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

This is the foliage of destiny.

So, by this point you’ve made the grades, taken the tests, done the extracurriculars, gotten your recommendations, written your essays, and sent the whole thing off to the school of your dreams. You’re done, right? Not so fast. You might have to do an interview.

What do I say? How do I act? What do I wear?!! The questions scream through your by now exhausted brain. Never fear, all will become clear in this eighth (!) installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? 

To begin with, not everyone gets an interview, so you might not even have to deal with this. Don’t worry if you don’t get an interview – Columbia didn’t interview me and I got in, while Princeton did interview me (and it went really well) and I didn’t get in. If a school does choose to interview you, you should consider it to be a good sign – it means they’re seriously considering you, and you’re pretty high up on their list of possible freshmen. If you don’t get an interview, it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in you. They might not have someone available near where you live, or they might have already decided to accept you. Who knows?

When I did my interview for Princeton, I was invited to the home of a Princeton alumnus living in my hometown, and we basically just chatted for a while, mostly about my accomplishments and all the stuff I included in my application and essay. I also brought a recording of a piece of music I wrote, which I believe made a nice impression. Overall, he was very friendly and it went very smoothly. If you follow a few basic guidelines and adhere to common sense, I see no reason why your interview should be any different.

To begin with, wear business casual clothing – no jeans or t-shirts – to show that you take the interview seriously. When you arrive, smile and shake the interviewer’s hand, and ask them how they’re doing. Your interviewer will then introduce him/herself and start asking you questions, such as: “Why do you want to go to this school?” “What makes you a good candidate for going to this school?” “What are your interests?” “What are your dreams?” etc. He or she may ask you to explain a concept that has to do with one of your interests, or tell a story about something you put on your application.

You’ll be ready for your Charlie Rose appearance before you know it.

The key is to talk about how great you are without sounding like you’re boasting, and to sound intelligent and articulate as you converse. Try to come up with a few stories about impressive things you have done: how you won an award, how you got elected president of math club, how you organized a fundraiser, how you played a concerto with an orchestra, etc. Also, remember, you get to talk about whatever it is that interests you most, so you’re on your home turf, so to speak. If you stick to topics you know and care a lot about, you’re bound to sound intelligent, passionate, and dedicated.

You might try practicing for the interview with a friend or parent. Just have them ask you the above questions and talk about your accomplishments. Most of this will all be stuff that you’ve already included in your application, so it should all be fresh in your mind. Just relax, and try to be the most polite, friendly, and polished version of yourself that you can be.

After the interview (if there is an interview), that’s it. You just have to sit tight and wait for that envelope in the mail to arrive. Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, I will do my best to provide you with a convenient checklist summarizing all of the preceding posts. Until next time, keep studying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes college admissions strategy can feel like a chess match.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome to part six of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? This time, we will discuss a critical part of your application over which you have almost no control. You don’t even get to see it: you recommendation letters. Who should I ask to write a recommendation for me? That’s pretty much the only question this time, ’cause it’s the only thing you get to decide.

You should ask teachers from your Junior or Senior year who taught an AP or IB class in which you made an A. Preferably, you will ask teachers who know who you are and like you. If possible, pick a teacher who can talk about something amazing you did for class – if you did a project that went above and beyond what was required, that would be a great thing for them to talk about in their recommendation, right? If you know them through a club or extracurricular activity in addition to acing their course, that’s a plus, too.

The main thing, though, is to get As in their courses. These teachers have to write recommendations every year, and I bet most of them have it down to a science (or a form letter with blanks where your name goes). As long as you did well and didn’t antagonize them, chances are they will write you a wonderful, glowing recommendation. Just trust them, be polite and gracious, and take it easy.

