, or do environmental work (you can also always pursue a career unrelated to your college major, as many people do). It sounds like you are actually probably better at math than you might think, and your difficulties with exams might be due to test-taking anxiety rather than problems understanding the material. This is going to be something you have to work through, because in college grades are almost exclusively based on tests and papers.

            You should be very proud of your accomplishments and realize that you are going to be a great candidate for most universities. However, getting into Columbia may be a bit of a stretch. You should still apply if it is your dream school – you never know what might happen – but remember to be realistic about your expectations. Wherever you end up going for college, know that if you work hard, do your best, and plan ahead, you are going to do great. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

            Best,
            Calvin

  33. Kevin says:

    Hi,
    I’m currently a Junior. My SAT score was a 2130, and my Superscore is a 2210 across three tests (660 CR, 770 M, 780 WR). My GPA is a 4.0. I’m worried about my AP exams because I don’t think I did to well on them, especially Chemistry. If I’m aiming for science/premed schools such as Johns Hopkins, how bad is it if I score like a 2, but maintained an A in the class all year long? Also do races play a role in college admission (Asian, Caucasian, etc.) and how important are SAT IIs for schools
    like Hopkins and Notre Dame?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Kevin,

      It sounds like you have great grades and decent test scores. Chances are if you made an A in Chemistry then you probably got something better than a 2 on your AP exam. Don’t worry – it’s normal to walk out of the exam and feel like you did really badly even though you actually didn’t (I know that’s how I felt about AP Physics). While it is important to demonstrate ability and interest in prospective majors through good scores on related AP exams, about 50% of students change majors at some point in college, so it’s more important to get high scores on as many AP exams as possible, regardless of what subject they are in. Concerning SAT Subject Tests, the Johns Hopkins website says the following:

      “Freshman applicants are strongly encouraged to submit two SAT subject tests. Applicants interested in an engineering major are strongly encouraged to submit scores from the Mathematics Level 2 SAT subject test and at least one science SAT subject test.”

      If you are not yet familiar with the websites of the colleges that interest you, then you should definitely study them thoroughly. All of the information you need about a college’s SAT Subject test policy can be easily found on its website. Usually, it is best to take SAT Subject Tests when you finish a course in May or June. That way, you can study for them while you are also studying for AP exams and finals. If you have not signed up to take any SAT subject tests yet, you should definitely do so if you plan to apply to Johns Hopkins. If it is too late to sign up for tests this June, then sign up for the first ones in the Fall and study hard for them over the summer so that you don’t forget the material. You want to get at least a 700 on each one, and above 750 if possible.

      Your SAT Verbal score could definitely be higher, and with practice/test prep I’m sure you could break 700. At Test Masters, our SAT course comes with a 300 point score improvement guarantee. Obviously, your score is already so good that you can’t improve by a full three hundred points, but I think a hundred point increase in your Verbal score could be possible with enough work. Check out our classroom, one-on-one, telephonic, and online course offerings at http://www.testmasters.com. Summer is a great time to do test prep, and I would be happy to work with you myself.

      You also asked if race plays a part in college admissions. The short answer is yes; most colleges strive to have racially diverse student bodies in the interests of promoting tolerance and correcting historical injustices to members of underrepresented minorities. You specifically mentioned Asians and Caucasians in your question, so I’m going to assume that you are wondering if this interest in helping underrepresented minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc.) puts Asians and Whites at a disadvantage. The answer is not really. While a few spots at a university might be given to members of underrepresented minorities whose test scores and grades may not be quite as high as those of the rest of the incoming students, chances are these students have also faced more challenges (poverty, community violence, less access to educational opportunities and resources, being the first in their family to attend college) than other students, and when you take that into account their accomplishments are at least as remarkable as those of their classmates, if not more so. Honestly, if both your parents are doctors and they started preparing you for Harvard since you were born by sending you to the best private schools in town and by paying for all your extracurriculars, tutoring, test prep, etc., then getting into a top college isn’t really that remarkable. Sure, you still have to do lots of work, but there’s someone to guide you every step of the way. If you come from a single parent household where your parent works three part time jobs and still struggles to pay the bills and you go to a “drop out factory” for high school and you somehow manage to get good grades and some good AP, SAT, and SAT Subject test scores, that’s pretty impressive. Most students fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but you can see a little bit why college admissions officers take race and class into account when deciding whom to admit – it takes a pretty special person to beat the odds, and if we are going to live in a more equal society, change has to start somewhere.

      Also realize that minority students from middle to upper class backgrounds are increasingly held to the same high standards as other students and have to be just as good in order to get in. Consider Kwasi Enin, whom we recently profiled in a blog post, a Ghanian-American from a middle-class family who was accepted to all 8 Ivy League schools. Sure, the Ivies were probably eager to accept such an accomplished minority student, but the fact is he was just as accomplished as most other students who were admitted regardless of race, so it’s hard to say that his acceptance was unfair to White or Asian students. If you read my Ivy League series, you will see that he did everything I recommended, so it’s no surprise he got in.

      A more important question might be whether Asians are disadvantaged compared to Whites when it comes to elite college admissions. A study of admissions data from 1997 (presented in Espenshade and Radford’s 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal), suggested that Asian students had to score 140 points higher than Whites on their SATs in order to get into elite colleges. No one could possibly argue that White students need preferential treatment over Asians in college admissions, so to me this is a more serious allegation. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (an organization dedicated to protecting Asian Americans from discrimination, including in college admissions) argues that these findings are misleading and don’t actually indicate discrimination. What is the truth? I’m not sure, and this is an issue that I think about often as someone who works in the test prep industry. Personally, I think there should be much more transparency in college admissions and colleges ought to release more data so that we get a better understanding of this issue.

      Regardless of the issue of race, you need to realize that the students make the school, not the school the students. If you are a smart, talented student, then you will improve the school you go to, whatever it is. If you work hard and do your best academically, you will get into a college that will have all the resources you need to get into medical school or pursue the career of your choice. Realize that you are in control of your future, not college admissions officers. It’s important to go to a good school for undergrad, but whether that’s Harvard or the honors program at your state university is less important. Both can lead you to a great career if you work hard and plan ahead, and preparing yourself for a future career is ultimately what college is all about.

