What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue14 min read

This is the foliage of destiny.

Over the past year I have read and responded to many questions from bright, eager high school students who want to know if they have what it takes to get in to their dream schools. Usually, their inquiries go something like this: “These are my grades, these are my test scores, these are my extracurricular activities, etc. Do I have what it takes to get in?” or “I’ve been doing really well, but I have this one problem. Can I still get in?” The answer of course is always some variation on “it depends.” I always give the most helpful, specific advice I can, but in the end, even if you do everything right, elite college admissions always involves an element of luck. Thousands of kids apply to these elite colleges every year, and even though 15 to 20% may have what it takes, in the end only 5 to 10% will be admitted. There are simply fewer spots than qualified applicants, so you could do everything right, and still not get in.

This inherent uncertainty seems to be behind the underlying anxiety expressed in many of the comments left on these blog posts, an anxiety that reflects what I believe has become an unhealthy obsession with getting into certain elite American colleges. Admittedly, in writing these articles, I have been exploiting those anxieties and in some ways I may even be contributing to our country’s fixation on the Ivy League. However, after a year of being able to respond to my readers and reflect on my own life experiences, I feel there are some things I should share with you that might help you calm down and relax a bit.

Sometimes applying to Ivy League schools can feel like playing the lottery.

The picture of the perfect Ivy League applicant that I provide here in this blog series is an ideal to strive for, and if you don’t quite fit it, that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong – it is possible. Thousands of kids manage to do everything I recommend every year, and I’m sure that if any of you start preparing early enough and work really hard, you can do just as well. But maybe you didn’t start taking high school seriously until junior year, or maybe you had a bunch of stuff going on in your life one semester and your grades suffered, or maybe your high school doesn’t send kids to Harvard and Yale every year, or maybe you just didn’t realize what it takes to get in until it was too late. What I want you to realize is that even if you’re not going to be able to check off every item in the checklist I gave you, the closer you come to this ideal picture, the more desirable you are to any college, not just Ivy League colleges.

first world problems
#firstworldproblems

So if you have a few grades that aren’t up to snuff, or if you didn’t seriously pursue any extracurricular activities, you may not get into the Ivy League, but if you have everything else, then you will still be an extremely competitive applicant to just about every other school in the country. Furthermore, many of these schools can provide you with just as good an education as an Ivy League school can (and often at a fraction of the cost). Also, 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 – and if you go to grad school, no one is going to care where you went for undergrad anyway.

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.

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Another thing you need to realize is that an Ivy League education may not even be necessary for you to achieve your goals. You can still go to med school, law school, business school, etc., even if you don’t go to an Ivy League college (in fact, it may be easier to stand out in terms of class rank if you don’t). If you want to work for a great company and make lots of money, you can also do that without an Ivy League education. A friend of mine from high school went to the honors college at the University of Houston and majored in Accounting. She worked really hard and got an internship at Deloitte (one of the top accounting firms in the country), and at the end of the internship she was offered a full time (and well remunerated) position.

You don’t have to go to Harvard to be a great intellectual. Just ask Diogenes!

If you don’t care about money and just want to live the life of the mind, well, you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school for that, either. As proof, just research where current Ivy League professors went to school for their undergraduate degrees (this information is usually listed on a university’s faculty webpages). Most of them did not start out at the Ivy League, even if now they’re running the show there. If you want to triple major and take five years to graduate, a non-Ivy League school might be a better choice for you as well, since Ivy League schools tend to be pretty strict about making sure all students graduate within four years (the expense might also be prohibitive).

I know what you’re thinking – “But if I go to a non-Ivy League school, my professors won’t be as good and my peers won’t be as smart.” Again, it ain’t necessarily so. There are good and bad professors at every school, even at Ivy League universities. I guarantee you that whatever school you go to, your multivariable calculus teacher will probably be a grad student who speaks broken English and doesn’t really care about undergrads.

As for your peers, let me tell you another story. When I was researching colleges in high school, I visited the University of Texas at Austin because I was interested in their Plan II Honors program. As part of the tour, we got to sit in on an undergraduate “Great Books” class. The professor was supposed to be leading his students in a discussion of the Oresteia, but, as it was a Monday morning, most of the students appeared to be either asleep, hung over, or both. There was one kid who was actually discussing the book with the professor. Needless to say, this wasn’t the collegiate learning environment I had imagined for myself. I thought to myself, “If I go to an Ivy League school, this won’t happen. All of my fellow students will be intellectually curious and engaged and passionate and excited to discuss the Great Thoughts of the past!” Well, at Columbia, guess what my Literature Humanities class looked like on Monday mornings? Pretty much exactly the same as the class at UT, except it was more than twice as expensive.

But Thucydides is so comfy!
Basically, Mondays look the same everywhere.

While it is true that just about all students who go to Ivy League schools get great grades and test scores in high school, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a love of learning. No matter how many essays they make you write, college admissions officers will never be able to tell who actually has these qualities and who doesn’t from what’s written down on paper. Some Ivy League students are simply raised from birth to do all the stuff on my checklist, and oftentimes these students have been so busy living up to their parents’ expectations that they haven’t had a chance to actually form their own opinions or figure out what they care about themselves.

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While these kids may have huge advantages when it comes to getting into the Ivy League, it isn’t surprising that they sometimes lack the insatiable curiosity, passion, and independent thinking that many people assume our country’s best and brightest possess. Of course, there are many excellent professors and bright, passionate students at Ivy League schools, but it’s important to keep in mind that they exist elsewhere, too. Remember those kids who did everything right but didn’t get into Harvard? You can find them at schools ranked just below the Ivy League or in the honors programs at top public universities, and I promise they are just as smart as Ivy League students.

So, what is actually different about Ivy League schools? What’s all the hype about? In short, money. Ivy League schools are rolling in tons of money. The enormous wealth of these institutions allows them to buy glamour and prestige, and probably accounts for much of their “elite” status. Consider a few examples: at the end of my orientation week, Columbia rented out Ellis Island so the new freshman could have a party there; the students at Barnard, the all-female sister school of Columbia College, had Meryl Streep speak at their graduation, and the next year they had Barak Obama; my friend at Yale got to study medieval architecture in Paris one summer (and everything was included with tuition and his financial aid package); the list of extravagances goes on.

fabric-of-cosmos-vi
Celebrated theoretical physicist Brian Greene has been the host of two PBS series based on his popular physics books.

This money also allows Ivy League schools to hire faculties smattered with “rock star” professors and Nobel Prize winners who are some of the most celebrated names in their fields. For my international economics class, we had guest speakers that included Jeffrey Sachs (who, among other things, was an architect of Bolivia’s economic “shock therapy” policy in the 1980s and of Russia’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s) and Glen Hubbard (George W. Bush’s economics advisor).  This class was also taught by Sunil Gulati (besides being an economics professor, he is also the president of the United States Soccer Federation). Another star at Columbia was theoretical physicist Brian Greene, author of “The Elegant Universe” and host of the eponymous PBS series (and whom most undergrads never saw). Columbia also currently lists eight Nobel Prize winners as faculty members. However, these “rock star” professors may or may not be accessible to undergrads, and they may or may not be good teachers.

They might be entertaining to watch, but would you want one as a roommate?

Not only are the institutions themselves rich; these schools also tend to attract the wealthiest students as well. You know, the sorts of people you’ve read about in books and seen in movies, but never actually thought existed in real life (if you’ve seen the show Gossip Girl, yes, there are some kids just like that at Ivy League schools). And these affluent students aren’t just from the United States – they come from all over the world. A smattering of movie stars or their progeny is also usually to be expected. Not all students at Ivy League schools are rich, of course; I also knew lots of kids who paid a fraction of the sticker price or even nothing for their educations because they qualified for financial aid. But all this money sloshing around can make for a college experience that occasionally slips into the surreal.

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What advantages do all these things actually give you? While going to a well-funded university definitely has some perks, unless you believe that money and glamour are the most important qualities in an undergraduate education, they probably won’t make much of a difference. While getting to work as a tech in cutting edge research labs can be a definite plus, at the undergraduate level, you are mostly just learning the basics of your field, and you quite frankly don’t need the fanciest new scientific instruments or rock star professors to teach you that stuff (if those professors even teach undergrads at all, which they often don’t). In terms of your future career, while alumni networks can potentially help you find internships and jobs (if you’re looking in the right field) and while having an Ivy League school on your resume is always a plus, what you choose to major in is probably more important: a Bachelors’ in Computer Science from the University of Houston is going to open up more employment opportunities than a B.A. in Music from Columbia (believe me).

Finance continues to be one of the most popular career choices for Ivy League graduates.

The only fields where an Ivy League education can give you a definite advantage would be finance (investment banks and hedge funds recruit like crazy from Ivy League schools – it’s still kind of a good old boys club), or possibly the public sector (if you dream of being a bureaucrat in the federal government, or even a politician, Ivy League credentials seem to carry some weight in Washington D.C.). If you plan to go to graduate school of some kind (and most good jobs these days require some grad school), then where you go for your undergraduate degree is less important than where you go for graduate school. An Ivy League degree can potentially help you get into a better graduate program, but only if you meet minimum GPA requirements, and in many cases you will probably be a more attractive candidate if you graduate at the top of your class from a less competitive school than from the bottom of your class at an Ivy League school.

