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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Today, in our seventh installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we turn from the substance and content of your applications to more strategic questions. Of course, if you don’t have the substance, this won’t get you in – but if you screw the strategy part up, it can still keep you out.

How many schools should you apply to? Which ones? Should you do early decision? These are the kinds of strategic issues I’m talking about.

When applying to Ivy League schools, one of the worst things you can do is apply to all of them and hope you get into one of them. A friend of mine in high school who was at least as strong as I was academically applied to over a dozen different schools, including all the Ivies in hopes of increasing his odds of getting into one of them. All the Ivy League schools rejected him. He still got into a very good school and is doing great in graduate school now, but he went to all the trouble of filling out all those applications and suffered all that stress for nothing. I applied to four schools, only two of them Ivies, and got into all but one.

School newspapers can be an excellent source of information for prospective students.

When sending off applications to the Ivy League, less is definitely more. Remember, these schools want all the students they accept to actually attend in the Fall and not go somewhere else instead. If you applied to all of the Ivies, then why should they believe that you would choose them if another Ivy also ends up accepting you? Thus, universal rejection.

What you need to do is research – these schools actually are different and distinct from each other in a number of ways, and each one has its own unique history and personality. If possible, visit the schools, and try to set up meetings with professors in departments that interest you. Most importantly, try to talk to students who go there and are doing what you think you might want to do. They will have lots of advice and be able to tell you what it’s actually like to go to these schools, what things they love, what things annoy them, and how to take full advantage of the institution. Even if you can’t visit in person, you can try calling the admissions office and ask them if they could arrange for you to chat with a current student in a particular major. Also, try reading the college newspapers and blogs. These student publications can give you an unfiltered glimpse of student life, attitudes, and concerns on campus, which may help you narrow down the field.

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Try to narrow it down to one or two top choices, and only apply to those. If you can narrow it down to one first choice school, I strongly recommend applying early decision/early action. There is no stronger message you can send a school to let them know that you are committed to going there if you are accepted, and that alone greatly increases your chances. The more students who have everything I have discussed in the previous posts that they can nail down early, the better. So if you feel like you’re looking good from the previous posts, applying early decision to your top choice is your best bet. I personally didn’t apply early decision, since I wasn’t 100% sure where I wanted to go and I didn’t want to narrow my options. Looking back, I think it would have been better if I had done more research and applied early decision – I would have had better information about the schools and I would have only had to fill out one application! Remember, in the end, you have to specify which school is your top choice on your application anyway, so you might as well get it done sooner rather than later.

Sometimes college admissions strategy can feel like a chess match.

If you don’t apply early decision, you will want to apply to at least two non-Ivy League schools, one that you are absolutely certain you can get into (a safety school) and one you feel you can probably get into. In addition to Columbia and Princeton, I applied to Rice and the University of Texas. I was guaranteed to get into UT because of Texas’s top 10% rule, and while I was uncertain about all the other schools, I felt I had a better chance of getting into Rice than I did into Princeton or Columbia, because Rice had a more forgiving acceptance rate. I listed Columbia as my top choice and got in everywhere except Princeton.

After you send off your application, you might be given the opportunity to do an interview with a representative from one of the schools to which you applied. Next time, we will discuss everything you need to know about Ivy League admissions interviews. Until then, keep studying!

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

READ  Seniors! The Common App opens up on August 1!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    1. Dear Rita,

      You are required to list all of the schools to which you are applying on each of your applications. I suppose you could lie, but I think it would be pretty easy for these schools to check with each other since there aren’t that many of them. However, my bigger point is that if you are just applying to all of the Ivy League schools with hopes of getting into one of them, then you haven’t done enough research into these schools. These schools are not all the same: they have different opportunities, campus cultures, etc., and you may be happier at some of them than at others. For your own good, you should try to narrow down your list by figuring out what it is that you really want out of college. Hope this helps!


      1. None of mine have asked me what other colleges I’ve applied at. The only time I’ve been asked was when an admissions director texted me for more info. Then when I told him of my 2 other merit scholarship offers (partial) (he was curious of other scores & offers and he said I didn’t have to answer, only if I chose to)… he got in a hurry and said they are sending out my letter of decision of acceptance today (that was a week ago or so).

