secrets of the ivy league

It’s been 15 years since I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Participating in alumni events isn’t really my thing. But when I got an email about an alumni seminar on the Ivy League admissions process, I immediately signed up. It was an excellent opportunity for research. And it was at the schmancy Penn Club here in New York. Which brought me right back to the days of not fitting in at schmancy Penn, but I wasn’t there for social hour. I was there because I believe a quality education is worth every penny. Even after paying for college and grad school entirely on my own. Even after paying off over $70,000 in student loan debt. I would have had way more debt, but I received a lot of financial aid. Are the Ivies ridiculously expensive? Hells yeah they are. But until things change (if they ever do), this is the world we live in. And there are ways to make things work for you.

The seminar was way informative. I gathered all this inside info on what will make someone stand out as an Ivy League (or any top university) applicant. When I asked you guys on Twitter if you wanted me to write a blog post about all of this, you totally did. So per your request, here you go!

Q: Can I still apply if my class rank isn’t 1 or 2?

A: Yes. Class rank is on its way out. What’s more important is challenging yourself within the context of your high school. You are evaluated based on the quality of your school’s curriculum. If you go to a rigorous school where As are less frequently earned, an A in one of those classes will carry more weight than an A in some other class at a school where As are tossed out all the time. The Ivies get to know your high school really well so the admissions committee can ask, “Did this applicant work hard to earn their grades, or was their 4.0 easy to build?”

Q: Do I have to have a 4.0 to apply?

A: Not necessarily, but your GPA has to be pretty close. I think most Ivies require a GPA of at least 3.8 (unless that’s changed recently). Essentially, everyone applying will have straight As. Not good enough. What have you done to stand out among all the other top students in the world who are applying? The Ivies are looking for students who have made the most of the opportunities available at their school and in their community. Community service is a must.

Q: What if my high school already requires community service? Isn’t that enough?

A: No. If your school has a community service requirement, you need to do way more than what’s required to stand out. Again, this goes back to being evaluated within the context of your high school.

Q: How important are extracurricular activities?

A: Extremely important. In fact, activities within your school are required. But you can’t just do a bunch of activities to be strongly considered. Your activities need to demonstrate two things: consistency and connection.

By consistency, I mean that admissions officers are looking at the longevity of each activity. I had no idea that playing violin in my junior high/high school orchestra for all six years held as much weight as it did. Activities you do over grades 9-12 hold more weight than activities you participate in for only one or two years.

Connection among your activities defines your passion. For example, I knew I wanted to be a science teacher when I was 12. I’ve also felt an extremely powerful pull towards volunteer work since I was even younger. When Penn saw that my volunteer work included being a Girl Scout leader-in-training and candystriping and that my activities included being a member of the New Jersey State Science League, they were able to paint a picture of this girl who was serious about becoming a science teacher and reaching out to kids and others in need.

Q: Do I have to play a sport to be considered?

A: No. Hello, I got in!

Q: Should I take college classes? Or extra classes over the summer?

A: If you’re passionate about taking a class, sure. If not, summer is a good time to introduce a new activity or have a summer job. The admissions committee is looking for well-rounded people with a sense of purpose, not a brain in a box. When they read your app, they’re asking, “Are you interesting and are you interested?” Whatever you do, show that you did it with your heart.

Q: Does the admissions committee read every app?

A: At Penn, yes. Every app is read by two (sometimes three) people. This may vary among colleges, though.

Q: Does the admissions committee look at Facebook?

A: They probably don’t have time for that. BUT. Do not post anything on Facebook or anywhere else online that could incriminate you. Remember that everything you post online is out there forever, even if you delete it. Forever is a long time, yo.

Well, those were the main highlights. Feel free to ask in the comments if you have more questions. I’d be happy to share my own experiences or anything else I learned at the seminar. And if you’re applying to a competitive university, work it and own it!