The point is that while an Ivy League education definitely does have some advantages, they aren’t as big and important as you might think, and getting into one of these elite schools is not going to make the difference between success and failure in your life. With education, you generally get out of it what you put into it, so make sure you always do your very best. Even if your application isn’t perfect, don’t give up! Keep working hard, and push yourself to work harder than you ever have before. 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!

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

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81 Comments

  1. Dear Calvin
    Really enjoyed all your posts! Just wondering, do colleges really care if you get an “A” or an “A-plus”? Or is it all the same to them?
    Regards

    1. Dear Quincy,

      The answer is it depends. At my high school, an 89.5 counted the same as a 100, so it didn’t matter that much (and we all got very good at figuring out exactly how much work we had to do to get an 89.5). If you go to a school where an A+ is worth more than an A- when calculating your GPA, then it’s more important, since the difference will impact your class rank, which is very important to Ivy League colleges. Basically, if it affects your class rank, it matters. If it doesn’t, it’s less critical.

      Best,
      Calvin

      1. Dear Calvin,
        Thank you for these posts! I am having finals this week, and they are not going so well (as a result of cramming). A lot of my A+’s and my A’s might be bumped down a +/-. Should I be worried about my chances of getting excepted? Thanks

        1. Dear Taylor,

          If the difference between an A- and an A+ is reflected in your GPA and class rank, then it could affect your chances of getting into highly selective schools. At my high school, an 89.5 counted the same as a 100 when calculating GPA and class rank, so it didn’t matter, but I understand that some schools do distinguish between such grades. 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 need to do at least as well as they did. Remember, you can always count on Test Masters for all your test preparation needs.

          Best,
          Calvin

          P.S. – If you are “excepted,” then you are left out/made an exception. If you are “accepted,” then you are admitted. Make sure you proofread your college admissions essays!

  2. Dear Calvin
    My sophomore year i took health online. During the first quarter i had an A, but during our presidents week my old computer broke down. My parents could not fix it because it was to expensive. Without it i wasn’t able to turn in modules on time. At the end i finished every module with an A on each test. However, because I turned them late my teacher gave me half credit on everything. My final grade was a C. It was an easy class but because of my financial situation we couldn’t get a computer right away. I manages to stay after school, but they closed early. Will this grade affect my chances on getting into any school. It was a required course for my school. I took AP biology and ended with an A

    1. Dear aid,

      Most schools will not care. Health, while an important subject, is generally not a very academically challenging class, and AP Biology covers pretty much everything that it covers, so for most schools, an A in AP Biology will more than make up for that C.

      Now, when it comes to the most selective schools in the country (schools like Harvard, Stanford, etc.), it could make a difference. Sure, Harvard expects you to get As in every class and would frown on a C (even in an easy class – since from their point of view if you can get an A in AP Bio you have no excuse for making a C in Health), but perhaps even more importantly a C can significantly affect your GPA and class rank, especially if you go to a highly competitive high school. Class rank and GPA are extremely important when it comes to college admissions, and especially so when you are looking at the most selective schools. If you have otherwise competitive grades, test scores, extracurriculars, etc. and you do plan to apply to highly selective colleges, I would take this very seriously and fight this bureaucratic stupidity anyway you can – even threatening legal action if necessary (if you threaten to sue, they will probably either let you have the A or drop the grade and allow you to retake the class). It would have been better for you to have dropped the class and retaken it than to have accepted the C. Also, as soon as you had the problem you should have contacted your teacher and asked for extensions on the assignments. In the future, remember it is always better to be proactive than it is to let yourself be a victim, even if it’s technically not your fault.

      That being said, if you’re not planning to go to Harvard or another ridiculously selective school (and you really don’t have to in order to fulfill your dreams), it’s probably not worth the trouble. It’s even possible that if everything else on your application is great then Harvard might overlook it. Whatever you do, don’t let this distract you from all of your amazing accomplishments or from the work you still have to do. Regardless of what Harvard thinks, I promise that in the long run, a C in high school health really doesn’t matter. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

      1. I have a friend who says it’s mathematically impossible that President Obama transferred into Columbia in 1981. He claims that his calculations are based on Freshman retention rates. What would you say about such claim? (other than what is already posted on FactCheck.org and snopes.)

  3. Dear Calvin,
    Thank you for all of your posts. I found it to be very helpful and applicable not just for getting into the Ivy Leagues, but also for creating the best application possible for university. I was just wondering if schools in the US consider GCSE exams? It’s a Cambridge based exam from the UK students sit in the 10th grade, but we usually also go on to do the IB Diploma program in 11th and 12th grade.
    And if you’ve badly failed a subject but improved over the years, do they take that into consideration?
    Thank you for your time.

    1. Dear Hannah,

      If it’s part of your high school academic record, colleges will consider it. Chances are American universities will be familiar with GCSEs, especially famous colleges who receive applications from all over the world each year. That said, your IB classes will probably be weighted more heavily.

      As for badly failing, the question is, how badly? Generally, elite universities expect top marks throughout high school. In the U.S., that means straight As. They might tolerate a B or two, or maybe even a C in extraordinary circumstances, but generally speaking failure is not an option. If you get less than an A in a subject, you should definitely do everything you can to bring it up to an A in the future. Without more information that’s all I can say. Keep up the good work and best of luck!

      -Calvin

      P.S. – You might also try contacting individual schools to see what their policies are on GCSEs.

  4. Dear Calvin,
    I am an international student and I currently finished my A levels.However my final grades were not good at all( with a C and a D).I am taking this year off to preparing for my upcoming SATs. i really want to go to an Ivy college but I see that’s impossible now. My extracurriculars are decent and I am working really hard for my SATs. What should I do? Could I possibly have any chance of getting in?

    1. Dear Nisa,

      Never say never! It’s true that having a C and a D on your transcript does hurt your chances quite a bit, but it wouldn’t hurt to apply and see what happens. Also, even if you don’t go to an Ivy league school your freshman year you can still try to transfer to one for the rest of college. As soon as you get to college, start applying as a transfer student and make sure you get straight As/do extracurriculars/etc. your freshman year, just like high school. And, of course, if you do well in college there’s always graduate school, which is way more important than undergraduate anyway. We live in a society that fetishizes fame, prestige, and name-brand recognition when it comes to undergraduate schools, and that can make students feel a lot of pressure to get into a really famous school even when other schools can give them an undergraduate education that would be just as good. Remember, getting into one of these schools is not a measure of intelligence or self-worth: all it means is that you were good at conforming to an admissions committee’s expectations. Stop worrying about getting into an “Ivy League” school and instead focus on doing your best and getting the most out of your education. I’m sure you’ll do great!

      Best,
      Calvin

      1. Dear Calvin,
        I go to a very urban school, whose average SAT score is 1100/2400 and average GPA is 2.7. Nobody has gotten into anything better than a state school in the last 5 years. People are in and out of juvenile hall a lot. My main niche is journalism, and I’ve won multiple state awards for my work. I am the only white student there (although I am often elected to be a part of student government) but still qualify for free lunch with relatively outstanding SAT’s of 2120 and a 4.7GPA. Obviously these numbers don’t mean everything, but I’m telling you so you can get a picture of my work ethic and situation. My four main questions are: (1)Would these numbers be equitable with, say, a 2350 SAT and 4.7 GPA from somewhere like a Bellaire because of how much more rigor it takes to be in the same ballpark as that highly qualified Bellaire student? (2)Would a Bellaire student be chosen over the urban student because they come from a background more similar to a Harvard, and would have to make less of a transition academically and socially? (3)Would it sound complacent to write about being a black swan in a ghetto school, basically having to work twice as hard as a prep school student to do just as well? (4)As a stranger, what would you like to listen to about my school’s situation? Does anything juicy come to mind without knowing the full deal yet?

        1. Anthony,

          Ivy League schools pride themselves on conducting an admissions process rooted in holism. This means that every aspect of your application is evaluated within the context of your application. A good friend of mine attended a high school similar to yours. He went to an ESL school (English Second Language) with a roughly 50% graduation rate; this school had a not-so-good reputation: many of the students were affiliated with gangs and many just simply did not care about college or academics in general. My friend, who I met and befriended through sports, graduated at the top of his class with a 3.5 GPA and scored around a 1450/1600 on the SAT (the SAT was revised our senior year of high school and so my class was the last class to take the old SAT, which was scored out of 1600). Anyway, in comparison to a national pool of competitive applicants, my friend would probably not have been considered, well, competitive. However, despite this, he was admitted to Princeton.