  1. Great articles – thank you for posting.

    Any advice on where a 1600/1600 (2340) student lacking major extracurriculars should apply? Large high school w/Ivy acceptances every year, excellent rigor, grades, scores, only 3% rank. Female, not Asian or URM. 😉 Smart, but reserved in class. Future STEM major.

    Worried extracurriculars are weak in comparison to others. I take all these hard classes b/c I want to – I just like learning – but they take a big time commitment. I do comm serv & volunteer, but hardly any leadership. I realize I hit the Holy Grail with the 1600, but don’t find many people who are in my situation. Should I realistically even try for Harvard EA? Anywhere else?

    1. Dear Em,

      You sound like a really great student, and I wouldn’t let your extracurricular insecurities stop you from applying to your dream schools, whatever they are. And actually, your extracurricular situation may not be as dire as you think. If you dedicate significant amounts of time to your volunteer work then that could be your main thing, and you could try adding a few low-commitment clubs/activities as window dressing. Also, remember that sometimes you can take things that you do outside of school just for fun and turn them into “extracurricular activities” if they are somewhat intellectual or have to do with exercise, teamwork, etc. Lets say you rebuilt you computer for fun, or go jogging 3 times a week, or are involved with a religious youth group, or spend several hours per week reading up on the latest medical advances – all of those things could be potentially spun as extracurriculars on your application, and if you don’t have that many formal organizations that you belong to then you probably should include the informal stuff. Any activity that involves improving yourself or your community is an extracurricular activity.

      Also, if you aren’t a senior, then it’s not too late to add some more extracurriculars. If you feel you don’t have enough time during the year, remember that summer is a great time to do internships or summer camps, or classes that have something to do with one of your interests or prospective majors. There are so many great STEM themed summer activities for high school kids that would look great on your application, as well as special opportunities for enterprising young women like yourself interested in STEM careers. If possible, do a little research and see if you can find any summer activities that would be a good fit for you.

      Jobs also can count in the extracurricular department. If you still have a summer left before you have to apply, you might try to see if you can get a job as a tech in a lab somewhere near you. Any work experience, though, shows responsibility, maturity, and commitment and would be an asset on your application.

      In short, make the best with what you have and shoot for the moon. You have been wise not to sacrifice grades for extracurriculars – grades are still the most important part of your application, and don’t let anything I say here stop you from putting them first. You are clearly a very bright, passionate, hard-working young woman and I’m sure you are going to have a great future no matter where you end up for school. Best of luck!


  2. I am first year student of bba in india. I want to be in ivy for my mba. Specially in wharton. Which are the tests I should give. And how can i get complete financial aid. What kind of job I should do that it looks like best extcrries

    1. Dear Yash,

      To be considered for graduate business school you will need to take either the GRE or the GMAT. In the past prospective MBA students would only take the GMAT. That changed about two years ago with the revision of the GRE exam. Read this article to learn more about the GRE and business school. If English is a second language for you, you will also need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam; learn more about the TOEFL here.
      It’s more difficult to obtain true financial aid for graduate school than for undergraduate. However, Ivy League schools are renown for their generous endowments; most students accepted into an Ivy League school can find some way to pay for it. Learn more about Wharton’s MBA Financial Aid packages here.
      The job you have as you complete your undergraduate studies should relate directly to the kind of professional career you want to pursue. If you want to be a banker, go intern for a bank! Want to work as a financial analyst? Apply to work at an investment firm! Want to spend your career as an administrative executive? Apply to be an administrator’s assistant!

      I really hope this helps! If you want more information on the GRE, check out our GRE blog: http://www.newgre.org; if you want more information on the GMAT, check our GMAT blog: http://www.newgmat.org. You can also find a profile of the Wharton School of Business here.


  3. I am in first year student of bba from central board. I want to do my mba from wharton or any ivy what kind of job shoud I do that it looks like best extcrries and if we dont have any certificates then if it is ok how did they know that we ha?ven’t done that?