Most elite schools require two teacher recommendations, so you may want to pick one humanities teacher and one math/science teacher, although it depends on what you want to study in college. I asked my U.S. History teacher and my IB Music/Orchestra teacher for recommendations, for instance. I believe a high school counselor recommendation is often required as well, although, since you have no control over who that is, there isn’t really anything you can do or worry about in this area. I remember our counselors had us fill out a questionnaire that our counselors could use to pretend they knew who we were (at a school with 800 graduating seniors, who could blame them?), so that part was very low stress for me. As long as you don’t have some sort of epic feud with your high school counselor, that should be fine.

Whatever you do, DO NOT trade sex for college recommendations.

In addition to these required recommendations, you also have the option of submitting additional, supplementary recommendations. Remember that your college admissions officers have thousands of applications to go through, so if you do submit an extra recommendation, it had better be good: only consider doing this if there is an adult who knows you well and they are either someone who can write about something impressive you did outside of school or they are someone famous/important/powerful. For instance, if you are really into volunteering and led a big volunteering project, you might have your adult sponsor write a recommendation about your accomplishments. I personally did not submit any extra recommendations, so they really aren’t necessary. If you have something really impressive, though, go for it.

The same goes for other supplementary materials. I did submit a CD and scores of pieces of music I wrote, since music and my ambitions as a composer were a running theme throughout my application, and I like to think my pieces were pretty impressive for a high school kid. These parts of the application are truly optional, so if you don’t have supplementary materials, don’t worry about it.

That pretty much wraps up all the stuff that’s actually in your application. So, now what do you do with it? Next time we will discuss application strategy, which can be critical in getting you in. Until then, keep studying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome back to What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? In this post, we will discuss one of the most challenging parts of an Ivy League application: the essay, and any other personal writing samples you are asked to complete.

Oh, the personal essay. That most excruciating part of the application arms race, where they tell you they “just want to get to know you,” but they’re also judging you at the same time. Should you be honest? Can you be honest? Should you just try to impress them? What on earth should you write about?

As with other parts of the application, it’s generally best to begin by stepping back and asking what the point of the essay is in the first place – what are the admissions officers looking for?

“Delay always breeds danger; and to protract a great design is often to ruin it.” – Don Quixote

First off, they want to see if you can write decently. Make sure you proofread your essay thoroughly – you can even have your English teacher go over it with you. This means don’t wait until the last minute to write it. If you are scrambling to finish an essay before the midnight submission deadline, the probability of spelling and grammar errors appearing in your essay increases dramatically, and dumb mistakes like that do not impress admissions officers. I’m going to do you a favor and tell you to finish the first draft of your essay a month before the deadline so you can have plenty of time to polish it. Maybe you can even send your application in early!

Second, they want to see if you know how to present yourself well. They want to know if you realize how you sound when you talk to other people. They are looking for critical thinking and meaningful self reflection. Are you self-aware? Do you know what kind of an impression you make on people when you say certain things? Do you know how to make a good first impression? Do you know what’s important to you? Do you understand yourself?

They also want to know that you really want to go to their school and nowhere else. Part of their rankings are based on the percentage of admitted students who actually decide to go there. Imagine Harvard and Yale both admit the same 2,000 incoming freshmen, and 1,500 decide they’d rather go to Harvard and 500 decide they’d rather go to Yale. That would look bad for Yale. Because the same pool of students is applying to all these schools, the same student could potentially get into more than one and have to choose between the two just like this (the year I graduated from high school, a friend of mine had to choose between Harvard and Princeton). In your essay, you should mention why the particular school to which you are applying would be the perfect place for you to do whatever it is you want to do, citing specific opportunities and programs that are unique to that school.

“You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” – Mister Rogers

Lastly, they do actually want to get a sense of who you are, what you’re into, what drives you. They want to know what makes you unique from all the other students whose applications they’re slogging through. If they get two applications that are exactly the same it’s hard to justify picking one over the other. Distinctive is better than bland. Try to make this an essay that only you could have written, and don’t be fake. They can smell fakery a mile away – awkward quotations from “great authors” you never read or don’t care about, forced use of big SAT vocab words, saying you care about something when you don’t. The trick to writing these essays is to be absolutely honest, but polished. You want to present yourself, whoever you are, in the best light possible.