11 thoughts on “secrets of the ivy league

  1. Who knew?
    Wow, that makes the admissions process seem so much more daunting! It’s amazing I ever got in. Seriously. I was 38th in a class of 380, with a GPA of 3.1 That said, I had community service and extracurriculars out the wazoo, but it’s a wonder they took me!
    It must have been my winning personality (snort!)

    • Re: Who knew?
      Dude! Yeah, your extra stuff must have been very strong. And your winning personality, of course 😉
      I did get the impression things are a lot more rigorous these days. There were two 6th graders at the seminar. Taking notes. SIXTH GRADERS.

      • Re: Who knew?
        I’m not surprised! When I was in 5th and 6th grade, I went to meetings about colleges and started volunteering at age 11 at a nursing home. And most of my friends were like that! We needed 30 hours of community service to graduate 6th grade (and only a minimum of 60 hours for high school but I’ve heard that they’ve bumped that up to a higher number at my old school).
        And I can garentee you that they look you up on facebook. I’ve heard of a few stories where an interviewer will ask them explain some of their facebook or myspace photos, status, bio, etc. And that’s not at just the ivies.
        Also, before facebook was as popular as it is now, my friend was being interviewed at Harvard (around ’05/’06) and they referenced some information he had on a website. He was part of an amateur film group and on his bio it had a sentence that said “Enjoys jumping from helicopters, playing the accordion, and Russian women” and the Harvard interviewer brought it up. Sadly, he froze and botched his interview when he tried to explain that the entire bio was for fun, but he did go to Berkeley!

        • Re: Who knew?
          So you really do have to treat everything you post as part of your app, in a way! Thanks for sharing those examples.
          I think it’s awesome that so many schools are requiring community service now. Personally, I think giving back to the community should be a requirement for life ❤

  2. Man, seems like all the good authors either:
    1. attended Ivy League schools
    2. were lawyers or attended law school
    or some combination of the two.
    I graduated from Ohio State with a BA in psychology. I was the first in my family to graduate college. And yet, I feel so inadequate these days. (Not because of your post! Just that it seems that every one I know is either in grad school or have gone to grad school.)
    I am currently a full time proofreader at an ad agency, but the thought of going back to school has crossed my mind more than once….

    • Congrats on being your fam’s first college grad! That’s an amazing accomplishment. I’m very proud of you 🙂
      Do you love your job? Would you rather start a career in psychology instead? Or something else you feel passionately about? It might be a good idea to continue your education. The older people get, the less likely it is that they’ll go back for another degree. So I urge you to visualize where you’d like to be in five years and then take steps to make that happen. This could be a super exciting time for you 😀
      By the way, I minored in psych. I’ve always found it to be a fascinating world!

  3. I’d appreciate it if you answered this for me.
    Alright…i screwed myself over freshman year, it’s undeniable. the only “a” i received was from english (ha!), and with two “d’s”, it barely registered as anything.
    I don’t really know what went wrong with me, but I think I just didn’t understand the importance of school then. And then all of a sudden I did.
    Second semester I stood a lot better (4.0, baby! and it was hard! but i did it!) and as a sophomore, my grades are good. really pretty good.
    My school’s ranking is high (within the top 3 public schools of california), I participated in girl scouts since I was seven, partake in clubs, play the piano…and i understand that a multiplicity of factors contribute to this, but i wanna know if i still have a shot.
    thanks for hearing me out.
    (btw, i LOVE LOVE LOVE your books! i’m so psyched for SO MUCH CLOSER!)

    • You totally have a good shot! Your determination to improve will impress admissions committees. And you have lots of activities going on. Also, your school is highly competitive, which means your 4.0 semester holds a lot of weight. I think universities will be as impressed with your improvement as I am! Stay dedicated and you’ll be stellar 😀

  4. I would be counting the days until your signing here, but it just so happens to be a week after my AP History exam, and I am in no rush for that. I am very excited, though.


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