      In short, if you always try your hardest, then you’ll do fine. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  34. Kevin says:

    Hi again,
    Thanks for responding. Just to add on – I’ve already taken the SAT 3 times so does it look bad to take it a fourth time just to attempt to break 700 in CR? Also let’s say I bomb the SAT IIs in June, no college will be able to see them right? Also I’m a 1st generation for my family – my parents and beyond never went to college, but they worked hard for me to have a private education. Is that an advantage or disadvantage (not Hispanic or black). And do colleges HAVE to see your AP scores? I actually think I bombed the AP Chem because this year they changed the format and it was a lot harder IMO. I’m pretty sure I’m set on a science major, so I’m just really concerned to how colleges will view high class grades but below average AP scores.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Kevin,

      According to College Board’s Score Choice policy, you choose which scores you send by test date for both the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Note that for the SAT you cannot only pick certain sections to send – you must send your scores on all sections for a particular test date. So if you want mix and match your scores from different tests, you have to send all of the scores from the tests you are mixing and matching. You can also choose to withhold specific AP scores from your AP score report for a fee. So, if you really did do badly (which I still doubt you did) no college ever has to know. If you do get below a 3 on an AP exam, you would probably want to withhold that score.

      The fact that you will be a first generation college student is impressive and will help your application regardless of race. You and your parents should be very proud of your accomplishments! American colleges want to promote a meritocratic society and believe it is important to give opportunities to hard-working, talented students of all backgrounds, especially first generation college students. If you continue to work hard and always try to do your best, I’m sure any college would be lucky to have you as a student. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  35. Siraj says:

    Dear Calvin,
    I am currently a junior at a very competitive public high school. I am involved with 5 activities at my school with awards (usajmo) and leadership positions in each. I am aiming for Ivy League admission with a major in bio. I have taken 6 APs and will have 11 + college math by the end of senior year. I have a 2400 SAT and 5’s on all my AP tests. However I got a B in PE my freshman year. This irritates me bc I am a varsity athlete and got injured while playing for the school, resulting in my B. Other than this I have a 4.0. My question is “How much will this affect my Ivy League admission chances?”.

    Thanks,
    Siraj

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Siraj,

      The B in PE is nothing to worry about. If you want, when you ask your teachers for recommendations, you can tell them what happened and they can argue on your behalf and explain why you got the B. Note that when you ask for recommendations, you want to give your teachers copies of your resume (which should include everything you plan to put on your application) and possibly a personal statement reminding them of your accomplishments in their classes, personal anecdotes from class, and anything like that B you would want them to explain for you. Note that your math or history teacher can write about the B for you – you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) ask your PE teacher for a recommendation for this reason. Your teachers will appreciate any help and guidance you can give them when writing your recommendations. Remember that your teachers are on your side – a success for you is a success for them, so they will want to help you. You do not need to mention it yourself anywhere in your application. Honestly, when you consider everything else you’ve done, that B really doesn’t matter. I hope this puts your fears to rest. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  36. Liz says:

    Hi Calvin,
    I just finished my freshman year (at Troy High School, CA) with straight As both semester. The school I go to sends several students to Ivy Leagues every year but I have also heard that colleges do not really pay attention to freshman year grades. I took one AP Bio exam this year but I don’t think I did very well. How many APs would you recommend for me to take during high school? Many students at my school take around 8-10 by the time they graduate, so I was wondering if I would have to take this many to get into an Ivy League.
    Also, is it better if the APs I take align with what I want to major in in the future? I am not really sure what I want to do when I grow up and am nervous that taking APs that don’t have anything to do with my interests may be wasting my time.

    • Liz says:

      I also have one more question. For extracurriculars, I have been playing the piano for 10 years and have received several awards and performed with orchestras when I was younger. Would colleges be more concerned about the awards I receive during high school, and if they did, woudl the awards have to be highly distinguished for them to make an impression? I am also currently working for the gold medal in the Congressional Award. Would this help as well?

      • Calvin says:

        Dear Liz,

        I love piano! Congratulations on your musical accomplishments – what concertos did you play with orchestra? Anyway, to answer your question, more recent awards that you achieved during high school are going to carry more weight on your college applications, but you should still put down earlier ones, especially if they are impressive (like playing with orchestras). Any awards you win in high school are worth mentioning on your application, even if they were easy to get. As long as you have space, list ‘em! Put the most impressive/important ones first, and cut the less impressive ones if you run out of space on your application (which probably won’t happen). I’m not too familiar with Congressional Awards, but they sound spiffy and definitely can’t hurt. As long as it doesn’t interfere with grades or your main extracurriculars I say go for it! Keep up the good work, and good luck.

        Best,
        Calvin

        • Liz says:

          Hi Calvin,
          To answer your question, the concertos I performed with orchestras were Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 when I was 10, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, in C Minor Op.37 when I was 11. I also performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor Op. 16 last year and hope to perform Beethoven’s 5th (Emperor) Concerto next year. Performing has been such great experiences for me and I’m so glad I have been blessed with such opportunities.
          I was hoping to take the AP Music Theory exam next year but I’m not sure how well prepared I am. I passed the Level 10 CM Theory exam with a perfect score, would the AP exam be much more difficult? How would you recommend for me to go about studying for it? Thank you!

          • Calvin says:

            Dear Liz,

            Wow, you’ve performed some great pieces! You must practice like crazy. Congratulations and good luck with the Emperor Concerto. With regard to AP Music Theory, the exam basically tests dictation (intervals, melodies, rhythms, and 4-part chorales) and 4-part roman numeral harmonic analysis. There might be a few questions about orchestration/instrumentation and style/history, but mostly it’s ear training and roman numeral figured bass stuff. At Test Masters we offer practice tests you can take as well as tutoring for the AP Music Theory exam (I would probably teach you). If you are interested, you should give the office a call at (281) 276-7777 or (800) 910-3926. I would say it can’t hurt for you to take it. Even if you don’t get a 5 it’s worth a shot since you probably won’t have to study too much and even a 3 or 4 on the test would be good (it’s also an elective rather than a more standard “academic” class, so colleges probably wouldn’t care as much if you didn’t get a 5). Whatever you decide, keep up the good work and good luck!