On that note, there is one other thing you should know about the admissions process. At these schools, one admissions officer reads your application and essays, and, if they like your application, they defend you before a committee of their fellow admissions officers and get them to accept you, too. If you get admitted, it’s because your admissions officer really believes you have what it takes, and he or she will know your name and have your application memorized. When you write your essays, you need to give your admissions officer something to fight for.

So, what should you write about? Prompts on the common application (which is generally accepted by most of the Ivy League schools, with special supplements) include:

  1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. Topic of your choice.

It honestly doesn’t matter what topic you choose – I did the “topic of your choice” option. Whenever you write anything you want to start by thinking about what you want your reader to think or feel when they finish reading whatever it is you’re writing. In this case you want your reader to 1) like you/think you’re friendly/want to meet you, and 2) think you’re smart/passionate/hard-working.

Thus, you should write about something that you love. Don’t write about something you dislike/disapprove of/are against. Keep things positive by writing about what you like/believe in/are in favor of. This should also preferably be something you know a lot about, and it should give you a chance to show off your knowledge. You sound smart when you teach the reader something new they didn’t know before, so take advantage of any unusual knowlegde you have of your topic. If you’re worried that you’re topic isn’t intellectual enough, try throwing in some history. Everything has a history, and adding a historical element can lend your topic some academic credence. It should also be something that you’ve done something about (maybe in an extracurricular activity) – something where you have accomplished something that you had to work for.

If you really want to talk about MLK, you need to go beyond the “I have a dream” speech.

Also, try to make your topic fairly unique. If you are writing an essay about a person who influenced or inspired you, avoid overused examples. If you are a devout Christian and want to write about your faith, instead of writing about Jesus, write about St. Francis or Martin Luther or another important figure in the church you admire – preferably one that wrote a book or started a movement (the same goes for other foundational religious figures like Mohammed or the Buddha). If you do decide to write about someone who is constantly held up as an example of an inspiring person, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi, you had better have a really in depth knowledge of their lives and works that goes beyond what you learned in school, and have a unique perspective, insight, or interpretation of these figures. Unless you have a really good reason, avoid writing about parents or family members. Even though the reality is that the most influential people in your life are the people who raised you, it would get boring for admissions officers to read hundreds of essay that are all about how important a prospective student’s parents are to him/her.

If you have a remarkable life story or have struggled against great adversity in order to make it to this point in your life, the essay is also the place to talk about these life experiences. Ivy League schools are always looking for remarkable people who beat the odds, so if you feel comfortable sharing information about tough things you’ve been through it could definitely be to your advantage. Just to be clear, I’m talking about real problems: poverty, homelessness, being a war refugee. Lesser trials and tribulations can make for good essays, too, but remember there are also people who have had things much worse.

Whatever you write on these free response portions of the application, don’t lie. If you make stuff up in order to impress people, chances are they will see through it, or be able to disprove it with a quick google search. Eventually, it will catch up to you. The point of all this is to actually be yourself, and to show them the best parts of yourself. If they don’t want you for who you are, you probably wouldn’t be happy there anyway. Don’t worry that your interests aren’t intellectual enough or impressive enough – remember, like the video games extracurricular, there are ways to dress up just about anything.

Next time on What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we discuss teacher, counselor, and other recommendations as well as supplementary applications materials. 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

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome back to our series, What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? While tests and grades are the most important part of your application, they alone are not enough to distinguish you from all the other kids who are applying. As difficult as it may be to get the grades and scores required to be considered by Ivy League schools, there are tens of thousands of high school students who do it every year, and there just aren’t enough spots at the top for all of them. This leaves the admissions officers with a problem: how do they pick one candidate over another? Thus begins the applications arms race of extracurriculars, personal essays, recommendation letters, etc., etc.