  4. Hi Calvin, I appreciate your blog, it is very informative.
    I’m a freshman, but we are planning the classes we are taking sophomore year.
    My school is in the top 10 in the state, so that’s pretty good. But I lived in NY before, and they are probably way ahead of my education now.
    Anyways, I’m in all Level 1 except spanish is Level 2, which is okay I guess because when I moved here they put me in level 2 in 7th grade, so by the time they found out I CAN handle level 1 work, I can’t move up because level 1 is two chapters ahead. (level one is better than level 2 than 3)
    So of the classes, I’m taking one honors: science research this year. I’m good at math, love english, good at world history, great at spanish -but its level two…, not THAT good at biology/science. I try to keep the A, and it is usually A-, but the homework and classwork points bump it up so my weakness is science.
    So next year, I plan to take honors Alg II, honors Eng, APUSH, level 1 chem, level 2 spanish, honors science research, honors strings.
    *notice no study halls, which I don’t have now too*
    I heard APUSH is probably like one of the hardest classes, because 2014 will be the first school year sophomores can take APUSH, which is UShistory one and two combined…and 2013 school year was just honors, no AP. I heard honors Alg II is hard, and english won’t be that hard as I love to write…Science research is basically a class where you make science projects and attend fairs. It looks good on applications if you actually WIN at fairs, but I feel like it won’t do that much if you don’t win. But I’m still taking it cause its honors, and projects are something I’m good at than science tests.
    So I don’t know if I can handle these honors classes and APUSH at same time, and keep a 4.0 gpa. our school uses qpa, if you know what it is. Basically gpa but it adds points if you are taking honors/AP classes. ex. 3.0 gpa=3.5 qpa, 4.0gpa=4.8 qpa etc.
    I want to take APUSH so I can take more AP classes. But I don’t want to be that person who takes all these honors/APs and get Bs, because you mentioned that A’s look better. And colleges look at GPAs, so mine might look bad without qpa… 🙁
    I need advice! I really want to get into an ivy-league, probably not like Columbia, (my dream come true), but something like Brown/Penn state.
    As you can tell, I’m more of a math/eng/history type person than math/science person.
    Did you personally take APUSH in sophomore year? Your experience might help mine. Were grades good? If you gots Bs, I probably got B-‘s…You are a smart person, just saying.

    PS. History teacher says, if you LIKE history, take APUSH. I do like history. It is like english, where you read and write. But AP class for 10th grade? Ahhhhh!
    Thanks so much!!! Lizzie

    1. Dear Lizzie,

      Please see my response you your other comment. Also, I think you meant UPenn, not Penn State.


      P.S. – With regards to level 2 vs level 1 Spanish and other classes – as long as you move up to level 1 ASAP it’s fine. You should be aiming for all level 1 or AP or IB or whatever, but if they started you off in level 2 and you moved up quickly that’s fine.

  5. Dear Calvin,
    It was great help reading your posts. Now, about applying to one of the ivies: could I apply to, e.g. three colleges and tell each of them that they are my first choices?

    1. HJ,

      You can say whatever you would like in your admission essays (e.g. “I’ve always wanted to go to Princeton,” “Harvard is by far my first choice,” or “I don’t care what the other Ivy league schools say about Cornell”), but you should be very careful in terms of submitting multiple early declaration/acceptance applications. If you are caught doing this, and you would be foolish to think that they Ivy Leagues schools are not in regular correspondence with one regarding these matters, it will destroy your academic reputation before you have a chance to even establish one. To be clear, being deceptive on your application is considered academic dishonesty and could result in the retraction of an admissions offer, or an expulsion if discovered later.

      Hope this helps!

  6. Currently,I’m a freshman at a medical magnet high school and I wanted to know what really impresses admissions officers.Question,if I take Ap Biology in 10th grade does it impress them,I’m worried that my g.p.a,4.0 currently,will be affected if I don’t get an A.I’m also planning to take Ap U.S. History.So far this is the list of extracurriculars I’m in:Cross country,book club,community service club,National Honor Society and in this club our school went to Calexico to give toys to disadvantaged children and families, I attend Med Cor a program run by USC within their campus and lastly,I go to WriteGirl a program in which one of my writings will get published.Coming from a low income family,dangerous neighborhood,I definitely want to get out of here and come back with a degree,Ph.D or M.D.I have dreams of attending an Ivy league.Yet, I’m unsure if I want to be a doctor or a teacher.I plan to make my parents proud and become valedictorian of my year.Any advice,tips?