            Best,
            Calvin

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Liz,

      Freshman year grades DO count! Freshman year is a great time to make straight As and boost your GPA because your freshman year classes are probably the easiest ones you will take in high school. Some students don’t realize what it takes to get into the Ivy League and don’t start really trying until Junior year, and by then it may be too late. Good job for planning ahead and taking freshman grades seriously!

      As far as AP exams go, take as many AP classes as is possible at your school and take as many AP exams as you can. In high school, I even had friends who took the AP European History and AP Psychology exams without taking the courses just so they could boost the number of AP exams they took! These kinds of hijinks may not be necessary, but know that yes, you are going to want to take at least 8-10 AP exams. With regard to which exams to take, I would say it probably doesn’t matter. Just take as many as possible and try to have a balance of Math/Science and Humanities. If you plan to go to engineering school or MIT or some other very science heavy program, then taking more advanced science exams is going to be important, but for a normal liberal arts and sciences college, it doesn’t matter as much. I believe about 50% of college students change majors at least once, so admissions officers realize that your current interests may change. The important thing is to show that you can get 5s on just about any AP test you take. Hope this helps! Keep up the good work and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  37. Michael says:

    Hey, I’m a sophomore and I just got my grades back for freshman year and the overall in my French class was an 89. First semester was a 92, second semester was an 86, they average to the 89. All my other grades were A’s, French was the only year grade B. Since that was my first year of high school and I have a while left, provided I do everything right (in terms of grades and extracurriculars and whatnot) is it still possible to make it into an Ivy League? I really haven’t a clue where I want to go, my only hazy idea is Cornell to possibly do Engineering. Thanks!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Michael,

      You can recover from the B. Just don’t let it happen again! Also, make sure you understand how your high school calculates GPA. When calculating GPA, does your school use grades per semester or per year? At my high school they used grades per semester, so under that system your French grades would count as one A and one B instead of just one B for the whole year. Your school might do things differently, but make sure you completely understand how it works so that you don’t accidentally put yourself at a disadvantage. Other than that, keep up the good work, and make straight As from here on out! If you do that, as well as everything else I recommend in this series, you will still have an excellent shot at a spot at an Ivy League school. Good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

      P.S. – I’ve heard that the Amish ice cream at the Cornell cafeteria is really good. Start doing more research this summer about different colleges to find out which ones might be the best fit for you. Consider visiting colleges, and check out the following articles I have written:

      http://collegeadmissions.testmasters.com/college-visits-101/
      http://collegeadmissions.testmasters.com/college-visits-101-talking-professors/
      http://collegeadmissions.testmasters.com/college-visits-101-talking-students/

  38. Campbell says:

    Hi! Thanks for the great information in your article! I am just finishing finals in my junior year of high school and will be applying to colleges pretty soon. I would like to apply to colleges on the East Coast such as UPenn, Carnegie, and Columbia and want to work on a major in engineering. The only B’s I have on my transcript are a B+ in AP Biology, a B+ for one semester of Algebra 2 and a B for one semester of Honors Calculus A. Since I want to major in engineering, how detrimental to my application would a couple B’s in math be? Would a solid Math 2 subject test score make up for anything?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Campbell,

      A good Math 2 Subject Test Score would definitely help, as would a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam. Honestly, one or two Bs can be okay, but you are kind of pushing it. Do not get any more Bs for the rest of high school. What kinds of grades have you made in science classes like Physics and Chemistry? If you made As in those classes and 5s on their corresponding AP exams, that could help, too. You still have a chance at getting in, but from here on out you are going to have to make As and only As. Remember, most universities would love to have you as a student and don’t get too caught up in the cut-throat world of Ivy League admissions (which is a little bit out of touch with reality if you ask me). As long as you work hard, do your best, and plan ahead, you are going to do very well in life no mater where you end up for college. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  39. Vincent says:

    Dear Calvin, Thank you for you excellent post. It is the most helpful and insightful. I am at 9th grade and I like Biological science subjects and plan to go into medical field. I have a dilemma that I am in Orchestra and was told I need to finish 4 years of Orchestra in high school to show commitment. But that takes away available hours for me to take Physics. So I want to ask if not taking physics will lessen my chance of acceptance to Ivy League school like Harvard or Princeton for a science major or pre-med. I have a 4.0 GPA Since junior high and in school golf team since 8th grade. Should I quit Orchestra and take Physics?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Vincent,

      Are you sure there is no way to do both? When I was in high school, advanced orchestra always met the period after lunch, which was the same time the Higher Level IB Math class met. There were always a few kids who wanted to do both, so they would attend class with a less advanced orchestra and go to IB Math after lunch. They still performed with the advanced orchestra group and attended after school rehearsals once per week with the advanced orchestra. Would a compromise like this be possible at your school? Speak with your teachers and counselors to find out if there isn’t some way to continue with both. You are currently in 9th grade, so I’m guessing you have some time to figure this out, since students usually take Physics junior or senior year.

      If you must choose between the two, then consider the pros and cons of each option. If you take Physics, that shows academic rigor and could allow you to take another AP Exam, which could help you stand out and could give you more college credits (and even allow you to place out of cutthroat pre-med Physics classes at some colleges). On the other hand, Physics is probably harder than orchestra and if math and science aren’t your strongest subjects it might be difficult to make As in Physics. Also, while Physics looks good on any high school transcript, it’s probably more important for math/physics/engineering majors than for bio majors. Regarding orchestra, if it’s one of your most important extracurriculars then it’s important to try to do it all four years, but not absolutely necessary, especially if you have others that you do all four years (like golf and/or something else). Consider that I, a music major, only did orchestra for three years (because I took AP Music Theory freshman year of high school instead).

      Ultimately, the decision (if you have to make it) is up to you. I really can’t tell you what choice is right for you. Generally speaking, your academic courses have more weight in college admissions than your electives. Taking Physics has greater risks but potentially greater rewards. I guess if I were in your shoes I might lean slightly towards Physics, but it really depends on what is more important to you and what you feel comfortable doing. Ideally, you will be able to figure out a way to continue doing both. Let me know if you have any more questions. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  40. Kriti says:

    Hi! I aspire to be at Princeton. Due to family issues, I had a great fall in my grades during junior year. However now in senior year grades are back on track & I am among top 5% of class. Rest everything including recommendations are fine. Please advise.