This part of the application can be hard because you can’t measure how well you’re doing with a number or exam score, but if you keep in mind what the admissions officers are looking for, it can be easy to know what you need. So, what are they looking for? Remember, as I noted in my first post, Ivy League schools want kids who are going to go on to be “successful” – rich, famous, powerful, prestigious. Yes, being smart is an important ingredient here, but it’s not enough to be a study robot that does nothing but make good grades and ace exams. You have to be able to get people to like you if you want to be successful. You have to be “well rounded.”

There are thus three main types of extracurriculars: creative, athletic, and volunteering activities. For each activity you do, admissions officers are looking for three additional dimensions: commitment, leadership, and recognition. Some colleges give you an entire page to list your extracurriculars: don’t be intimidated and try to fill all that empty space. With extracurriculars, less is actually more. You really don’t need more than five extracurricular activities, so stop stressing out about how to fill that page. You do need to do those few activities for real though.

First, let’s examine the three dimensions and what they mean.

Commitment is how much time you spend doing an activity and for how long you’ve been doing it. You need to do an activity for all four years of high school and practice/participate in it regularly. This is the most important dimension, and the least complicated to achieve.

Leadership comes in many forms.

Leadership mostly applies to clubs or organizations to which you belong. Colleges like it when you have some official position in at least one of the organizations you participate in – for instance, getting elected President of one of the clubs in which you participate is a classic and highly desirable option. The kind of success that admissions officials are looking for often includes having impressive titles, making decisions, and bossing people around in real life after college, and they think that being President of a high school club might indicate future success in that direction (these admissions officials make many such leaps of faith – but with so many applicants they have to choose somehow). Getting elected to a position also shows an ability to get people to like you, which is a big plus as well. Student government always looks good on an application (even if it doesn’t have any real power). Who knows, maybe you’ll get elected President of the U.S. some day (this is really how their minds work).

You have to admit, she really does do a great Margret Thatcher impression.

Recognition is related to leadership, but it usually takes the form of prizes, awards, and accomplishments. Winning an award in one of your activities is a way to try to prove you are actually good at it that is easy to document on a resume or application. Remember, on paper it doesn’t matter how good you are at something unless you have an award to prove it, and college admissions, job applications, and so many other things in life are primarily conducted on paper (it’s just the way things are).

So, what kinds of activities should you pursue? First let’s discuss the “creative” type. These  are the most important type, and can include any arts activities you do, including things like: visual art, music, dance, theater, etc. If you’re not artsy, though, don’t worry: computer programming, building robots, astronomy, the school newspaper, yearbook, chess club, speech and debate, and even math club could potentially count here, too.

South Korean gamer Jang Jae Ho is a Warcraft III and Starcraft II world champion.

The trick here is to take whatever you like to do in your spare time and make it sound prestigious on paper. Saying “I like to play video games all day” is not that impressive, but saying “I won a prize at a video game competition two years in a row, I review games each week on my blog (www.gamesnobbery.blogblog.com), I’m president of my school video game club (which I founded (with my friends so I could put it on this application)), and I am very interested in programming, designing, and revolutionizing video games as a career” sounds very impressive. You just have to make it fit the format that they are looking for. Preferably, this type of activity will be something you actually like and care about, and it’s great if you have more than one.

If there isn’t an organization dedicated to your chosen activity at your school, try to find one outside it or even create a new one (president and founder sounds extra fancy – if you can start a club, maybe you can start a company someday!). You should also look for summer programs dedicated to your activity. Anything you can put down on paper is your friend.

American gymnast Nastia Liukin won gold at the Olympics in 2008.

The athletic type is pretty straightforward: join one of your school’s sports teams, and do it all four years. If you do a sport that may not have a team at your school, like gymnastics or taekwondo or weight lifting, try to find a local organization dedicated to it, and make sure you go to competitions and win some kind of prize (it can be sixth place at the local level or something – you don’t have to be state champion, although it’s great if you are). Getting a trophy or letter jacket is a nice award to rack up in this department (you don’t always have to be good, either – I did my time and got to be a relay alternate on my swim team at regionals, so I got a letter jacket without even getting wet!). This is another way to show them that you are well-rounded, or even a “team player” (you can work with people/get along/have basic social skills) if you do team sports.