          1) Yes. Studies show that students from affluent families score better on the SAT – this is a result of increased access to test preparation, better schools and environments, and just generally coming from a background that more fully values education. However, it is understood that students from, as you said, urban schools have less access to educational opportunities and so their accomplishments must be evaluated within the socioeconomic context from which they come.
          2) The application process, and all of the factors that go into it, is too complicated to say that a student from one school, when compared to an identical student from another, less competitive school, will be admitted simply because his or her background more closely aligns with the environment one might expect on an Ivy League campus. Admissions officers seek students with the potential to become “leaders of tomorrow” – as cliched as that sounds, it is true. Making the best of a bad situation clearly demonstrates an ability to overcome real-world challenges. Also, most people recognize that the hardest thing about Ivy League schools is getting in – the idea that a straight A student from a less competitive school might not be able to keep up in an Ivy League setting might be more superficial than you think.
          3) Not necessarily, but on the face of it that does sound a bit formulaic/cliched (especially for a student who has won awards for journalism!). Write about what you are passionate about! I would recommend you read Kwasi Enin’s application essay for reference (Kwasi Enin, a student from Long Island, was admitted to all 8 Ivy League schools). You can learn more about our thoughts on Kwasi Enin here.
          4) Keep in mind that admission officers at Ivy League schools are very smart and very thorough – they will understand the challenges you’ve faced in high school without you having to spell them out in detail. This is just a recommendation, but I would avoid specific examples of the kind of hardship you faced except in the case where you can use that example to expound on a larger point. Remember that your application essay is almost certainly going to be persuasive in nature. Everything in your essay should serve the logical conclusion that you are not just deserving of admission to whichever university you apply to, but that you would also benefit the campus community and classroom if you are admitted.

          Hope this helps!

  5. Dear Calvin,
    Thank you so much for offering your advice on what the ideal Columbia/Ivy candidate should possess in regards to grades, extracurriculars, etc. It really helped me reflect on how my last 3 years of high school have been..and man, they sure have been hectic.
    I just wanted to ask your opinion on a few things. One, by the time senior year rolls around and I move back to America (currently studying abroad in Beijing for my Junior year. Woot!), I will enroll in the fourth different school in my high school career. Due to this, the capability of “keeping up” with the same activity for all four years has proved itself to be impossible; at least not at the same institutions, but the same fields of interest (volunteering, bands, etc.). You know what I mean? How should I go about this on my application?
    Also, during my Sophomore year, I was granted the opportunity to move up from Algebra 2 (H) to PreCalc (H) midyear, and because of this, I never learned the material from the first semester of PreCalc. Due to this lack of knowledge, my current grades in Calculus BC (AP) are horrid, and now I need to have tutorials with the teacher to learn everything that I should have originally learned in PreCalc. Should I mention anything on my application, or AM I even able to do anything about this?

    Sorry for so many questions, I’m just very curious.

    1. Dear Andrew,

      I wouldn’t worry too much about the extracurriculars issue; as long as you did, say, band for four years that’s fine. It doesn’t matter that you did it at different schools. The only drawback there is that moving around so much might make it hard to get elected to leadership positions in student clubs/organizations. But otherwise, colleges will still see that as commitment. Obviously, you can’t help the fact that you changed schools so often. As for your calculus grades, you want to put in as much work as is necessary to fix whatever problems you have so that the grade that goes on your transcript is at least a B, and preferably an A if possible. If you can’t bring your semester average up to an A this semester, then you definitely want to try to get an A next semester to show improvement. Remember that your grades through Junior year are what determine your class rank, which is very important to the most selective colleges. On your application you want to draw attention to your strengths, not your weaknesses, so I wouldn’t try to make excuses there. Just put your nose to the grindstone, get caught up, and raise your grades. You can do it!

      Best of luck,
      Calvin

  6. Dear Calvin. Your articles really inspire me. But my case is a bit different . English is my second language. I moved to the USA one year ago on November of my sophomore year and now i’m having my Junior Year. I’m from Asia. Although on November last year i was still having my ESL class, but then 1 month later i moved out and started taking regular language art. Now i’m taking Hn 11 and intending to take AP lit next year. My GPA has always maintained 4.0. I took 2 hn classes last year and 2 AP classes this year. I’m in debate club. I’m not a leader in any club and not doing any extra activities either. Planing on doing those this summer. I want to apply for Harvard, Yale and Duke . Do you think college would look at my case differently ? Is there anything i could do to improve my chance ? I look forward for your reply . Thank you

    1. Hey Calvin, your articles are very informative. But I have a problem…
      I don’t know whether to take APUSH in 10th grade or do Level One Modern US history and get A+ in that class to get APUSH II 11th grade.
      I would like to do APUSH, but I just don’t know how hard it is. It is an AP class…but it can’t be that hard if its given to 10th graders, right? But AP…shudder* US History used to be an honors class but for incoming sophomores, they’re changing it to AP. So its USH 1 sophomore then USH 2 junior year.
      Also, I want to make sure I can take that class while getting an A- or better in that class, so I can take AP next year. You can get B’s, but then GPA would be super low maybe…
      And I’m taking honors Alg II and honors English as well as honors science research. Level 1 chem b/c I’m not a science person but I like science fairs, and spanish I’m taking a little. Is that too much to handle?
      Have you taken APUSH in 10th? The good thing is if you take APUSH 10th grade, it is US history I, and in 11th grade APUSH its history II, so two years on USH, but AP, so that’s good. if you don’t take AP, then you’ll have a harder chance of taking AP junior year for USH II. And has anyone taken APUSH while taking other honors classes? Is it hard to do everything and get good grades? I don’t want to stay up till midnight doing work. Yet I want AP and get good grades so it’ll look good.
      PS. yes I like history. I’m an english person so history is like reading and writing. I like math. I don’t like science. except projects-science research.
      I don’t know what to do!!! I heard honors math would be super hard, honors english has a lot of writing and discussion, and well APUSH will be one of the hardest classes in school. I don’t want to kill my gpa and look bad for colleges. I really want to get into a good college. My cousin got into Princeton, but shes like a varsity runner and I’m not. Now that my cousin got in, my parents expect me to get in as well. The thing is my parents immigrated here, so they never got a lot of education in college, in GOOD colleges…
      The crazy goal is Columbia, that would be awesome. But I’d like to try Penn state or Dartmouth. Those three schools on the top of my want list. (Notice ivy league! Help please!)
      Thanks Calvin. This blog is awesome!!

      1. Dear Lizzie,

        At my high school the History/Social Studies progression looked like this: Pre-AP World Geography freshman year, AP World History sophomore year, APUSH junior year, and AP Government/Economics senior year, with the possibility of AP World Geography and AP Microeconomics as electives. How hard an AP class is really depends on the teacher you have and how hard the teacher makes the class. For instance, it was pretty universally acknowledged among students that AP World History was harder than APUSH even though AP World was sophomore year and APUSH was junior year, because the AP World History teachers were really hard core and obsessed with giving us tons of homework.

        Personally, I would advise you to take APUSH now rather than put it off. Of the AP courses, it’s one of the most straightforward: if you memorize everything in that little textbook (which shouldn’t be hard if you like history) and if your teacher teaches you how to do the essays properly and makes you practice, then you should get a 5. You are going to take it eventually, right? So why take US History twice when you could take the AP version now and free up your schedule for something else later? Remember, Ivy League colleges expect you to take the most demanding course load possible at your school and still make straight As. If you are organized and plan ahead and ***don’t procrastinate***, then it’s possible to make straight As even while taking the most demanding course load (you just won’t sleep very much or have much time for anything else). If all your friends are also workaholic types that helps a lot, because you feel like what you are doing with your teenage years is normal and you have people who understand why you are doing this and why you’re tired all the time. Like the heroes in a post-apocalyptic action movie, you and your friends will form unbreakable bonds of friendship as you go through the shared suffering of your (scholastic) adventures. It’s kind of beautiful in a twisted way. *sigh*

        Anyway, I digress. The point is that if you want to go to an Ivy League school, and if you are committed to that goal in your heart, then you will believe that you can do it, sign up for all the hard classes, and put in as much time and as much work as it takes to succeed, even if it’s kind of miserable for a while. Because in the end it will all be worth it, right? That’s the kind of mind set you have to have: unquestioning faith in yourself and the ability to put your nose to the grindstone when crunch time rolls around. If you commit to that for the rest of high school and follow the rest of the advice in my blogs, you will have as good a chance as anyone at getting into the Ivy League. For now, keep up the good work, and good luck!

        Best,
        Calvin

  7. Dear Calvin,
    Thanks for these posts, helped me a lot. I’m in 8th grade at the moment, but I’m thinking ahead. I really want to go to Harvard Law, but i doubt I’ll get accepted. If I go to another school for my undergrad, lets say UCLA or Berkeley, will it be easier to get accepted to Harvard for my grad? Thanks 😀

    1. Dear Hovik,

      Well, you certainly have a head start on the competition! I am not familiar specifically with Harvard Law School’s admissions practices, but most graduate schools try to admit students from a variety of different undergraduate institutions, and it’s rare that a university will simply funnel all of its undergraduate students into its graduate programs. More typically, only a few Harvard undergrads will go to Harvard Law each year. If you want to go to Harvard for law school, it is important that you go to a good university for undergrad, but it’s perhaps even more important that you graduate at the top of your class: essentially, applying to law school will be like applying to college all over again, and there will be a similar set of hoops to jump through. For an idea of which undergraduate programs are currently represented at Harvard Law, consult this list, published by Harvard Law itself:

      http://www.law.harvard.edu/prospective/jd/apply/undergrads.html

      As you can see, it’s possible to get to Harvard Law School by many different routes. Of course, some of these undergraduate programs probably sent more students than others, so it’s always a good idea to check and see how many students an undergraduate program sends to Harvard each year (or if they do send someone every year). If a particular university sends three to five students to Harvard Law each year, then you can be sure that if you are one of the top three pre-law students at that school, you will stand a pretty good chance of being accepted. Note that better schools might send more students per year but competition will also be much stiffer.