  41. Sarah says:

    Hi Calvin!
    I completed my freshman year this year. I took my AP Bio exam this year, and I am very nervous about my score. I don’t plan on pursuing a major in biology during college, but took it because I heard it was good to take as many AP exams as possible and wanted to get it out of the way. Unfortunately, I didn’t prepare enough for the exam. I think I most likely received a 3, hopefully a 4. I am planning to take quite a few more APs throughout high school, but I was wondering if all AP exams that I take will be shown to the colleges I apply for and whether a 3 on the AP Bio exam would be detrimental to me. Please let me know!

    • Bill says:

      Sarah,

      You can withhold AP scores on your applications, but you must specifically request this for each college you apply to. Learn more about withholding AP scores here.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  42. Clara_ says:

    Hi,I’m a freshman from Canada. We have a different marking system, 80% or above is considered A, 70% or above is considered B, etc. I’m taking 8 courses during my freshman year and I’m gonna get 2 80s and probably 70s on visual art(it’s really hard, most people are below 80).
    So how should I calculate be GPA? I’m planning to get all 90s in grade 10, but will my grade 9 grades hurt my chance because I got 80s and probably a 70s? I really want to go to Ivy League universites.
    Thank you

    • Bill says:

      Clara,

      Different percentages translate to varying GPA’s on a 4.0 scale. Visit this site to calculate your exact GPA on the US scale.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  43. Seth says:

    Hello Calvin, I’m currently a rising senior at a fairly prestigious private Catholic high school. However, I transferred there at the beginning of my junior year from a lesser-known, but still respectable, public high school. My freshman and sophmore here I received straight A’s and A+’s but was unable to take AP/honor classes because my high school didnt offer them (I took the hardest classes that were offered, however). My junior year I took 3 AP and 2 hours and received As in all the classes except for AP calc which I got Bs both semesters.
    My ACT score is currently a 32; however, I’m waiting for my second test score. In addition, I’ll retake the ACT again in September and take the SAT in October (a whole summer of studying will surely raise my score up a couple points). I can still apply for early admission with these scores.
    My extracurriculars are vast and ranging. I coach special olympics and am apart of NHS as well as math team. This summer I will be at Northwestern for a prestigious civil leadership program which last 3 weeks.
    My final component of my application would be athletics. I play club and high school soccer and, although I may not be able to play big D1 soccer, I think I could play for many of the Ivys.
    Do you think I have a good chance getting into an Ivy, all things considered?

    • Bill says:

      Seth,

      The most important aspects of your application will of course be your GPA, Class Rank, and standardized test scores. One thing you did not mention in your post are SAT Subject Test scores. While you can greatly help yourself in terms of becoming a competitive applicant to a competitive school by submitting high scores on both the SAT and ACT, you should also remember that many Ivy League schools will require you to take and submit SAT Subject Tests as well. Many Ivy Leagues, like Harvard for example, only require you to take and submit two SAT Subject Tests, but often times they will “strongly recommend” that you take and submit three.

      As you construct your overall college admission timeline, you should keep in mind what days you will be able to take these tests (they are administered on the same days as the SAT) and the amount of time you will need to properly prepare for them. If you feel like you can improve your ACT score I certainly encourage you to retake it, but I would temper that zeal with a dose of practicality- you only have so much time left to you and it is important that you meet all the requisite admission criteria, and that you give yourself an adequate amount of time to ensure success on these exams.

      A couple of B’s will not disqualify you from admission, particularly in a subject like AP Calculus, so I would not worry too much about that aspect of your application.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  44. Grace says:

    Hello Calvin,
    Throughout the posts I can see that there’s a lot of emphasis on getting 5s on AP exams. How bad is a 4 or a 3 in comparison and at what point would you recommend we not send to the colleges? I’ve gotten a couple 4s on my APs and don’t want it to be detrimental to my application.

    • Bill says:

      Grace,

      You can learn more about how AP Exams are Scored here. If you browse the link I’ve included you’ll learn that a score of 4 is officially considered “well qualified.” Don’t be afraid to submit 4’s! An AP score of 4 demonstrates the proficient and working knowledge of the subject matter that will be expected of students attending competitive colleges. An AP Score of 3, however, might be better left off your resume for the purpose of admission to an Ivy League school.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  45. Amy says:

    Hi Calvin,
    I’m a junior in high school and we recently got our ap scores back. So can’t believe I’m saying this but I got a 2 on the subject! This was extremely weird because I had a solid 98 in that class. I personally feel that the exam score doesn’t reflect y knowledge on the area subject. Will this ruin my chances of getting into an ivy league school?!?! Im also a full IB candidate, but we were required to take this ap class freshman and sophomore year. Is there any hope!!??

    • Bill says:

      Amy,

      You can withhold AP scores on your applications, but you must specifically request this for each college you apply to. Learn more about withholding AP scores here.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  46. mohamed says:

    Well i used to live in the us for 12 years then my family decided to go to egypt for 4 years so i just came back at the begining of this month and i had a 7 hour meeting with my counceler and she calculated my credit and from 7 8 9 and 10th my credit is a 21.5 and i am a junior my gpaa is a p because the law says foregin countries they dont calculate any year for the gpa so my gpa is 0 i choose my classes ap bio ap eng 3 ap us hist pre ap calc hst1 and sem of art and sem of pe and in egypt its education is very hard each subject is probably 200-400 pages each semester

    • Bill says:

      Mohamed,

      It’s not uncommon for international students to be nervous about how their GPA impacts their chance of admission to a US college. Don’t be! So long as you maintained a competitive GPA and class rank at your school in Egypt, you should be fine. Ivy League schools receive a large number of international applicants every year, and they have a fairly routine process by which they calculate your international GPA. You can rely on sites like this one to give you a better idea of what admission officers will eventually calculate when evaluating your applications. Alternatively (and this is what I would recommend), you can visit the websites of the colleges you will apply to and see if there is publicly available information about how they calculate international GPAs.