Mother Teresa famously said to “find your own Calcutta.”

As for volunteering, this theoretically shows that you are a good person (or that you really want to go to Harvard), and is a good way to rack up leadership, since volunteering often happens through organizations that you can advance through if you want. If you belong to a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or some other religious community, this is often a good place to find volunteering opportunities (religious youth groups can also be a good place to get leadership points, since leadership positions may be less competitive than in school clubs). There are many non-denominational ways to find volunteer opportunities as well, of course, and there are probably numerous clubs and organizations for volunteering at your school. It’s always best, of course, to volunteer when your heart is truly in it, and you might try to find a way to tie your creative extracurricular into your volunteering. For instance, if you love to play the piano, you might volunteer to play at a hospital or retirement home once a week. The important thing is to pick something and do it regularly all four years of high school to show commitment.

So, what did I actually do as far as extracurriculars? Here they are:

  • Played Violin in the school orchestra, 3 years, conducted the orchestra playing a piece I wrote, participated in playathon fundraiser
  • Music composition summer camp, 2 years, wrote music for a ballet in collaboration with the local ballet academy, had a piece I wrote played on a professional concert
  • High School Swim Team, 4 years, received letter jacket, went to regionals for 100 Butterfly
  • Debate Team, 1 year, won trophy in novice Lincoln Douglass debate
  • Economics challenge team, 1 year
  • High School Quiz Bowl team 1 year, undefeated, went to nationals*

*Note: Quiz Bowl is another tried and true Ivy League favorite for extracurriculars.

That was the main stuff. Notice I didn’t have any volunteering, and not too much leadership either (I guess you could count conducting the orchestra. I don’t know what it is, but people just don’t vote for me). Not many real awards, either (although the professional concert might count as an accomplishment/recognition). The main thing is that I had two activities, music and swimming, that I was committed to and did a little something to distinguish myself in (composing also isn’t that common, which helps). The others are mostly prestigious things that look good on paper, even if I didn’t do them for very long.

The Whiffenpoofs at Yale are the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the U.S.

So, if you have at least a few things that you do seriously you should have a good shot during this part of the admissions process, but I would personally highly recommend that you do at least one creative, one athletic, and one volunteer activity regularly for four years, since if you manage your time and start early it’s really not that hard to rack up extracurricular experiences that look great on your application. If you haven’t been doing one of these, start now – one year is better than no years. For your other activities, try finding a small club at your high school that you might be interested in, and be a member of it for all four years of high school. If it’s a small club and you are generally friendly to everyone in it, you are bound to get a leadership position by your senior year. Also, remember that the more intellectual or prestigious sounding your activity is, the better. Student government, debate, newspaper, yearbook, quiz bowl, and glee club (especially glee club – I don’t know why, but students at the Ivy League just love a cappella) are all stereotypical Ivy League activities. Also, professional experience can also count as an extracurricular (especially if you do one of your creative activities professionally).

The main thing is to show commitment in whatever it is you do. We live in a time where awards for kids are cheap, since everyone’s a winner. Do your time and take advantage of any leadership or award opportunities that come along. If you stick with three or more things for four years, you’re bound to get something eventually. Also, always remember that grades are more important than extracurriculars. Never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars.

I hope that was helpful. Remember, if you have questions about anything in these or other posts on this site, you can ask us with the Ask Test Masters feature. Next time, we’ll discuss essays and other writing samples you are asked to provide on your application. In the mean time, get back to studying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

In this installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we continue our discussion of standardized tests, turning now to subject based tests such as AP, IB, and SAT II exams. How many AP Exams should I take? Do I need an International Baccalaureate diploma? What about SAT II exams? Read on, gentle reader, read on!

