How to Get Into an Ivy League School

When you hear the phrase “Ivy League Schools,” what do you think of? Certainly, specific names, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale come to mind. But more importantly, you picture stately grounds, learned professors, and the greatest minds of our generation. And maybe, you can see yourself among them. 

Many high school students dream of attending an Ivy League school. But that term might not mean what you think it means. Founded in 1958, the Ivy League is simply a Division I athletic conference in NCAA, not unlike the Big Ten or the ACC. 

Of course, people don’t respect the Ivy League because of its athletic achievements. The Ivy League consists of some of the oldest and most prominent private research schools in the country. The League consists of eight schools: Columbia University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. Except for Cornell, which was founded in 1865, all of the Ivy League schools were established before the American Revolution. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are the oldest.

In the centuries that followed, the Ivy League schools have worked to build on their reputation. Some of the most influential people in the world graduated from Ivy League schools, including Presidents Barak Obama (Harvard), Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard), and George W. Bush (Yale), as well as artists such as film director Todd Haynes (Brown), author Toni Morrison (Cornell), and playwright Eugene O’Neill (Princeton). 

To join these esteemed alumni will require a lot of hard work and dedication, but it’s not impossible. This guide will give you everything you need to know for your best shot at getting into an Ivy League school. 

The Basics – Grades and Standardized Test Scores

Columbia University
JSquish, Butler Library Columbia University, CC BY-SA 4.0

As their excellent reputation suggests, it is very difficult to be admitted to an Ivy League school. For example, Columbia University received 40084 applications in 2020 and accepted only 2,544, giving them an acceptance rate of only 6%. Even Dartmouth College, which tends to be less popular than its Ivy sisters, had 21,394 applications in 2020 and admitted only 1,881 hopefuls, for an acceptance rate of 8.7%. 

With such selective institutions, what can students do to improve their chances? Well, the first and most obvious tactic is to ensure that you have strong grades. Across the board, every student in Ivy League schools has excellent grade point averages. The average GPAs run from 3.49 and 3.5 at the low end (Princeton and Cornell, respectively) and Harvard’s 3.64 and Brown’s 3.71 at the high end. Furthermore, these grades come from honors and college-level classes, especially in the student’s major. You can’t take the easiest courses to pad your grades and hope admissions counselors won’t notice. 

We see the same types of numbers when we look at standardized test scores. Even if they don’t require students to take a particular test, Ivy League schools expect excellent ACT and SAT results from any student who submits their scores. Brown University has the lowest ACT averages, ranging from 29-34, while Columbia, Princeton, and Yale average scores between 31-35. On the SAT, scores average between 1550 and 1570. 

As you can see, the Ivy League schools have high standards for entry. But believe it or not, it’s not all about grades. Yes, your grades should be strong and should come from appropriate courses, but the Ivies care more about people who can handle the pressures of college life and add to their intellectual community. 

Having a “Focus” Vs. Being “Well-Rounded”

All of the Ivy League schools belong to the liberal arts tradition. The liberal arts approach follows theories of education and development that have been in place since the days of Aristotle, who taught that the best and happiest person is the most balanced, avoiding extremes as much as possible. In education terms, this approach often emphasizes a well-rounded individual, someone who has an understanding of every important topic. That’s why English majors still need to take math classes and why future scientists need to read Shakespeare. 

But as much as schools value a well-rounded individual, academics themselves put an emphasis on focus, or to use the term preferred by scholars, specialization. By specialization, scholars mean that strong academics have their areas of expertise, where they know not only the most important elements of their field but also the lesser-known and foundational parts. 

For example, anyone in a liberal arts program will read important works of American literature, such as The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. But someone who focuses on American literature doesn’t read just those famous books; they’ll also read lesser-known books by those authors, as well as important foundational books that most people don’t know.

As this description demonstrates, a strong focus means that you’re an expert. The knowledge demonstrates to people that you know what you’re talking about and have something to offer the community. With this knowledge – and more importantly, achievements such as awards and readings – your application will show recruiters that you belong among Ivy League students and will have a greater chance of being accepted. 