      If your dream is to be a lawyer (and if you don’t change your mind over the next ten years), know that if you work hard and go to a good school for undergrad you will get into a good law program. Maybe it will be Harvard, maybe it will be somewhere else, but if you stay on track you will be sure to have a successful career (which, after all, is the point of going to school anyway). Never forget that a degree is a means to an end and not an end in itself. I wish you all the best, and I have confidence that with hard work and self-discipline, you will make your dreams come true. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

      1. Dear Calvin,
        This series has honestly been the best advice regarding the whole “Ivy League” topic. I truly enjoyed reading your series especially because of my recent 3 I recieved on my AP US History exam. Your series really brought my whole “Ivy League” dream into a new perspective, and I would like to thank you for that.

        I would love to keep in contact with you for any questions or concerns I have with my high school career, thus I left my email attached. If possible, could you email me so I can ask a few questions.

        Thank you!

  8. Hi! I’m a rising senior. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken High School seriously and I highly regret it. My junior grades suck, I took AP bio & all honors. I ended up with a “B” in all of my classes. My gpa weighted is 3.75. I’m planning to take the ACT in Sep. My extra-curricular activities include Tennis(1yr), Orchestra(4yrs), volunteering at library, volunteering at an art museum, interact club, Habitat for humanity, Spanish club and math honor society. I don’t have any leadership positions in any of these activities. Is there still any chance of me getting into a competitive school? I understand that I have a very slim chance, if any, thus I’m thinking about applying early decision to a good school (such as JHU). Also, is there anything I can possibly do to help myself? Does the major I select affect my chances? Lastly, if I decide to transfer during my undergrad years, which year should I do it?
    Btw, my senior course load includes AP psychology, AP calc. BC, AP comp. sci., AP Spanish, AP Environmental Sci. and Honors English IV.
    Thank you!!

    1. Aly,

      A GPA of 3.75 is very good! Of course there are going to be some students with a more competitive GPA (there always are), but there are going to be many, many more who wish they had succeeded thus far as well as you have. While it’s true that your GPA is one of the most important application components, you do fall within what is regularly considered a competitive GPA range for top tier colleges.

      Have you taken the ACT or SAT previously? If not, you might be cutting it a little close. I say this because if you have not already done so, you need to also consider taking several SAT Subject Tests, which are a required admission component for all the Ivy League schools. If that is the case (that you have not taken the SAT Subject Tests), it is doubly important that you achieve your test taking goals the first time around as you will not have many second chances to take these tests ahead of the application deadlines, and you want to avoid having to prepare for a plethora of exams at once.

      Here is some advice regarding the other questions you’ve posed:

      Be wary of applying early decision. Only do this for your first choice school; admission through this method is considered binding. Another approach that would improve your chances of admission to an almost identical degree without running the hazard of binding admission is to simply complete and submit your applications as soon after general applications are accepted as possible. The more time you give an admission officer to review your application, the more thorough a review your application will receive.

      The major or department you apply for will impact your chance of admission, but not to the extent that you should consider applying for a department or major that you are not truly interested in pursuing.

      If you are familiar with the story of Rudy, then you know Rudy applied to Notre Dame at least three times before finally being accepted. If you are able to maintain a competitive GPA as an undergraduate and still have a desire to transfer to another school, then just go for it! The one detriment or real area of concern here is to appreciate how different schools count different credits towards a degree. As different schools have different degree paths, it is always better to transfer early (first or second year).

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  9. Dear Calvin
    I’m a freshman student goin to be a sophomore; I have Princeton University on my eyes but the problem is I have LD and all my teachers/couselors say I will never make it. I’m great at all subjects but math because of my problem but I have tried and succeeded in some of my math classes but I moved to NC recently and the teachers don’t care at all and some just spend time yelling at the “rebel” students, coming from Va it was different but when I got to NC they just threw me in classes I didn’t need to take and it messed up my grades; because of my grades my councilor told me “I will never have a chance to get in Princeton and I should think about goin to community colleges”, my problem is okay I might have LD but I’m extremely gifted in the the proformance/visual arts and creative writing. I don’t wanna seen ignorant but I feel like because I’m a African American female many just brush me to the side I have had teachers and some past councilors say I should think about doing hair, nails, or work as a waitress; it sickens me because I have all these gifts but yet I can never get the right advice and I don’t think it’s right for someone to tell me what I should be. Please share your ideas and thoughts about this please and thank you

    1. Mya,

      First of all, it is fantastic that you are considering college at such a young age! Many of your peers will not even begin to consider life after high school until their junior or even senior year; this, of course, should give you an advantage as you construct an overall college admissions timeline and make all the requisite preparations you will need to make in order to be a competitive applicant to a school like Princeton.

      I certainly sympathize with your situation; there are few things more difficult for a young student to overcome than the indifference of his or her teachers. Having a learning disability may only serve to compound an already difficult situation, but don’t let anyone tell you that your goals are out of reach. The most important thing you can do right now is work to maintain a high grade point average. This will be the single biggest determinant in terms of admission to a school like Princeton. If you are unable to get the help you need in mathematics from your teachers or school, then explore your larger community for help. There are sure to be some volunteer and/or community services you might benefit from; if nothing else, there are many free online resources only a Google search away.

      As you focus on your GPA, you should also continue to probe your interests in reading, writing, and the visual arts. Join a theater troop (or the thespian club) and read Shakespeare! Maybe try your hand at writing a song, play or short story (you could possibly submit something like this to a local or national writing contest, which, if you win any sort of award, would look great on a college application). One common recommendation I make to students of your age with a strong interest in reading and writing is to go to your school of choice’s (in this case Princeton) English Department web page. Most English Departments publish annual recommended reading lists; you should consider reading titles recommended to college freshmen. This will benefit you in several ways, including improving your vocabulary, exposing you to college level material, and preparing you to read at a college level.

      The best advice I can give you is to not allow yourself to be deterred by the apathy of others. If you plan carefully and work hard, anything is achievable!

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

      1. i don’t know the person who wrote that comment, but just wanted to thank you for the time you took to send such a thorough, encouraging reply!

  10. Dear Calvin,

    Thank you for your very informative article about applying to Ivy leagues. It is very helpful for me to read about the application process from someone who actually experienced it themselves. If you don’t mind I would like an honest opinion concerning my chances of being admitted to an Ivy school.
    I am a rising senior, and up until junior year I really had not taken high school too seriously. I have taken the highest level classes that my school offers (honors and AP), but I have 6 or 7 B’s or B+’s on my transcript. One B is from honors Spanish junior year, but the rest are from freshman and sophomore year. This year I am determined to get all A’s in my 6 AP classes and one honors. With no preparation, my current SAT score is a 2060, but I have recently gotten a tutor and plan on taking the SAT again and the ACT for the first time. Extra curriculars I have done are: school soccer (3 years), school varsity swimming (3 years), school track (2 years), club diving (1 year), club swimming (4 years), national honors society (1 year), and key club (3 years). This year I will be doing all of those activities, excluding soccer, and in addition I will be running school cross country, joining year book club, and my cousin and I have asked permission from the school to start a ski club. I also had a job teaching swim lessons for 1 1/2 years (I quit because I had too many activities) and do volunteer work at a bible camp over the summer. I have a very distant legacy at Yale; therefore, I was wondering if you think that I have any chance of getting into that or any Ivy league school. Please respond so I know whether or not I’m being unrealistic because my mom does not want to waste money applying somewhere I have no chance of getting in.

    Thank you so much,
    Jess

    p.s. I am writing this at 12:30 am so please excuse my atrocious grammar and spelling because I’m half asleep.

    1. Jess,

      There are a lot of factors that go into an Ivy League admission decision, but generally speaking the two most important items on your application are your GPA/Class Rank and standardized test scores. If this was a complete version of your resume than you are missing a few things that are required to even be considered for admission (specifically SAT Subject Test scores) and a few things that we generally recommend for students applying to these types of colleges (I didn’t see a volunteering/philanthropy activity listed, for example). This does not mean that you will be automatically dismissed as applicant! You will, of course, have to meet the prerequisites to apply (you can take up to 3 SAT Subject Tests in one sitting, so you should be able to complete this part of your application), and you should definitely consider taking the SAT again – a good score to shoot for is a 2250+ (this does not mean you need a 2250+ to be admitted, but a 2250+ should be your target). If your friends are interested, you might start an organized volunteering club of some kind instead of a ski club – personally, it appears to me that you have enough athletic related extracurricular activities as is.