When it comes to AP/IB exams, the more you take (and get top scores on) the better. As I mentioned last time, you want to take as many AP/IB courses as you possibly can, and you always want to take the exams at the end and get as high a score as you can. When I was applying to college, many of my friends would even take AP exams for courses they didn’t take: for instance, the European History exam was very popular, since much of the material was already covered in the World History exam they were going to take anyway. They would just buy a prep book and study all the parts that weren’t covered in World History, then go take the exam without ever having taken an AP European History class (they got 5s, too). I never resorted to such methods myself, but I still ended up with 5s on seven exams (World History, U.S. History, Micro/Macro Economics, Physics B, Biology, English Language, English Literature), and 4s on two others (Calculus BC (Calculus AB counts that as a 5, I believe) and Music Theory (took this one freshman year – ear training is hard!)).

Some schools offer the IB (International Baccalaureate) program instead of AP courses (mine offered both, so I did both). From what I understand, the International Baccalaureate program is a relic of the Cold War that allows students who complete IB courses and pass IB exams to qualify for college admission in countries all over the world (mostly NATO countries, for practical purposes), and while it is still useful for students who want to study in Europe (I don’t know why you’d want to – the US is widely recognized to have the best university system in the world), today it is mostly an alternative to AP. If you do the IB Diploma program, you want to get as many 7s as possible, especially on your higher-level exams.

Just as a side note, after you get into your Ivy, AP scores of 5 and HL IB scores of 7 can often be used to place out of entry level courses and may count toward graduation requirements (my credits from AP and IB exams helped me graduate a year early from Columbia – although that may or may not have been a wise decision…).

A scholar’s work is never done.

Ivy league schools generally require you to take at least two SAT II subject exams as well. You can find a list of available exams here. In general, you want to take one humanities and one math/science. I believe I took three exams, actually: U.S. History, Math II (Math II includes precalculus and trigonometry in addition to the algebra and geometry covered on the Math I, so it’s better to take the Math II), and Literature (perfect score on that one). You definitely want above a 700 on each of these exams, and the closer you can get to a perfect 800, the better. These exams are more competitive than the regular SAT, because generally only students aiming to get into elite schools take them. Of course, you do have the advantage of only testing on your best subjects. It’s also wise to take an SAT II exam immediately after you finish the relevant course so all the material is still fresh in your mind from the final, AP, and/or IB exam you just took.

Hopefully, your high school teachers, coursework, and independent pre-test cramming will prepare you for these exams. If, however, you desire more preparation or an extra edge on the competition, you can get extra help from professional experts (Literature SAT II prep, anyone?), and many of the same companies that offer SAT and ACT prep services provide tutoring in these subjects as well.

Now that we’ve covered the nitty-gritty of grades and exams, next time we’ll start to turn to some of the more touchy-feely aspects of your application: extracurriculars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Last time, we discussed the number one, most important part of your application: grades. In this post, we will turn to the next most important, and easy to measure, part of your application: standardized test scores.

Should I take the SAT or the ACT? Do I need a perfect score? Do I have to be a National Merit Finalist? All these questions and more will be addressed in this post.

First of all, let’s discuss the two most common exams requested by almost all colleges: the SAT and the ACT. Elite, Ivy League-type colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT, and don’t have a preference between the two. It is thus common for aspiring students to take both exams and submit the scores from whichever one they did better on. Some students prefer one, others prefer the other. This blog has many resources dedicated to these tests, so I won’t dwell on comparing and contrasting them.

As to what score you need, consider the following: College Board currently states that at Harvard, the middle 50% of admitted students scored 690-790 on the Verbal section of the SAT, 700-800 on Math, and 690-790 on Writing; on the ACT, the middle 50% received a composite score of 31-35. So you don’t need a perfect score in order to get into Harvard (although that would help you to stand out). The ACT composite score is pretty self-explanatory, but for the SAT scores, remember that kids who scored 690 on Verbal probably got closer to 800 on Math, so a combined score of 2100 is probably a safe lower limit that you want to try to surpass, since that’s the score you would get if you got 700 on each section. For a really solid chance at getting in, I’d recommend aiming for a 2200-2250 combined score, and of course, the closer you get to that 2400, the better prepared you are.