      One of my mantras when it comes to giving advice to young, competitive students such as yourself is that you can only control what you can control – this means that if you are concerned about your previous status as an international student impacting your chances of admission to a top tier university, then certainly you can and should be proactive (conduct independent research on the issue, meet with your counselor, contact the university you are applying to for specifics, etc.), but you should also recognize that your control over this is limited. What you can do, however, is control what is within your ability to control – like registering for a challenging course load (which it sounds like you have), participate in relevant extracurricular activities, and prepare for and excel on the standardized tests you will be required to take.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  47. Marius says:

    Hello Bill or Calvin,

    Recently I found your website and have been looking through the great articles. Thank you for all the information offered here. I am one of the students looking forward to going to an Ivy (or schools with same levels of extremely studious student body and education, but of course, my dream is an Ivy like most people) and, well, what people say (as well as your comments) strongly indicate the low chances I have. So here I go – in my freshman year, all A’s without any weighted. Sophomore year, one B in the entire year with just two weighted courses – one honors and one AP. Although I had that B show up in my transcript, I thought I was doing fine and had hopes for an Ivy. Then I hit Junior year, and currently I am in the summer before becoming a Senior year. …and all of a sudden I am pretty devastated and trying to sit at desk 12 hours a day studying (and only recently did I realize even this isn’t even close to the amount of studying done by Ivy students) because without an all A in the next semester to put in the college app mid-year report, I absolutely won’t have anywhere to go and the same will be with my whole life. I had three APs and two honors in my junior year. First semester ended up with a D in my English AP course, a B in AP history, another B in AP math course, another B in my honors science class and barely an A with my Spanish honors. My two other non-weighted electives, music and French, had As but who would care about that. Second semester I think I tried better but looking back, I really wasn’t. Good thing in my second semester I still had A in Spanish and brought AP history to an A as well, but my science grade remained the same B, English AP only raised to a C, and the math AP, well, dropped to C. I’m just aiming for a medical field major, but these grades are probably the most devastating ones you’ve read so far in this article’s comments, although I didn’t get through all of them. I think i just didn’t realize that studying hard in my high school years was going to spread the range of choices and opportunities in my life by going to a good college. My dreams shattered – though not totally yet – and it was because I was absolutely lazy. For extracurricular activities, I’ve been part of a local student orchestra throughout high school years and this year they decided to put me in an officer position, the only leadership I’m going to ever hold in my high school career. I had volunteer activities, once went to volunteer for a whole week in an outdoor school week, and have been part of Track team for all years. I worked in the weekends, and for the whole year I was taking at least one course from the community college in my city. But even with all of this my EC isn’t even close to what other people going to Ivy have done, especially because I haven’t been awarded with any notable recognition. My SAT and ACT scores are in the top fifth percentile, which I’m studying to bring them up to first percentile.

    I’m planning to keep all of my activities going throughout my senior year too, but I’ll probably stop working and study instead, to really get those all As – next year I’ll have four APs, one honors and two unweighted electives again. I didn’t show improvement in my Junior year, but if I really get the good grades next semester, how much will it be considered by the admissions office? How much will they take my present extracurricular activities into account? I just want to know what you think… and I’d prefer to read a direct and harsh reply if I’ll be getting one from you. Thank you.

    • Bill says:

      Marius,

      Don’t be so hard on yourself! While these types of grades will negatively impact your chances of admission to an Ivy League school, they will not immediately disqualify you from admission. It sounds like you are realistic about your chances of being admitted to an ultra competitive college, and that is important, but you should not abandon hope just yet! My advice would be to continue to strive to maintain a high GPA and complete all the other prerequisites you would need to apply to an Ivy League (SAT II’s, stellar admission essay, active participant in extracurricular activities, etc.). Even if you are not admitted to your school of choice, all of that work will help you in terms of admission to an Honors program at a less competitive college. Also, remember that if you maintain a high enough GPA as an undergraduate, you can always attempt to transfer to an Ivy League school after your freshman or sophomore years. Likewise, if you are planning on pursing an M.D., if you maintain a high enough undergraduate GPA, you can take a look at applying to an Ivy for medical school.

      Thousands of students are able to successfully maintain a perfect A average throughout high school, however that is in no way the norm. The vast majority of students will at some point, in some way, falter in high school. Although this site is regularly visited by these ultra-competitive students as they conduct research on what is required and what they should do to become similarly ultra-competitive applicants to Ivy League schools, you should not be too down on yourself for failing to maintain these extreme standards of excellence. Yes, admission to Ivy League schools is increasingly competitive, but you do not have to attend an Ivy League school to have a successful professional career.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  48. William says:

    I’m currently in 11th grade and about to start IB this year. I’m really willing to get into a good college but I am worried about my grades. In 10th grade, I kind of messed up my English grade. English is not my first language and as I had moved to a new school in 10th grade, I didn’t have a good idea on how to do things. We get three report cards per year (international school) and a grade out of 7. On my first grade I got a 5 on the second 6 and on third a 6. And for my participation grade for the second report, I got “insufficient” (out of poor, insufficient, good, very good and maximum). I did all the work required but it’s just that I didn’t speak up that much in class. Do you think the 5 and the ‘insufficient’ will prevent me from getting to an ivy?

    • Bill says:

      William,

      If you are a non-native English speaker, then you can take other steps to demonstrate proficiency in English to an admission officer. You should consider taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Some schools, like Harvard for example, treat international applicants the same as domestic applications, so they do not require international applicants to take the TOEFL, but in your case this test could very well serve to address any doubts an admission officer might have about your ability to keep up in an academic setting.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

      • Eduardo says:

        Hey Bill, thank you for the post!

        I’m an international junior student from Colombia.
        Even thou I had taken the most challenging courses offered by my school throughout High school, I’m afraid my grades don’t meet the standards. I could be easily ranked 5th among the 70 students that make up my generation. I had an average of 93% last year and I’m lowering my grades even more this year with a 91% on the first semester. I don’t how to correctly convert percentile into GPA, I personally used college board’s conversion table but I don’t know if that’s the same one used at the admission offices. I took the SAT as a sophomore in order to get acquaintance with the whole system but my score was considerable low.
        As of right now, I’m unsure of applying into any Ivy.