      To answer your question about your freshman and sophomore year grades – what you should keep in mind going forward is that there are certain things you have control over and certain things you do not have any control over. Past grades are things you have no control over now. Focus now on what you can do, not what you cannot. Although admission to Ivy Leagues schools is more competitive than ever, these grades will not automatically make you ineligible for admission. It is important to have realistic expectations about these types of things, but that doesn’t mean you should throw away your any chance of admission to your dream school over an application fee.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  11. Dear Calvin,
    Thank you for writing this blog. It has helped me a lot and I’m glad I found it. I have a few questions. First, I just started my freshman year at Northside College Prepatory High School, which is #1 in Illinois and #36 in the U.S. I just moved here from the suburbs, and in 8th grade I took an Honors Algebra 2 class that my high school is offering me credit for, and I got an A both semesters. However, I have to take Honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry this year, so should I not accept credit for the class I took last year because it might be confusing as to why I sort of took the same class two years in a row and it will bring down my GPA when I start taking AP classes? Second, my high school only requires three years of Social Science. Can I only take three so that I can take another AP class in math or science, or will these schools be looking for me to have taken four? Either way, which ones should I take from this list that my school offers (I have to take an honors S.S. class freshman year and I know I’m taking A.P. U.S. History sophomore year): AP Psychology, AP U.S. Government and Politics, AP Microeconomics, AP European History, and/or AP Human Geography. Third, I’ve been playing Alto Saxophone for two years and I’m currently in the Honors Jazz Band at my high school. At my high school, you have to take Honors Physics then Chemistry then Biology. Can I drop Jazz Band after this year so I can take the AP versions of those classes as electives, especially because I have other options for creative extracarriculars like the First Robotics Competition team, the Debate team, the Math Team, and the Chess team? Fourth, do you need four years in at least five extracarriculars, or just one from each category and then others is it okay to do from 1-3 years? Fifth, which category of extracarricular does student council go under? Sixth, how many AP classes should I take before the end of senior year? Is eleven enough? Seventh, does high school multivariable calculus count as an AP course, because I’m taking that senior year? Eigth, should you try to take as many AP classes as you can before the end of junior year, because colleges don’t see that much of your senior grades? Ninth, my high school lets you not take P.E. junior or senior year (which is a regular, non-honors or A.P. course) if you either play one sport varsity or two non-varsity sophomore and junior year. Should I to open up room for other classes? Tenth, are there any other subjects in which I should have AP classes besides mathematics (AP Calculus BC & maybe AP Stat, also Multivariable Calculus if it counts), Science (AP Chemistry, which takes the place of two classes, AP Biology, AP Physics C Both Parts), Social Science (AP US History, one and maybe two others), English (AP Language and Composition, AP Literature and Composition). Foreign Language (AP Spanish Language), and Computer Science (AP Computer Science A)? Eleventh, is it a good strategy to build up the amount of AP classes you take as you continue in high school? For example, sophomore year could I take 1-2, junior year 3-4, and then senior year 6-7? Twelfth, almost everyone at my school has not taken many/are not planning to take many AP classes. They are telling me that I shouldn’t take too many because it’s too stressful, and I feel like a outcast because I’m the only person I know who’s planning to take as many AP classes as possible. What should I do? Thirteenth, how much sleep should I be getting each night seven out of eight of my classes (all except lunch) were AP and my high school is on block scheduling (which is what I’m planning will happen senior year)? How, if that is the case, do I not sleep through quizzes and tests if I’m up extremely late working on homework and studying?

    Thanks,
    Nathan

    1. Nathan,

      Wow. Lot’s of questions here… let’s see:
      1) It’s not unusual for ultra-competitive private schools to be very stringent in terms of what credits they will and not will allow students to transfer. If you’re only a freshman, taking this class (and maintaining a good grade) will not hurt your long-term college admission chances.
      2) Ivy League schools value challenging course loads – take the most difficult classes you can while maintaining a competitive GPA. In terms of which specific AP you should take – take either a class you will find interesting (you are more likely to do well in the class if you are interested in the material) or a class that might pertain to the undergraduate degree path or professional career you will ultimately pursue. Or better yet, take a class that fits both criteria!
      3) It’s not a question of whether you can drop Honors Jazz, but whether you should. When it comes to extracurriculars, quality always trump quantity. If you are already participating in your high school band at an advanced level (the honors option allows you to quantify and demonstrate to an admission officer that you are participating at an accelerated or advanced level), you might reconsider dropping this for an activity in which your success is less guaranteed. More than that though, do what you are passionate about!
      4) There is no magic formula – what we offer here are general guidelines. Although we recommend participating in different types of extracurriculars as a way of making your application more robust, it is more important that you excel in the activities you do participate in than it is to participate in a plethora of activities. You will only have so much time in the day and through the year to devote to your different commitments. Also, remember, never take on so much that your GPA or class rank will suffer as a result.
      5) Depending on your position and what you accomplish with it, membership in student government could fall under creative/intellectual or even stand alone as a ‘Leadership’ credential.
      6) Take as many as you can without your GPA suffering as a result (ask your high school counselor about your different options).
      7) While this is typically an extremely advanced class, even at the college level, College Board does not currently offer an Advanced Placement exam for this topic.
      8) Yes.
      9) Yes. Remember also that excellence in athletics looks very good on a college application.
      10) It sounds like you have done a great job of mapping out your high school education – stick to the strategies and plan you have outlined thus far and you will do fine. Just remember, again, that while it is important to take a challenging course load, it is more important that you maintain a competitive GPA. If you can do both, go for it!
      11) See answer 10.
      12) See answer 10.
      13) You should be getting about 8 hours of sleep a night. If you manage your time correctly, you will have no problem.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

    1. Soo,

      What is your community service in? Community service is more valuable if it relates to what you would potentially study as an undergraduate. Examples might include: a pre-med student volunteering at a hospital, a history major volunteering at a museum, a music student putting together a charity performance, etc. It would also be beneficial if you can translate that work into some kind of quantity; an example of this might be raising x amount of dollars for y charity or being recognized for your work by a local newspaper or charity organization.

      Remember also that excelling in one area won’t necessarily makeup for a weaker part of your application. Different parts of your application are meant to complement one another – not necessarily replace. So, for example, a stellar SAT or ACT score won’t necessarily makeup for a poor GPA. A couple of B’s won’t ruin your chances of admission, but when you write your application essay or conduct your interview avoid trying to sound like you are making up for those B’s with volunteer service.

      Hope this helps!

  12. Dear Calvin,

    Though I am in freshman year of high school, I still worry about all of my grades and my future. I was wondering if you could tell me what would happen if you got a B in one honors class. I am an A and A+ student who had a slip up. Could you tell me what colleges would think of it, as you have had experience.

    Regards,
    Ritu

    PS: Thanks for posting this information on Ivy Leagues!!

    1. Ritu,

      A single B won’t significantly decrease your chances of admission to an Ivy League school. As you’re a freshman, though, you still have a long way to go; it is extremely important going forward that you maintain a high achieving GPA.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  13. Dear Calvin (or whoever else may be able to answer these slew of questions),
    I am currently a senior in high school and I am proud to say that I am an IB Diploma candidate. I have recently finished all of my college applications to 15 colleges. I am rank 4 in my class of approximately 400 other seniors. However, I have never made a B in my life – the only reason why I am #4 is because I chose to dabble in newspaper and orchestra (less weight than an IB class). I am president of French National Honor Society, Scholarship chair of National Honor Society, a dedicated Science Olympiad member (and 3 time medalist), the staff writer for the school newspaper, Academic WorldQuest member, secretary, vice president, and treasurer of 3 other clubs. Along with my involvement with newspaper, I have a string of 5 awards or so attached to it. Of course, that was not my entire resume – I left a few things out. I have always doubted that I could get into an Ivy League (despite applying to 3 of them, along with some of the most competitive schools in the country) but I was just wondering if I really had a shot, considering that I do not do any sports and my ACT plus writing is only a 31. Is it possible to get into an Ivy League school without doing a sport? And is it possible with a mediocre test score?

    1. Carol,

      You don’t necessarily need to participate in a sport or athletic activity to be accepted to an Ivy League or similarly competitive school. Although recently there has been a societal emphasis on the value of health and fitness, this is not why excelling at sports improves your appeal as a candidate to competitive universities. Excelling in an athletic setting usually demonstrates characteristics that are associated with academic success: competitiveness, a willingness to persevere/work hard, and an ability to work well with others. If you can demonstrate these characteristics through activities outside the realm of sports, your application will not suffer for it.

      A 31 is not a mediocre score on the ACT. Typically, admitted students to Ivy League schools average a composite score of 32, so you are just slightly lower than the average. That said, this is the average score of admitted students; students are regularly admitted with both higher and lower composite scores.

      Hope this helps!

  14. Dear Calvin or Bill,
    I am a sophomore looking into Ivy League colleges. I go to a pretty good high school in southern CA, but recently, a mediocre finals test grade has caused for a B+ in my Algebra IIE class. I am an outstanding Honors student, one of the few in my class of 2017 to be taking both AP Chem and AP Euro and to have achieved a class rank of 4, taking a few extracurriculars, volunteering and learning a new language in a religious institution, etc. My point is: Will a B+ affect my chances to getting into an Ivy League University from a high school that considers the +/-s as a difference in weighted GPA and class rank? I understand that a B+ may not be as bad as it may sound to me, but being a generation where grade inflation is sky-high and nothing less than A or an A- is accepted, I would just like to know my chances and how this could possibly affect my future. Also, by making this grade up in second semester, do you think this can be overlooked? Do you have any personal experience with a slip-up such as this in high school? If so, what did you do to make it up and still look good to the Ivy League Universities? What do you think I should I do? By taking two hard classes in an early year (my teachers thought I was crazy), will that make up for the grades and the rank?