Standing Out in Essays and Application Materials

Yale University
Gunnar Klack, Sterling Memorial Library Bass Library Yale University, CC BY-SA 4.0

To be sure, applicants demonstrate their focus in their grades, which should be highest in their specialist subject. But they also show their knowledge in their supplemental materials, especially personal essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. 

All of these institutions value students who participate in extracurricular activities, such as volunteer work and clubs. Extracurriculars show the admission board that you care about your community and have made a positive impact on those around you. 

Unsurprisingly, these activities should relate to the major you’re studying, as they can further demonstrate your focus. If you’re looking at a science degree, make sure that you’ve taken time to serve the scientific community around you. 

Tutor younger students who are struggling. Help run labs for your chemistry teacher. Volunteer as a judge for science fairs. Put together science-based clubs at your school or community centers. 

Extracurriculars can also lead to strong letters of recommendation, which are an essential part of any college application. Your letters should come from those with whom you have built a relationship and who are respected in their field. Letters can show the type of person you’ll become while studying at school. 

Many of the Ivies hold interviews with applicants. Interviews and application essays can be your opportunity to make your best case for yourself, especially if the numbers don’t reflect your quality as a student. In both of these scenarios, remember that you are essentially selling yourself to the school. 

For example, if you’re applying to Dartmouth, you’ll want to tell your story to the application board and emphasize that only Dartmouth can help you achieve your intellectual goals. Be sure to frame your points around what you can do for the school. What will you bring to the student body? How will you enrich the lives of fellow attendees? What will you add to the school’s academics or athletics? 

Applying to All Eight Is a Good Idea

As anyone who has ever applied to colleges can tell you, it’s wise to have safety schools. A safety is a school with lower acceptance standards that one includes in their application process to ensure they get at least one offer. A safety school is undoubtedly one that an applicant wants to attend, it just isn’t the favorite. 

The underlying point behind that strategy is that applying to school is partially a numbers game. The more places to which you apply, the greater your chance of getting accepted into one. 

For that reason, it’s a good idea to apply to each of the eight Ivy League schools. While this does mean several application fees to pay, it does not involve as much extra work as you’d think. After all, all eight of the Ivies require similar material in their application, which means that you don’t have to do much revision to tailor existing essays and portfolios for different schools.

In fact, the Ivies recently signed a joint statement on admission policies in an attempt to streamline the process between the eight schools. As a result, all of the Ivies will mail decision letters in mid-December and in late March. They will all advise some applicants of the probability of admission after October 1st of the prospect’s senior year of high school. 

However, the schools request that applicants who receive an indication that they will probably be accepted and who have decided to matriculate at one institution are encouraged, but not required, to notify the other institutions and withdraw those applications as promptly as possible. 

Summer Programs at an Ivy League School

Some of the greatest resources for those planning to apply to these schools are the summer programs hosted by many Ivy League institutions. Some of these programs simply occur on the campus and have little to do with the actual functions of the college. While some of these programs accept anyone who has the money to pay the application fees, they can still be useful for letting an applicant spend time on the campus and gain more lines on their cv. 

But even better are the programs that accept people based on merit, as these are often put on by the school itself and, thus, reflect the application committee’s values. Not only does participation in such a program result in another credit to list on a personal essay, but it exposes students to the standards of the school and its faculty. 

One such program is the Yale Summer Session for Pre-College students. In this program, high school students can take classes taught by Yale faculty and even get college credit. The courses offered include African American Autobiography, Race and Gender in Asian American Popular Culture, and others. 

Harvard offers two summer programs for high school students. In the pre-college program, students take a two-week online course (not for credit) taught by Harvard faculty, in topics such as Digital Media, Anthropology, and Expository Writing. In the secondary school program, students take one or two seven-week courses taught by Harvard faculty, for which they’ll gain both college credit and a better picture of the college experience.