        My school is a private american based school, not trying to sound brat or anything but here in Colombia learning english is a privilege public education is unable to offer due to corruption, war and many other factors. Been able to learn not only english but french is really something groundbreaking here were I live and that’s why I ‘m proud of my school and participate as member of the Student Council. Last year this dude from my school was accepted into MIT, Harvard and Columbia, but I’m not even close to his grades reason why I’m doubtful if applying. My strength is present mostly on extracurriculars, as a member of MUN Club (going as secretary general this year), the Student Council, member of the director’s board in community service, Green Club, vice president of the School’s band and of the National Honor Society , and finally member of the Art Club. I could say I’m really good at debating winning many debate distinctions throughout the country and maybe because of this I was elected Secretary General at an OEA university model. ( I have definitely no idea if that’s a relatively high accomplishment compared to those of impressive students applying each year.) Outside school I’m currently learning Portuguese, first aid ( in order to apply as member of the Red Cross) and if I’m able, I practice swimming and yoga during my free time. It’s notable that my grades are affected by the extracurriculars and because of this I’m really unsure if I meet the academic standards. As many students, been accepted into one of these academically monstruos universities is my dream. Do you think I still have a chance to get in or should I look for other universities? Do you have any tips for me? BTW I ‘m really thankful for the post. It’s uncomfortable to talk to my counsellor at school therefore I try not to ask her many questions.
        Thank you again and Happy Holidays!

        • Bill says:

          Eduardo,

          The absolute most important aspect of your application are your grades/GPA (also, the College Board conversion tool is reliable). Although all of the extracurricular activities you’ve listed here are very impressive, particularly for having achieved so much in so many different endeavors; however, without a correspondingly elite GPA, your chances of admission will suffer (TO BE CLEAR: this does NOT mean that you have no chance of being admitted the schools you’ve listed as your top choices). My advice would be to do everything required to apply to these types of schools – SAT Subject Tests, AP exams, recommendations, sterling application essay, etc. – and go ahead and apply. You should also be realistic about your chances of admission and be sure to apply to a few other “safety” schools as well.

          Hope this helps!

          • Eduardo says:

            Thank you for the advice Bill, I’m really sorry for writing so much and I hope it didn’t seemed arrogant. I get enormously insecure with applying and really don’t know what to do concerning my grades. I’m sure I will try to figure something out.

  49. Nicole says:

    Hi, Thank you for the great advice!
    I was wondering just exactly how important playing a sport is to get into an Ivy-League. I realize that all Ivy-Leagues look for students that are well-rounded in all aspects. But is it still possible to be accepted by not playing a sport and instead participating actively in leadership, excelling in academics, and doing a lot of community service?

    • Bill says:

      Nicole,

      Traditionally, excellence in sports demonstrates a few key personality traits that admissions officers actively seek. As a former All-American high school wrestler, I can attest to the difficulty it takes to compete athletically at a high level. When you think of high achieving athletes you think of words like commitment, discipline, and competitiveness; these are all attributes that translate directly into real-world success. This is really what admission officers are seeking – students who will go on to become successful in the real world and be good ambassadors of the university brand. The point of playing sports in the context of admission to a highly selective university is to demonstrate these characteristics to an admissions officer – if you can accomplish this outside of athletics (think Debate, Mathletics, Quiz Bowls, or other academic competitions), then your application should not suffer.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  50. Annie says:

    Hi Bill or Calvin,

    I’m currently a sophomore in my high school’s honors program, which basically forces you to take APs in every possible subject until you graduate.

    Currently I have a C+ in AP Physics 1, a B- in AP Calc AB, and an A in AP World, though I’m steadily improving-I just got a B+ on my previous calculus test, and I did pretty well on the quiz we just took in physics! Would the grades I have now be detrimental in my getting into Brown (my dream school) or Yale or Columbia (my other top choices)?

    • Bill says:

      Annie,

      Less than stellar grades will impact your chance of admission to a top university, however, they will not not necessarily or immediately disqualify you from admission. The truth is that you do not need a perfect GPA to be admitted to these schools (although it certainly helps), what you absolutely need is a competitive GPA. Other factors notwithstanding, you can consider yourself a competitive applicant so long as your GPA is at or above a 3.5 (out of 4.0). That said, the higher your GPA the better your chance of admission. This infograph may give you a better idea of Brown’s admission standards.

      The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of admission is to continue what you are already doing – improve your grades!

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  51. Jennifer says:

    okay now i’m freaking out. I”m a junior and I found out that I’m only in top 20. I can defniitely raise my grades to top 10 by the end of my junior year but I”m not really sure about top 5%. I’ve taken 5 sat 2’s and received 800’s on all of them. My Sat and Act scores are very high. sat is in 2300 range and Act is in 30 range.. Some seniors who are in top 10 got into really competitive schools like Gdorgetown but i’m still just freaking out. Do I have to be top 5??? And my school allows me to take only one ap in my fm and sm year so I only took AP WORLD HISTORY but I got 90’s on them. I’m only tkaing one ap in my junior year, but i’m planning to take about 4-6 in my senior year… Does taking only 1 ap in your junior year look bad? But I”m in all honors… Help!!

    • Bill says:

      Jennifer,

      You do not have to be in the top 5 of your high school graduating class to be admitted to an Ivy League. It is more important that you are able to demonstrate that you have taken a challenging course load – that is, that you have taken and done well in the most challenging courses available to you. If AP classes weren’t available to you, a great alternative to demonstrating competency in a subject is to take the SAT Subject Tests, which it sounds like you have been doing. Taking all honors classes when AP classes are not available is an equally effective alternative (although, you might consider taking the AP tests in those subjects – you do not have to take AP classes to take AP exams, and if you do not score well on an AP exam then you can simply choose not to share that specific exam with the schools to which you are applying. Learn more about this here and here.)

      Provided the other aspects of your application are in order, it sounds like you are doing quite well (although, you could potentially improve your ACT score; a good score goal on the ACT should be a 32+).