    Thank you for your time and consideration in a personally stressful time when one should be celebrating for the holidays.

    1. Araz,

      One or two B’s will not ruin your chances of admission to an Ivy League school; however, your grade reports should make it clear to admission officers that receiving a B is an aberration not a pattern. In terms of taking on the onus of a challenging course load, remember: while a challenging schedule is important to demonstrating your ability to keep up at highly competitive university, it is more important that you maintain a stellar GPA throughout high school – do not take on more than you can handle.

      Hope this helps!

  15. Dear Calvin/Bill,

    Sorry to bother you, but here are two scenarios:

    Person A has taken all honors classes and as many AP classes as possible. They have gotten all A’s except for a single B in an AP class. They have gotten all 5’s on their AP exams. Their SAT score is in the 2200-2400 range, and ACT 33-35. They are captain of Science Olympiad team and math team. They have been playing a string instrument for 9 years and made it into all-state 5/7 attempts. They have started their own volunteering club where groups of orchestra members go to nursing homes and play for the elderly, and raked up quite a few hours with that. They have written and published a small novel. Popular among teachers/may get good recommendation letters.

    Person B has the same SAT/ACT scores, identical honors/AP classes and AP Exam scores as Person A. The only difference is that they have gotten straight A’s. Like Person A, they have been playing a string instrument for 8-9 years and has made it into all-state 5/7 attempts. They are in Science Olympiad, Math Team, and Debate, and have won awards in each one, but do not hold any leadership positions in either one. They are extremely good at swimming and have been doing so for over a decade, winning several competitions throughout their career. Very smart, one of the top in their class, and will probably get good recommendation letters.

    Which person, when applying to the same (preferably Ivy League) schools, will have the upper hand?

    Thanks – this is kind of an awkward question

    1. Ricky,

      You should keep in mind that there is no secret formula that guarantees admission to an Ivy League school – there is a certain element of luck that goes into getting in. Thousands and thousands of highly qualified, motivated individuals are turned down every year. Last year Harvard’s acceptance rate was 5.9%!

      There are a couple of significant differences between these two applicants, but what would be more important in a case like this (with near identical candidates) would be things like their respective admission essays, the specific quality of their recommendations and from who the recommendations are, as well as the degree path they are seeking, and the quality of the competition in that year’s admission class.

      Hope this helps!

  16. I loved your article. It gave me a wide range of perspective and comforted me. I understand that GPA is only a part of the admission process. I’m currently a sophomore who has had two B’s in honors math last year and gotten two B’s this semester as a sophomore in Trig Honors and World History AP. Our school also has this language challenge test that is usually given a Pass or Fail grade for language credits but instead they attached it to my freshman year GPA, which lowered it. The honors classes in my freshmen year are not weighted. I feel like I am a smart student and have only been struggling with math with high school. Any advice? I’m really worried I’ll jeopardize my chances of getting into the college I wish to get into. I hope to major in something to do with technology and I have A’s in all my honors science classes.

    1. Rachel,

      If your transcript indicates that you might struggle in a particular academic discipline, so, for example, if your math grades are regularly lower than your other grades across four years of high school, then you should consider taking an SAT Subject Test in that academic discipline. SAT Subject Tests are tests of knowledge in specific topics (e.g. Math, History, Chemistry, Foreign Languages, etc.). A high score on the SAT Math Level 1 Subject Test will go a long way toward assuring an admission officer that you have a working and competent knowledge of college level mathematics. Likewise, you could take the World History SAT Subject Test.

      Hope this helps!

  17. Hi, Im a freshman just starting High School and was slacking off of my work for 2 quarters and the third quarter is coming around in a week or so and I really am going to put my foot on the gas and try to hit the brick wall as hard as I can, but besides that can you please tell me if I still have a fighting chance if I do well the next two quarters and 3 three years that I will have a competitive edge in fighting for a spot to get into Columbia University in NYC? Please help me out here, I take 1 regular class Geometry, Biology Honors, English 2 Honors, AP Human Geography, Chinese 1, Engineering, and I.T. Hopefully you can reply at your earliest convenience, Thanks!

    1. Richie,

      As a freshman in high school you probably haven’t taken Driver’s Ed yet. You should know that when driving fast, or putting your foot on the gas, it is important to avoid brick walls, not hit them.

      Joking aside, you still have plenty of time to improve your overall transcript. Just remember that the admission standards for a school like Columbia are very high. Although a single misstep will not automatically disqualify you from consideration, it is important that you consistently maintain a competitive GPA. There are many other factors that go into grooming yourself into a competitive Ivy League applicant, like extracurriculars, recommendations, etc., however your GPA will be the single most important aspect of your application.

      Hope this helps!

  18. Dear Calvin/Bill,
    Thanks for the article. It was very informative and answered a lot of my questions about college admissions. I still have a couple of personal questions – I was wondering if you could please email the address I entered so that I could ask you them in a slightly less public manner in a reply? I really appreciate your time.

    1. Caleb,

      If you would like to ask some personal questions but do not want to have them associated with your name or email address, then just Ask Test Masters! Be sure to include in the body of the text that you would prefer to be identified as “Anonymous” in the response to your questions.

      Thanks!

  19. Hi, I’m a high school junior at a very small school in northwest Ohio.
    GPA: 3.98 (I got an A- 1 semester in Algebra in 8th grade and a B+ one semester in Spanish 2 Freshman year)
    Class Rank: 10th out of 110 (my school doesn’t weight GPA, so kids who have taken garbage, easy classes get 4.0s and manage to be ranked higher)
    ACT: 32 (first try, summer of sophomore year, no studying)
    PSAT: 195 sophomore year, 210 this year (no studying)
    My school only offers AP English (Both Lit and Lang), AP Bio, AP Calc AB, and AP Chem.
    I am taking AP Lit and Bio this year, and AP Lang and Chem next year. Otherwise, I have taken all “accelerated” classes my school offers (CP English 9/10, Acc Life Science 9, Acc Physical Science 10). I am taking my PreCalc class online through the local community college because my scheduling conflicts due to my desire to take three science courses made me unable to take PreCalc at my high school. Next year I will also have a Senior Internship for 2 periods a day at a local company in the field I hope to study (food science).
    Extracurriculars: Freshman Basketball, JV Tennis (9), Varsity Track (9/10(both years league and District meet runner, placed 7th in 1600 at leagues, we have two schools (one is D2 one is D3) who win the state cross country meet every year), Varsity Swim (10(Rookie Award)/11), Varsity XC (10/11 (league, district, regional runner)), Stage Crew (9) Light Crew (9) Lighting Crew Head (10/11) Musical and Play, Choir (9/10), Marching & Symphonic (audition only) Band (9(1st chair)/10/11), City Band (9/10/11), NHS (11), I also tutor on occasion.
    Nobody from my school goes anywhere out of state and nobody aims higher than Ohio State. I’d definitely be the only from my school even applying to the Ivies.

    Do I still have a decent chance at getting into an Ivy League School with my less-than-perfect GPA, relatively easy course-load, and mediocre class rank?

    1. Kenzie,

      Unfortunately, sometimes being from a small town can be hindrance in the college admissions process, especially among more competitive universities. Of course, to an extent, colleges will take the lack of opportunities into account, so it’s hard to say exactly how all of this will be perceived by admissions officers. I would absolutely say it’s worth applying! Continue to take advantage of what opportunities are offered, and keep up the good work on the grades! While a 32 is a pretty competitive score, you still might want to do some Test prep (shameless plug for http://www.testmasters.com) and take the test again. Also, having gone to school in Northwest Ohio (GO ONU POLAR BEARS!), I know a lot of emphasis is placed on the ACT, but given your good PSAT scores you should probably prepare for and take the SAT to see if you can do better comparatively. Similarly, taking more SAT Subject tests can help you stand out (if you do well). Despite not having a lot of AP classes, colleges are interested in students who don’t let things like that stand in their way. If you can prove that you still sought out opportunities to make yourself a competitive applicant (and again, knowing the area my sympathies are with you there), you’ll stand a better chance of being accepted even though you didn’t have a lot to work with.

      Finally, don’t let the unambitious nature of your classmates rub off on you. Even if you don’t get into the Ivy League of your dreams, you don’t have to settle for Ohio State either (although, depending on what you want to do, OSU is definitely still a good school). Ivy League schools are VERY competitive and not having all of the tools at your disposal, while it isn’t your fault, could mess up your chances of admission (although, if it does, you’re in good company; the current president of Columbia U was rejected from Harvard for much the same reasons), but other premiere universities will certainly still consider you a competitive applicant. I encourage you to do some research to find a school that will be a good fit for you if you don’t get in to an Ivy League, which is not to say you shouldn’t apply!