K-Pop stars like these brainwash Korean kids with lyrics such as, “Come on baby, let’s study all night long” from the 2010 hit song, “All Nighter.”

The good thing about these standardized tests is that practice really does make perfect. I am firmly convinced that with enough practice, any college bound kid can make a perfect score on these exams. There are only so many things these exams test, and after doing practice, you begin to recognize the same old types of questions and vocab words coming up again and again. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can get your score as high as you want. A friend of mine at Columbia from Korea said that at her high school, they had an entire class just dedicated to the SAT, so they did SAT prep every school day for at least a year. If you did that you’d get a pretty amazing SAT score, too.

I also strongly recommend taking the exams multiple times. Most schools allow you to mix and match Verbal, Math, and Writing scores from different exams so that you can take your highest scores from each exam. In my case, I got an 800 on Verbal and a 790 on Writing one time I took the SAT, and a 760 on Math another time, but I still got to say I got a 2350 overall. The first time I took the SAT was in 7th grade, as part of Duke TIP’s 7th Grade Talent Search program (back before they added the writing section), and then, if I remember correctly, I took it two more times early in high school before taking it the two “real” times my Junior and Senior year. It is true that you can take it too many times your Junior and Senior year, but colleges don’t really care about exams you took before then.

I would thus recommend taking the standardized exam of your choice once your freshman or sophomore year of high school just to see what it’s like – four hours of test taking is taxing, and it’s nice to be able to familiarize yourself with the exam in a low stress situation where your score isn’t really going to count for college admissions. Then I would take it again at the end of your Junior year and at the beginning of your Senior year. There are, of course, many test prep services available where you can take classes or receive one-on-one help from SAT and ACT experts like me (if you would like to actually study for these exams with either me or one of my distinguished collegues at Test Masters, click here). If you feel that you could benefit from the structure and expert feedback provided by these programs, I would highly recommend you sign up for one during the summer between your Junior and Senior year (although starting earlier can help a lot, too).

For 1,300 years in Imperial China, entry into the elite civil service was determined by rigorous standardized exams that could last up to 72 hours.

As for the PSAT, preparing for the SAT will prepare you for the PSAT. The main differences between the two exams are that the PSAT is shorter and doesn’t have an essay section. The PSAT determines your national merit scholar status, which can be quite a feather in your cap, since the names of students who qualify as National Merit Semifinalists are released to colleges across the nation so they can start recruiting you and offering you scholarships. The PSAT score you need in order to qualify for national merit varies from state to state, since only the top 0.5% of scorers in each state qualify for consideration. Thus, if you live in a more populous state, or in a state with more money, or in a state with a better school system, it’s going to be harder to qualify because you’ll have more competition (if you want your state to have a better school system, register to vote when you turn 18 and start participating in state and local government!). You can find a list of score cutoffs here, and a more thorough explanation of the national merit process here.

Do you have to be a National Merit Finalist in order to get into the Ivy League? Well, in 2007 I was one of 56 National Merit Finalists at my high school (Bellaire Senior High School, in Houston, Texas – a public school, mind you!), and I think that included most of the people who got into elite colleges, so I would say try to make Semifinalist status at least. To prepare for the PSAT, you might consider doing some SAT prep the summer between Sophomore and Junior year, since the PSAT is normally taken your Junior year. Test Masters summer prep courses were like an annual rite of passage for most of my friends at Bellaire, so if it can work for them, it can work for you, too.

Next time on “What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?” we discuss AP, IB, and SAT II exams. In the mean time, keep studying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College Essay Writing Tips

Pencils ready?
A big portion of the college application process in which students tend to take for granted are the applications essays. Some of you may feel lost as to how to even get started. The worst thing you could do is wait until the very last minute to even start thinking about it. Which is why we have gone ahead and provided you with some pointers to think about as you take one step closer to completing your college applications. Knowing these tips is what will separate your essays from the rest of the bunch.