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  52. Gav says:

    Hey! I’m currently a junior in a teeny tiny private girls-only college prep high school. Because of the meager population, the class options are VERY limited; only ONE AP course offered(AP Chem)! Nevertheless, I took on the MOST rigorous course load my school would allow. I even took Pre-Calc in the summer so I could take Calc,with the seniors, as a junior(never before done at my school). Academically, FR year I got one B+ every quarter that kept me from straight A’s. But SPH year, I received all straight A’s in all Honors Classes and currently am receiving only straight A+’s in all Honors. Also I am currently second rank in my class of 36 and striving for valedictorian. For extracurriculars, by the time I graduate, I will have completed 4 years of basketball and 3 years of Lacrosse. I am a member of several clubs at school such as Big brother Big sister, which is a mentoring program for elementary school children, and National Honor Society. I volunteer at the front desk of a local hospital, tutor peers, and assist the elderly at a nearby Genesis. For leadership, I am currently VP of my class, founder and president of World Cultures Club , and Captain of both lacrosse and basketball. I plan to be President of school and NHS next year also. Because I aspire to be a pediatric oncologist one day, I shadowed an oncologist all summer long and to gain some further experience I will be attending a “Mini-Medical Camp” this coming summer. As for tests, I currently took the PSAT and hopefully received high scores to be a National Merit Scholar. My plan is to take the SAT in a few moths(goal b/t 2300-2400), 3 SAT Subject Tests and an ACT. SO sorry for writing so much but I wanted the most accurate portrayal of myself. Now, my #1 is definitely Harvard. I was wondering based on this info. Do I have a shot? What am I lacking?

    • Bill says:

      Gav,

      Based on this information, you will be as competitive an applicant as anyone else. Remember though, every year hundreds of applicants are denied admission to prestigious schools for no more complicated a reason that there is simply not enough spots for every qualified applicant. The unfortunate truth is that there is amount of luck to being admitted to these types of schools.

      The best you thing you can do to help yourself gain entrance to a top university is to follow through with your game plan. It sounds like you have a good one!

      (Also, be sure to keep your grades up.)

      Hope this helps!

      Bill

      • Jeffrey Ma says:

        Hey! I am a freshman and I am wondering if I am on the right track. My high school doesn’t allow students to take any honors or AP classes except math for freshman year. So i’m taking Geometry H A+; Art A; English A; Track; World History A; but i am not doing so well in Biology B. I’m not sure if i can bring the biology back to an A because i’m studying pretty hard but i just can’t bring it up. If i finish freshman year with one B am I done for?? HELP!

        • Bill says:

          Jeffrey,

          Most high schools don’t allow students to begin taking multiple honors or AP classes until sophomore year, so you are not behind schedule at all. A single B won’t ruin your chances of admission to an Ivy League school. Of course, you would prefer to have straight A’s, but a single B in Biology would only really impact your chance of admission if you target a degree path with an emphasis on Biology. If this is something you are planning on doing (think, for example, a pre-med undergraduate degree path), then you can “make up” for the B by demonstrating competency in the topic through another means, like taking the AP Biology test or SAT Subject Test in Biology.

          Hope this helps!
          Bill

  53. I recently found out that I got a B on my midterm and a B- on my first quarter (half of the class) of Algebra 2. I am so sad and crying because I think that I just lost all possibilities to attend a prestigious university. Is it over for me?! Btw I’m a sophomore and in pre-AP Algebra 2.

    • Bill says:

      Patrick,

      The year is young! You still have plenty of time to raise your grade. Additionally, as mentioned many times throughout this post and in the comments, a single B on your high school transcript will not automatically disqualify you from consideration at a prestigious university. Although it is obviously better to have straight A’s, a couple of B’s will not horribly diminish your chances of admission to an Ivy League type school. Remember though, if your transcript includes less than perfect grades, it is very important that you try to “make this up” with some of the other aspects of your application – extracurriculars, standardized test scores, essay, etc. You should also keep in mind that even if you aren’t able to raise your grade to an A by the end of the year, you can demonstrate competency in Math in number of ways – Math Club, AP exams, and SAT Subject Tests, just to name a few.

      Hope this helps!

  54. Rahul says:

    Hey there. I am currently a freshman at Westwood high school, which is considered to be one of the most competitive public high schools in the nation. To give you an idea, last year, our school produced 54 national merit finalists, and in 2011, almost 300 out of a class of 700 earned straight A’s. Right now, I have low A’s in many of my classes, and I’m worried that in such a competitive school, my class rank is going to be utter trash. I know that freshman year is a little early to fret about this, but many of my friends have much, much better grades than me (one of them was clicking his tongue in frustration after getting a 97 one a quiz. Yeah). Calvin, the author of the article said he was in the top 5%, but now the top 10% seems like its a stretch. What do you think my chances would be of getting into an Ivy league? Once again, I still have all A’s in my class, just low ones. ( I know this might sound a little biased, but I’m also Asian, and I know how many Asians face much more competition for getting into an ivy league)

    • Bill says:

      Rahul,

      It’s never too early to start thinking about things like class rank, grades, and college admission!

      Class rank at competitive schools can be very tricky. The higher your class rank, the better your chance of admission to a prestigious university; although, the importance of class rank diminishes slightly at schools that are known to be competitive and regularly have students accepted to top tier universities. Generally speaking, many schools include “students admitted that graduated in the top 10%” (or some such verbiage) as a separate admission statistic. This suggests that an emphasis is placed on graduating near the top of your class, but not necessarily at the very top of the class. This may seem counter intuitive to you and other readers, but it makes sense within the larger context of a holistic admissions process.

      Basically, every student admitted to a top 10 university is going to have a sterling academic record – that is a given. Thus, other aspects of a student’s application become increasingly important at these universities. This is why we so strongly recommend that students participate in myriad extracurriculars and focus on earning quantifiable honors and achievements.

      Obviously, the higher your GPA and class rank, the higher your chances of admission to a prestigious university – and there is no substitute for poor grades. However, if you can earn a spot in the top 10% of your graduating class, all else being equal, your application should be competitive.

      Hope this helps!

  55. c says:

    Hi,
    unfortunately I am not from the US (I’m from south east asia, in fact) so I don’t have a clue on the education system (what is an AP class if you don’t mind me asking? haha) but I’ve just recently finished high school and my IGCSE examinations. I did not put my 100% effort in it – and I regret that, really – so I’m predicting about 2 or 3 Bs, perhaps, out of the 9 subjects? I was just wondering whether my failure of getting straight A’s would greatly bring down my chances of being accepted into an Ivy League or if I could make it up if by scoring a great SAT result and GPA. I suppose I am quite accomplished in terms of co-curriculum activities; I am a national chessplayer and have taken part and won in many tournaments abroad, I’ve gotten best female athlete in my school once and won numerous athletic school awards, represented my school in the track and field team, am the house captain of athletics, soon to be piano graduate (I am anticipating to learn more musical instruments such as the guitar and violin very soon), for leadership qualities, I am a school prefect and I’ve participated in many community service activities in my Interact club such as visiting orphans and holding many awareness campaigns and I also hold the Club Service Director post in the club, one of the top students in creative writing, I’ve taken part in numerous musicals and I speak three different languages – I also speak English rather fluently (i hope this is taken into consideration as it’s not my native language!) also, I’m 16 and taking the American Degree Program course. I will be enrolling into a local college in 2016 for a year or two before transferring to America so I will have plenty of time to take part in activities throughout 2015. Still, I know my high school results play a big role and I’m afraid this will bring me down, even with all my activities going on and if I get a strong SAT result & GPA.