    1. Diana,

      The best thing you can do to impress an Ivy League admission officer is complete the most challenging course schedule possible. If that means taking AP Bio as a sophomore, then so be it. If you are planning on taking AP Bio as a sophomore, one piece of advice I would give you – which pertains to more than just Biology, by the way – is to be sure to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test after completing the most challenging course you will take in that subject. So, if AP Biology is the most advanced Biology class you will take in high school, be sure to take the Bio subject test at the end of the school year. You do not have to wait until your are a junior or senior to take Subject Tests! Take them while the course knowledge is fresh in your mind!

      It sounds like you have covered all of your bases in terms of your extracurriculars! If you are unsure of what degree path you will pursue as an undergraduate, then try to select extracurriculars that might pertain to a wide variety of professions – for example, if you’re unsure about whether you would like to be an MD or teacher, then perhaps you should see if you can volunteer at your local teaching hospital! Otherwise, just be sure to keep your grades up! While it is extremely important to take the most difficult classes possible, that advice is only issued with the caveat that you must not allow a difficult class schedule to negatively impact your grades – NEVER sacrifice your grades for a more polished resume! Take only the most difficult course schedule you can handle well still maintaining an exemplary GPA.

      Hope this helps!

  7. Dear Calvin,
    Thank you so much for writing this incredibly informative piece on ‘how to get into Ivy League schools’. I’m currently a sophomore in high school and am not sure if I’m qualified to even apply for any Ivy League schools.

    My unweighted GPA is a 4.0 and I am currently ranked 7th out of my class which is roughly 350 people. I was also on my high school and club swim team. I rigorously swim about 7 times a week and have finished top 10 in the state during age groups and top 20 at high school state in the 100 fly with a 59.98 and the 50 free with a 25.12. I’m hoping to get faster and qualify at least top 15 by the end of senior year. I’ve gotten MVP swimmer award both years for swimming during high school. I’m also very into art. I qualified for nationals in policy debate won novice policy champion in a region debate and qualified for semifinals at state. I’m also in HOSA and qualified for made top 5 in biomedical debate and qualified for nationals. I actively participate with my church and was chosen to be a catholic youth leader.

    Although my extracurriculars and school grades are good, I have a pretty ugly SAT score. I took it in the beginning of my sophomore year and got a 1710 overall; 560 reading, 600 math, and 550 writing. Over the summer I will be taking SAT classes and hopefully it will significantly bring my grade up. What should my SATs be around to even have a chance to get in? The whole score aspect is really stressful to think about. I don’t know how much I’m able to bring them up.

    Once again, thank you so much. You’ve been the most help out of all the college help sites I’ve read

    1. Hanna,

      A good score for the Ivy Leagues on the current version of the SAT is a 2250+. Keep in mind that the SAT is changing in March 2016 and your class will be the class most affected by this change. Our advice is to take the current version of the SAT at least two or three times in the fall of your junior year (keeping in mind that you should NOT be automatically submitting your scores to the universities to which you will apply – the only way you may take advantage of score choice is if you are not automatically submitting your scores). You should also take the new version of the test after it is released in March 2016. You can learn more about the New SAT here and here. Keep in mind that you will also have to prepare for and take at least two (although we recommend taking three) SAT Subject Tests.

      Outside of formal instruction on test taking strategies, the best advice I can give you is: 1) be sure to use Score Choice to your advantage, and 2) after you have completed your formal test preparation – practice, practice, practice! Test Masters, the company that sponsors this blog, produces more perfect SAT score students and National Merit Finalists each year than almost all of its competitors combined. If you view some of the Perfect SAT Score interviews posted by Test Masters, you will notice that the most common advice that these students have for students currently preparing for the SAT is to, as I’ve said, practice!

      Hope this helps!