      Good luck!!

      Hopefully this was helpful.

  20. Hi Calvin or Bill I study under the UK. Curriculum. I have straight As and A*s throughout 9th and 10th grade but right before my Gcse exams something tragic happened in my family. As a result, it had direct impact on my grades. I got 2As. 1A* 2Bs and 3Cs. If I do really well again in my A level, will ivy league consider me as a candidate?

    1. Jamie,

      It is of course hard to say exactly how a university will take this. If the rest of your resume is solid, then that will support the idea that the Gcse exams were just a fluke. Also, most colleges will allow you to include any additional statement that you think is relevant to interpreting your resume. This is not a place to whine or complain about difficult course loads, but if you’ve experienced something that most high school students would not have to deal with and it had a profound affect on your grades it seems to me there’s no harm in being honest about it. Being realistic, schools tend to scrutinize an international student’s resume even more closely, which could hurt your chances; however, you stand no chance of being considered if you don’t apply.

      Hopefully this is helpful!

  21. how many AP’s do we have to take (minimum) to get into a ivy league school? Would 3-4 be enough? Also the Ap’s I’m taking are all in socials except one (world history, human geo, european history… and Calculus). Same for my other tests is that okay or should there be a variety?

    1. Jenny,

      There is no minimum requirement. That said, Ivy League schools desire students who take the most challenging course load available to them. Additionally, these types of schools prefer students who are academically versatile, so students who take difficult classes in a variety of academic topics and disciplines are necessarily given a preference. If you are worried about this component of your application, my recommendation would be to supplement your application with a few SAT Subject Tests in the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Math). Remember, if you take a Subject Test and don’t score as well as you expect, you can always choose not to share that score.

      Hope this helps!

  22. Dear Calvin/Bill,

    I am currently in sophomore year and I’m not sure what AP courses I should take in junior year. Right now I am taking Chemistry, Pre-Calc, English, World History II, Spanish II, and AP Psychology. Next year I’m planning to take AP Calc BC, AP Chemistry, Spanish III, AP Studio Art, English, and APUSH. Then, in senior year, I’m planning to take AP Biology, AP Statistics, AP Spanish, AP Econ, and English honors. Or, should I take Physics, and AP Econ in junior year instead of APUSH and then, take AP Physics in senior year? Basically, I’m not sure if I should take AP Physics or APUSH… But if I want to major in Biology or Psychology would AP Physics be more beneficial or APUSH? Also, I don’t really find interest in APUSH because I’m really nervous about the amount of work and the amount of essays I need to write in that class. However, same goes for the amount of work in AP Physics… Other questions I have are: Do IVY League Universities have AP History requirements? Or do you think I will be fine not taking an AP history classes?

    Also, my GPA for freshman year was 4.3/4.3 because I had A+ for all my classes. But my school got rid of A+ and made the GPA to 4.0 so I had a 4.0/4.0 in freshman year. Currently, in sophomore year since I am taking AP Psychology I have over a 4.0 GPA, but I’m still worried for next year.

    1. Jamie,

      Honestly, if you’re really trying to make the best impression for Ivy League schools, you want to take whatever AP courses you can (so physics AND APUSH). However, yes, that puts you in the position of having an extremely demanding course load, so if you’re worried that it would adversely affect your GPA to take both AP courses, it may be a safer option to pick one over the other. In my opinion, you should take whichever AP course appeals to you more (which it sounds like is physics)–that way even if it’s a lot of work it’s at least something you find interesting.

      Hopefully this is helpful!

  23. Hi,

    I’m a sophomore and my grades have been straight A+s other than three occasions all my freshman year. I took honors Science and got a B+, Advanced 2X Math got a B+, and Advanced 3x Math and got a B-. I have been taking the ACTS since 7th grade and even at that age I got a 30 composite. I’m extremely hardworking, but do you think colleges will really look into my freshman year? Thanks in advance.

    1. Jai,

      The truth is that these types of schools will review your academic transcript in its entirety; all four years will be taken into consideration. That said, a few B’s your freshman year will not ruin your chances of admission to an Ivy League school – particularly if you are able to maintain A’s throughout the rest of high school.

      Hope this helps!

  24. Hi Bill,

    I am an international student from Spain and came to US freshman year of high school! I go to a public school in a suburb in Boston and the only time I lived here before was when I was 4 until 6 years old 🙂 I was wondering how you saw my chances of getting into an Ivy League. Freshman year I got a C In advanced math, since the basics in Spain did not prepare me for this and a B in honors English and a B+ in physics. The rest I got A’s and A- all honors. Sophomore year I got all A’s and A- except a B+ for chemistry. I went down to Honors math but got an A. I also got an A in english. This junior year I have A’s in all my classes except AP Chem, in which I might get a B+/A- not sure yet! Okay! I did basketball 2 years, piano for 8 years including 3 here in Boston, I participated in 4 concerts here. I have also created a volunteering club that has a school trip to the Dominican Republic to help a school there, and done art all four years. I have done Red Cross club (1 year) and Amnesty International (1) before creating my club. during the summers I have been going to camps but last summer i did intensive art programs and this summer I am going to take summer courses at a college program! I’m a junior mentor and most likely a senior mentor. I have gone to a bunch of conferences about global health and well that’s kind of it! What would my chances be considering I moved here 3 years ago from Spain? ( I wasn’t at an international school in Madrid)

    1. Paula,

      Coming from an international background, it is not surprising that you initially struggled to adapt to an English-only academic environment. Unfortunately, international Ivy League applicants are held to the same academic standard as their wholly domestic peers. This does not mean that you have no chance of being admitted to an Ivy League school, only that your freshman year grades might hurt your application. Beyond your freshman year, based on what you’ve said your grades are solid. Your extracurriculars are good as well. As you’ve suggested here, you’ll have to improve your standardized test scores – a good SAT score for the Ivy League is a 2250+. Also, don’t forget about the SAT Subject Tests! (You should have no less than two 700+ SAT Subject Test scores, but hopefully at least three or more.)

      Just continue to keep up the good work! You might consider generating a personal statement explaining the cultural and academic challenges you encountered as an international student.

      Hope this helps!

  25. Hi,
    I’m from Pakistan and scored 78 percentage in my high school. Here 70 to below 80. is considered A grade, and 80 or above 80 is considered A+. I’m working really hard to get an exceptional SAT score.
    Firstly I want to know about my chances for Ivy league acceptance. (Suppose a SAT score of above 2250).
    Secondly I want to know that how Ivy league will take my 78 percentage?
    Because according to our examination system it is considered in the category of A grade. Will Ivy league consider it is same as they consider A levels?

    1. Hi,
      I’m from Pakistan and scored 78 percentage in my high school. Here 70 to below 80. is considered A grade, and 80 or above 80 is considered A+. I’m working really hard to get an exceptional SAT score. Moreover, according to my country’s examination system, I’ve scored A in Chemistry, Physics, and Maths. And A+ in English and Urdu (Pakistan’s national language).
      Firstly I want to know about my chances for Ivy league acceptance. (Suppose a SAT score of above 2250).
      Secondly I want to know that how Ivy league will take my 78 percentage?
      Because according to our examination system it is considered in the category of A grade. Will Ivy league consider it is same as they consider A levels?

      1. Muhammad,

        It is always difficult to speculate about the chances of international admissions at a school. For the most part, schools do tend to scrutinize international students a little more carefully. Good standardized test scores (SAT scores or SAT II scores) can help in crease your chances of admissions because they are readily comparable with any student’s scores. It is difficult to say exactly how schools will interpret your 78% average–since this is an A in your system, I would expect that the school would try to find out how this compares to the scores of your peers. If your test scores place you in the top 2 or 3% of your class, it probably won’t matter as much that you don’t have an A+; however, if a 78 is an average score, like it would be here, that won’t be as impressive to schools. Having an A+ in English and Urdu will help you stand out, but what things other than grades do you have going on? Do you spend time outside of school pursuing a hobby? Or as part of a group? Remember, Ivy League schools are looking for more than just grades and test scores–while those two things may seem most important (and they are), bringing something new to the table can be the difference between being accepted and being turned down.

        James

    2. Muhammad,

      This website has a very useful International GPA Calculator. I’ve linked specifically to their Pakistan converter. I would encourage you to use this to get a better understanding of where you rank among your international peers.

      A 2250+ on the SAT is consistent with students accepted to Ivy League universities in the past; however, keep in mind that there are many, many other factors that will contribute to any admission decision (essay, recommendations, SAT Subject Tests, AP exams, TOEFL, etc.). Keep in mind that international applicants are expected to meet the same admission requirements as US applicants.

      In short, an A earned in Pakistan will be valued just as highly as an A earned in North America. So, yes.

      Hope this helps!

  26. Bill,

    I am a half american half french student studying in the U.K. I got 8 A*, 3 As and 1 B in my GCSEs which I am scared is not good enough for an Ivy league school like Duke. I am predicted 5 A* at AS level and I got 32 in my ACT (out of 36). Are these grades enough to get into a university like Duke?