    • Bill says:

      Cam,

      AP stands for Advanced Placement – basically, AP classes are honors (advanced) classes, and AP exams are tests of knowledge in these various class subjects. You can learn more about AP classes and exams here. It is worth noting that even as an international student who has never taken an AP class, you can still register for and take AP exams (depending on your exact location – you can learn more about potential AP exam options here). Also note that if you take an AP exam and do not score as well as you would like, you can always choose NOT to share your score when you apply to college (learn more about AP Score Choice here).

      Now that we have gotten the AP information out of the way (which I strongly recommend you research – as an international student who has not taken an AP class, a good AP score can really set your application apart), we can discuss some of the other things you’ve mentioned. This has been mentioned on other responses and in various posts on this website, but a few B’s will not necessarily ruin your chances of admission to a top 10 college. This is particularly true for students who have participated and excelled in a number of other extracurricular activities, as you clearly have.

      Another important aspect to consider is that you will be applying as a transfer student. If you are planning on completing the first part of your undergraduate education locally, it is very important that the classes you initially take (before transferring) correspond to the degree requirements at the school to which you will transfer. Most universities have very specific degree requirements. If you are not careful, you may have to complete additional coursework which can translate into additional time as an undergraduate (and even worse – more $$$). Research the degree requirements of the schools to which you want to transfer – these types of schools regularly accept international students, so they will most likely have a list of general/core curriculum classes you can complete at your local universities. Also, as a transfer student, the B’s you mentioned earlier will be of less consequence as your most recent GPA will be what is considered more important in the application process.

      You should keep in mind that most Ivy League schools give equal weight to international applicants – this means that your chance of admission will not be hurt due to your international status AND that you will have to meet all the same application requirements as US applicants.

      Hope this helps!

  56. Zach says:

    I started a diversity club at my school. Will this be considered a leadership position? It also became a huge hit with the my school. How can I convey on my application that this club is really important at my school? I am also involved in 4 other clubs that I do not hold titles in. Additionally, I have put in a lot of effort into writing and publishing my book. Is this a substantial amount of extra curricular activities?

    • Bill says:

      Zach,

      It certainly sounds like a substantial amount of activities! Keep in mind, though, that elite admissions officers value quality over quantity. One of the best ways to convey the importance of an activity is to demonstrate, not state, it in your essay. For example, you do not want to say “I started a diversity club and it was important at my school”; instead, show them why it was important: “In response to the elevated cultural tensions our country has been experiencing, I founded a Diversity Club at school – this club has led to a profound and engaged peer group conversation about different experiences, cultural realities, and the importance of diversity in America. Our club, “ABC Diversity”, meets twice a week and maintains a membership of over 50 students.” You would want to expound on this in a way that conveys how you grew personally through your participation in such an activity. The same advice could be applied to discussing a book you published in high school – try to demonstrate its importance to you rather than just state it.

      Hope this helps!

  57. JL says:

    Hi,

    I’m a freshman right now at a pretty competitive high school (it’s well known in our area but in the country I’m not sure if it places very high in the nation) , and our school accounts for a large percent of Asians in our state. I am already trying to raise my GPA (I’m at a 4.333 right now and I’m a freshman) by taking AP Chemistry and two Honors, but there are 5 people in my year that I know of who are in two AP classes and their GPA is already at a 4.7. However, I am 1st singles JV on the tennis team and my school tennis team is well known and state champs almost every year. In addition, I do drawing and have won some state titles whereas the five kids who have higher GPA’s don’t do many significant extracurricular activities. Who do you think would have more of a chance getting into an Ivy League? What else should I do to increase my chance of getting admitted to a top-notch college? And do how important are AP final scores to colleges?

    Thanks for any advice!

    • Bill says:

      JL,

      Although there is no guaranteed formula for admission to the Ivy League, generally speaking it is widely known that admissions officers prefer applicants who demonstrate excellence in both academics and extracurriculars. Consider the following:

      According to http://www.collegedata.com, the average GPA of undergraduate students admitted to Harvard is 4.04. Although it is incredibly difficult, every year there are tens of thousands of high school students who graduate from high school with a 4.0+ GPA; obviously, not all of these students are admitted to Harvard. Additionally, as this is the average GPA of accepted students, it is safe to assume that a not-insignificant portion of Harvard’s admitted students were admitted with a sub-4.0 GPA.

      All of this is to confirm, as you’ve suggested with your questions, that students with outstanding extracurriculars (who also possess what can be considered a competitive GPA) are typically given preference over students who possess only an outstanding GPA. HOWEVER, as the application process to these types of schools is “holistic” – that is, every aspect of a candidate’s application is considered within the context of that candidate’s application (this is a ‘the sum of the parts may be larger than the whole’ type philosophy) – there still remains the fact that there is no guaranteed formula for admission. Let’s move on to your specific questions:

      1) Given the holistic nature of the application process, there’s really no way to answer this question without knowing the specifics of each and every candidate; however, generally speaking, students with competitive extracurriculars are given preference.
      2) Follow the recommendations outlined in this series. It sounds like you have done a good job so far, but be sure to take advantage of other opportunities as they arise (NHS, for example, and other honor societies are easy ways to polish an application without taking on too much in terms of additional responsibilities – unless you pursue a leadership position within whichever organizations you may potentially join). Above all else, remember that extracurriculars supplement your application; the absolute most important part of your application is your GPA and class rank – so before you take on too many additional responsibilities, just be sure that you can handle them.
      3) AP exams, like SAT Subject Tests, demonstrate competence in a specific area. A good score on an AP exam goes a long way to assuring admission officers that your knowledge of the topics is such that you won’t struggle to keep up in class. You can read more about this here.

      Hope this helps!

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