STAY TRUE TO YOUR VOICE
The most important rule when writing your essays is to always stay true to your voice. Do not write what you think an admissions committee wants to hear. 
They know what grade you are in and how old you are, but what they do not understand about you is who you truly are as a person. Remember, this is the one and only opportunity for you to make a drastic impact on total strangers whom you may never meet. The catch is that these are the people who just so happen to serve as the gatekeeper to the university that you wish to attend.

BE HONEST
You never want to try and pretend to be someone that you are not. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Let the admissions committees get a feel of who you really are. Guide them into a particular moment that had a great impact on your life. Introduce them to and allow them to get to know the people who changed your life, and share with them these life changing moments. Whatever your special defining topics may be, bring these people into it, and let them experience it the way you experienced it. Throw yourself out there, and don’t ever hold back.

NO NEED FOR PRESSURE
Don’t forget that the admissions committees are looking at lots and lots of applications from students just like you. They know more or less what they will be receiving from all of their applicants. There is no need for any added pressure. Nobody will be expecting any award winning publications from you. With that said, there is no need to ease the stress completely by hiring a ghost writer, or even having your parents write it for you. It is good to have them look over it, and help you add on to it, but do not let their own voice and creativity replace your own.

There you have it. Now get to work!

“Senioritis” is Not Allowed!

got senioritis?
The season is here! Not football season, not holiday season, oh yes…college application season! That’s right seniors, get pumped.

Senior year can easily be your best year of high school by far. With that said, it is by no means a “slack-off” year. “Senioritis” will not be tolerated.

Your previous years of high school have led up to this moment. You’ve made it this far, but the game is far from over. This is your “make or break” semester. The one that separates the men from the boys. Welcome to the fourth quarter.

Now, there is no need to panic and stress. As long as you stick to the game plan you shall be rewarded. As we head into the month of October, there are some things that need to be acquired by now:

The most important being your SAT and/or ACT scores. If you are taking them this month or next month, make sure that you send your scores to the colleges that you are applying to. You have studied for them for as long as you possibly can. It’s time to shine. Get that dream score and be done with it.

Letters of recommendation will also be very important. By now you probably have a nice, general idea as to which teachers will write you a good letter. If the teacher really enjoyed shipping you off to detention, you might not want to ask them for a letter…

If you are worried that you cannot find a good teacher to write a recommendation, look elsewhere, such as your after school activities. You can always ask your athletic coach, your student council sponsor, or even the chess club master. If you worked a job after school, ask your employer. If you were involved in internships or volunteer opportunities, ask the people you worked for. Whatever the case may be, there will be somebody out there who is willing to write you a letter. All you have to do is ask.

Just be sure to ask them for this letter as early as possible. Give them plenty of time to write your letter of recommendation. Remember, these are people who also have busy schedules. Schedules that are even busier than yours. Hard to believe isn’t it?

“The early bird gets the worm.” Get those applications finalized. The earlier the better. And make sure the application is completely filled out. This is not the time to look sloppy. Turning in your applications early not only makes you look like you are on top of things, but you could even get an earlier response. Plus, do you really want to spend your entire winter break stuck at home filling out your applications at the last minute?

Now, there are two types of applications that you can send. One is Early Action and the other is Early Decision.

Early Action means that you apply to the school earlier than the regular deadline, and you will receive a response sooner as well. This is non-binding, which means you do not have to commit to the school. This gives you the opportunity to figure out which colleges you are already accepted to, making your decision process a little less hectic.

Early Decision means that you also apply earlier than the regular deadline, but the only difference is that it is a binding agreement. This would mean that you must attend the school if they accept you. If you absolutely have your heart set on a particular school, and you cannot imagine yourself going anywhere else, then this may be the way for you to go.

Get the job done now, and go home with the “W”. Lebron and Kobe wouldn’t slack off in the fourth quarter during the most important game of their lives would they? Absolutely not, and neither should you.