    1. David,

      These scores are comparable to other students admitted to a school like Duke University. There are a lot of other factors that go into admission to these types of schools – essays, recommendations, extracurriculars, etc. – but your grades and ACT score are consistent with other students admitted to Duke.

      Hope this helps!

  27. I got 2350 in SAT on my first attempt with a 800 on writing, 780 on critical reading and 770 on math, where I must have made a mistake in bubbling my answer. Math is my strong subject and never had one question missed! So…I am not satisfied and would like to take again. But….everyone is saying it is just a waste of time. What would you suggest?? Thanks.

    1. Valerie,

      You have a near perfect score. If you feel truly strong about achieving a perfect score you can go ahead and take it again, but your friends and family are right – at this point the difference between a 2350 and 2400 in the context of an application to an Ivy League school is relatively moot. That is, other factors will probably be more important than a 50 point improvement on your SAT score.

      Hope this helps!

  28. Hi,

    My name is Teresa and I am going to be a junior next year. The things I am the most worried about is my grades and GPA. I do a lot of extra activities in and out of school. I am on my school’s varsity swim team and I also plan to be on student council my junior year. Furthermore, I have leadership positions in two of the organization I am in. I currently take all the advanced classes I can take. As in my sophomore year, I took all Honors classes and one AP. Looking forward to my junior year, I plan to take 3 APs and all Honors class. However, with taking all these advanced classes, they really have a toll on my grades and GPA. My weighted GPA is pretty high because of these classes, however my unweighted GPA is pretty low. During my sophomore year, I made the mistake of focusing too much on my AP class rather than on my struggle subject class, Math. As a result, even though I did fine in my AP class, my final grade for my math class came out to be a C+. I’m really worried that this grade puts me out of the chances of getting into an ivy league. Does having this one C+ mean I have no chance of getting into an ivy league??

    1. Teresa,

      A very low grade like a C+ will hurt your chances of admission to an Ivy League school, but not irretrievably. Going forward, while you should take the most difficult and challenging course load available to you, you should only register for a schedule that you are confident will still allow you to maintain a competitive GPA.

      Hope this helps!

  29. Hi. My name is Giridhar Murali and I am going to be a junior in high school. I will be applying to 21 colleges including all 8 ivy league colleges, MIT, and other selective colleges. I have a 4.18 weighted gpa as well as extra curricular activities such as chess, violin, and basketball. I am also a part of the Agriscience and Biotechnology program at my school and will be representing Connecticut in the public speaking competition in Kentucky. I have taken all honors classes and will also be taking AP Chemistry and ECE Biotechnology, a UCONN class. What are my chances at admission into competitive schools based on these achievements?

    1. Giridhar,

      You certainly fit the profile of what is expected of students admitted to these types of schools; however, other criteria, such as your SAT, ACT, SAT II’s, recommendations, and essays, among other things, will factor into any admission decision. If you’re staying on top of these other admission factors you should have as good a chance as anybody at admission to a top college.

      Hope this helps!

  30. Hi, I have read your articles and they have been very helpful! yet, I’m still deciding if it would be wise to attend a junior college. My county offers a chance to attend a high school were we are taught by professors and get a 2 year college education. They have the highest score in the school district for state test, and only accept 75 students per year. To get in you must take a test called the PERT. They offer all the high school credits needed to graduate and some students have gotten scholarships from good universities. The problem is that I don’t want to be consider a transfer when I apply to the MIT, or any ivy league schools. I have a passion for genetics and would really love to go to the community college to learn more. But I would really like to know if it would be better to stay in my high school, (which by the way, is also good and offers A.P classes), or attend the other high school I mentioned…..This has been bothering me for a while and it would really love of someone could answer this question.
    P.S- the college starts with 10th grade and ends with 12th just like a regular high school.

    1. Hi Grazia, our advice is always to try and get the best education available! If the 2 year program offers a more rigorous and in-depth education, and you feel comfortable about attending it, go for it! If you do this program, you will *not* be considered a transfer student, as long as you don’t apply as one (there are separate applications for transfer and freshmen applicants).

      On a personal note, I myself attended a similar two year program at a local university, and I loved everything about it! These programs are definitely not for everyone, but if you visit and feel comfortable about the living situation and academics, don’t be afraid of attending, especially if the school has an excellent track record like you mentioned. This is ultimately a personal decision, and since it sounds like both the two year program and the regular high school are excellent, you’ll definitely have to do some soul searching to figure out what is best for you and what you feel most comfortable with.

  31. Hi,
    I’m a yr 11 student in Australia and I’m bit concerned about my grades and GPA. I’m not sure how I would be viewed because I’m getting lots of B+, some Bs, and 1 or 2 A grades. My school grades are based on the bell curve system and my school is also academically rigorous. My year level is extremely competitive. On the other hand, I do lots of extracurricular (passion 🙂 ) such as music, chess, debating, cadets. I’ve also represented the school in the Da Vinci Decathlon National Finals (academic team competition on 10 disciplines). I’m also the only student in the school to win the prize scholarship (3 times already) for learning the Pipe Organ. I’ve also had 4 previous leadership positions both at school and outside of school. I know my extracurricular is not bad at the moment, I’m just concerned whether my grades (given the conversion) are affecting my chances significantly.
    Thanks

    1. Hi Henry, your extracurriculars do indeed seem up to par, and you’re justified in expressing concern about your grades as Ivy League schools will generally overlook one or two B’s if the rest of the transcript is all A’s. If you have not already applied and intend to this coming fall (Northern Hemisphere fall!), the best thing to do would be to ensure you finish off this semester as strong as possible and to make sure you score as high on the SAT or ACT as possible. Your best shot at having admissions counselors to forgive the string of B+’s is to get as close to perfect on these standardized tests as possible and then to write a personal statement that truly and completely reflects the passion you’ve displayed in your extracurriculars.
      Best of luck!

  32. Hi, I’m a rising senior and once upon a time in middle school, I made it my goal to go to HYPSM. Unfortunately, I moved before freshman year to a more competitive high school in a different city. To be fair, my freshman grades, although not strait 100s like they were in middle school, were still pretty decent (I maintained 98+ in every class besides a 94 in AP Gov). My grades really did plummet after winter break sophomore year though, going from all high As to a mix of high As, low As, and my first B ever in WHAP. This was a direct consequence of finding out that my dad had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Since then, I’ve gotten 5 more Bs and most of my As are low As. I struggled with depression for two years, but am getting better, slowly. As college apps are approaching in 4 months, I was wondering if I still had a shot at attending an Ivy League. I know it’s already a crapshoot for most people, and given my subpar grades and GPA (3.85 unweighted) it’ll be even harder for me, especially as my transcript reveals a declining trend in grades. But if I were to raise my grades senior year, would that help, or would it be too late? I know I am capable of a lot more than my grades reflect. And if I still have a chance, would it be worth it to apply EA, even though I wouldn’t be able to submit my senior year transcript by then? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Grace!
      A 3.85 unweighted GPA is solid! Most applications have a space where you can describe any extenuating circumstances, so if you make a quick note of your situation, I’m sure you will find some leeway in terms of the Bs you’ve received, though given your overall GPA, I wouldn’t worry too terribly much. Definitely focus on improving the first semester of freshman year, even if it wouldn’t show up on an EA application, since it may affect regular decision schools. If you are set on attending an Ivy League school, make sure to 1) Do really well on the SAT or ACT and SAT Subject tests, if you haven’t already, and 2) Write a really compelling and endearing personal statement. Grades are only one part of the entire application, and if you can show from standardized test scores that you are capable, many admissions officers would be able to look beyond a string of B’s and begin to really examine your application. Best of luck!

  33. Hi.
    I am going to be a senior next year, and I just received my transcript of my junior year. I have maintained above a 4.0 (due to weighting of honors and advanced classes, since my school does not offer APs). I still have above a 4.0 for the fourth quarter, second semester, and year GPA, but I have one horrible blemish on my transcript. My Advanced Latin classes each last only one semester, and I got a B+ on my second semester Advanced Latin class. Since the two semesters are two different classes, the two semester grades could not be averaged together, so my year grade was a B+, the same as my second semester grade for my second Advanced Latin class. I have never had anything below an A- on my transcript before. How much will this ruin my chances of getting into an Ivy League school?

    1. Belle,

      A single B+ over four years of high school, particularly in a subject like Advanced Latin, will not dramatically affect your chances of admission to an Ivy League school.

      Hope this helps!

  34. Hi Calvin,

    This article is super helpful. I’m going to be a junior this year and I’m fixated on Princeton. I’m really worried now, because you epitomize the perfect Ivy League student, and you didn’t get in. I have almost all straight A’s, and will be completing over 20 AP courses by the time I finish high school. I also have a great GPA and a bunch of unique extracurriculars. I’ve also got various leadership positions. I know that a lot of great and qualified applicants don’t get chosen, so do I have a chance? You said you applied to 4. Is 6 a reasonable number if I don’t get into Princeton early? Thank you!!

    1. Minkshi,

      You do have a chance! And six is reasonable. Just keep in mind the cost and effort required to apply to all of these individual schools – each application, particularly the essays, should be tailored for each specific school. Just be sure not to overstretch yourself.

      Hope this helps!

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