  8. Hello, Calvin. My name is Brielle, I am currently a sophomore at a public high school in Nova Scotia, Canada but grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Lately, I’ve been very stressed about my courses and my possibilities of attending an Ivy League back in the United States. I’ve been reading your “check list” and I seem to meet most of the requirements. I have been playing harp for nearly fourteen years, I’m part of several clubs and sports teams (captain of my volleyball team), I volunteer my time by doing fundraisers and playing harp in the hospital and retirement home, I speak fluent French, and I plan to run for school president.

    The one and only thing is my math class, which I have always had a weakness for. What can I say, math is my Achilles heel. I am in I.B everything (maintaining a 90% average), except math. I’m not standard math, my idle guidance counselor put me in Math At Works (Applied Math) because I mentioned I was bad at it. I have a 100 in the class and I cannot switch out of the course. My school doesn’t offer summer school for me to catch up. I am completely terrified that this one course will jeopardize my future. I am looking at going in to Civil Rights, Law and Journalism, which have nothing to do with math. Please tell me this isn’t the end for my dreams. I don’t know who else to ask. Thank you for your time.


    1. Brielle,

      It is true that Ivy League schools want/expect their applicants to take the most rigorous and challenging course load available to them; however, you won’t necessarily be dismissed from contention for this reason. Keep in mind that you do not necessarily have to take an advanced math class to demonstrate competency or fluency in math. In this case, we would recommend preparing for and taking the SAT Math Level I Subject Test. Doing well on this Subject Test would serve to assuage any concerns an admissions office might have regarding this particular weak point in your application.

      Hope this helps!

  9. Dear Calvin,

    Great advice on finding the right school! I’m doing the application process as an undergraduate now but my SAT scores aren’t too good (lower than 2000) but my school academics and extracurricular activities are alright (656 at HL for IB) and I am an honors student. Do you think not having the 2100 SAT score will mean that I won’t get in and do I need to get 7s for my higher levels to get in?

    1. Tas,

      Although a less than stellar SAT score will not necessarily disqualify you from admission to an Ivy League score, in reviewing the statistics regarding admitted students it becomes very apparent that a high score is basically necessary for admission. 75% of admitted students to Harvard scored a 2350 or higher on the SAT; 25% of admitted students scored a 2100 or higher. That is to say, the majority of admitted students had perfect or near perfect SAT scores. So – you do not need a high SAT score to be admitted, but it certainly appears to help.

      Hope this helps!

  10. Hello,

    First of all, thank you for the extremely informative article, but I have a question I was hoping you might be able to answer.

    Throughout the past couple of years I have always kept my grades up. Last year as a sophomore I got my first B in 1st semester AP World History, but was able to get it up to an A by 2nd semester. This year as a junior, I am in 3 APs (and have all As in them) and a very difficult Honors course. My teacher for Honors Pre-Calc counts tests and quizzes as 80% of our final grade. I currently have a C in the class, my first C ever, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise it. If I end up getting a C on my 1st semster transcript, are my chances of attending an Ivy League ruined?
    I am involved in many clubs such as NHS, CSF, FBLA, and am a Student Ambassador along with being on Dance Team, Dance Company, and my school’s musicals.
    Despite all this, will a C still ruin me?
    This is really stressing me out, any advice would be greatly appreciated.


    1. Rebecca,

      A single C over four years of high school will not necessarily ruin your chances of admission to an Ivy League school; however, it will place you at a disadvantage in the admissions process. Ivy League admission officers are looking for students with impeccable transcripts, but a single blemish on an otherwise perfect record will not immediately place you out of consideration. It goes without saying that you should work to improve this grade.

      Hope this helps!

  11. Dear Calvin,
    How is class rank decided? I’m in honors classes and I have a 96% average. but let’s say someone in less challenging classes has a 97% average, is that person’s class rank greater than mine?

    1. Hi Mikey!

      Class rank calculations vary by school, but in general, more difficult classes are given precedent with a different weighted average. For example, on a 5.0 scale, a “regular” class might have an upper limit of 4.0 while an honors class might have an upper limit of 5.0. This variation in maximum GPA is to account for the difference in difficulty between classes. Hope that answers your question!

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