How To Get Into The Ivy League

Matt Larriva
Apr 13, 2020

By Lauren Thompson & Matt Larriva

With an average acceptance rate of just above 9%, the Ivy Leagues are among the most selective schools in the World.  With that in mind, it makes sense that there are only three types of students who find admission to the Ivy’s: the elite students, the elite performers (think top-tier athletes, published writers, and child actors), and the elite connected (the children of world leaders, legacy families, or wealthy donors).

If those groups sound exclusive, they are, and attending school with such a cohort has its advantages. About 24% of the Forbes 400 (a yearly list of the 400 richest people in America published by Forbes) attended an Ivy League school. 

With over 5,300 universities in the United States, what makes the eight Ivy League institutions so special? And what can you do to gain admissions to these schools? Read on. 

The Ivy Leagues

The Ivy League, if we’re being very specific, is an athletic conference, like the PacWest or the Big Ten. The name dates to the 1930s and referred to the ivy that grew along the walls of the older, private schools in the northeast. The only characteristics that group Ivy League schools are their age and their location: the youngest Ivy League (Cornell 1865) was founded just after the Civil War, and all schools are located in the northeastern most states of the US. 

It is commonly mistaken that the Ivy League schools are the highest ranked schools in the country. While they generally all make the top 20 of US News and World’s list of top Universities, this misconception overlooks some very prestigious schools like MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech, Notre Dame, Rice, Washington University in St. Louis, and UCLA—all of which hold top 20-spots  in the list. 

Still, the cache of the term Ivy League is unmatched in academics, and receiving a degree from any one of the schools can serve as a powerful differentiator. So, before discussing admissions, it serves to learn more about each school in the league.

Brown

Ranked 14th in the Nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 9%, Brown University located in Providence, Rhode Island.  It is known for its English and History programs as well as its highly ranked medical school, The Warren Alpert Medical School.  Notable alumni include John D. Rockefeller Jr., John F. Kennedy Jr., and CNN founder and media mogul Ted Turner.

Columbia

Ranked 3rd in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 6%, Columbia University located in New York City.  It is particularly known for its School of Engineering as well as administering the Pulitzer Prizes.  Notable alumni include John Jay, founding father and first Supreme Court chief justice, and former President Barack Obama.

Cornell

Ranked 17th in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 14.1%, Cornell University is located in Ithaca, New York.  It is known for its Colleges of Arts and Sciences as well as of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  Notable alumni include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author E.B. White, and Bill Nye, the “Science Guy.”

Dartmouth

Ranked 12th in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 10.5%, Dartmouth College is located in Hanover, New Hampshire.  It is known for its research and study abroad opportunities as well as NCAA Division 1 varsity sports.  Notable alumni include Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Shonda Rhimes (creator of “Greys Anatomy”), and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner.

Harvard

Ranked 2nd in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 5.2%, Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.  It is known for its programs in business, law, government, and medicine as well as its library system which houses the oldest collection in the US and the largest private collection in the world.  Notable alumni include Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Henry David Thoreau, and Helen Keller.

U Penn

Ranked 6th in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 9.4%, the University of Pennsylvania is located in Philadelphia and was founded by Benjamin Franklin.  It is known for its business school, The Wharton School whose notable alumni include President Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffet.

Princeton

Ranked 1st in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 6.5%, Princeton University is located in Princeton, New Jersey.  It is known for its programs in international affairs and engineering.  Notable alumni include President Woodrow Wilson, model/actress Brooke Shields, and former first lady Michelle Obama.

Yale

Ranked 3rd in the nation and with an overall acceptance rate of 6.3%, Yale University is located in New Haven, Connecticut.  It is known for its drama and music programs as well as its secret societies. Notable alumni include award-winning actress Meryl Streep, Washington Post investigative journalist and editor Bob Woodward, and actor Edward Norton.

How do you get into an Ivy League school?

Differentiate in a Global Sense 

It is useful to think of your candidacy in terms of differentiation. Returning to the construct we presented in the first paragraph is helpful: elite academics, elite performance, or elite connections. Any one of these would make a candidate very strong, but make no mistake, to be elite in those fields is extremely uncommon, so for the purposes of most candidates, they will need a combination of these factors. 

While you may be academically elite at your school, realize that 54% of Harvard’s accepted students had 4.0 (out of 4.0) GPAs. That is, even if you take all the hardest courses your school has to offer, and you score perfectly in each, you are, by definition, not elite by Harvard’s standards. 

Perhaps you are an elite performer at in your community: your art is featured locally, your poems are published in your county’s paper, or you scored a role in a Broadway play. But recognize that to gain Ivy League admission you will need to best students who have been in movies, who have published books that were well reviewed, or who painted art that was featured and sold in prestigious galleries. 

Similarly, you might have a relative who went to UPenn or even a relative who is active in the alumni community. But you must compete against the children of John Huntsman, Donald Trump, and their extended family, as well as the niece of the president of Mexico and Reese Witherspoon—all of whom were classmates of the author when he was at UPenn. 

The aim of this section is not to discourage but to reframe the definitions of elite which may have served well in high school but are less powerful in a global setting. So what do you do if you are not in the top 95% in either of those categories? Do not stress. While you may not be a Tony-winning actress by 17, you almost certainly have a combination of characteristics that makes you elite. 

Realize there is a trade-off in all things. That Tony-winning actress probably did not have time to achieve elite academics, so she may be in the 99th percentile in the performance category, but only in the 50th percentile in terms of academics and connections. Now, she will almost certainly be admitted, as she is so high in one category, but she leaves a gap in the school’s student body which allows for someone who is weak in the performance category but high in both the academic and performance categories. 

So even if you are not in the 99th percentile in any one trait, being in the 80th -90th percentile of two out of three categories could make you a perfect fit to a school’s overall student body. 

Let’s take that tradeoff theory a step further and say that every applicant has the same potential units of output, and they want to optimize themselves for admittance.
Let’s also say that the goal of an Ivy league school is to have a class that is optimized in all areas of output: academics, connections, and performance.

Let’s look at the following scenarios and see which one serves a college and the student the best:

You can see that every student has six green squares to allocate—let these be the performance units. A student could theoretically maximize one category and minimize the others (students A, B, and C), but this is rare and risky. 

If a college had all applicants like that, they could achieve a fully optimized student body and have outperformers across the board, but applicants like this are exceedingly rare—think math prodigies who skipped grades, young movie actors, or the children of large donors. These students’ profiles are largely not worth in-depth consideration in this article, as they are mostly traits that would have been established long-before high school.

In contrast, we have student D who is well-rounded, allocating six squares equally across three categories. But this student does not serve an university well, as shown by the second scenario. The school is missing top performers. 

Now examine students E, F, and G who allocated their efforts by being a strong performer in one category, an average performer in another category, and a relatively week performer in the final category.  As we can see in the three last scenarios, such a student serves a strong need at a school. Helping them fill gaps in different categories. 

Keep in mind, when we say ‘weak’ performer, we are referring to weak relative to the applicant base—for Harvard, a weak GPA would be 3.8, and weak performance might be first-chair violin in the county’s orchestra.

It is the profile of students E, F, and G that is most achievable, and we will provide recommendations on becoming this type of student in the subsequent sections. 

But if this seems like a new perspective to you, it may be because you were operating under the myth of the well-rounded student. 

Forget ‘Well-Rounded’

For a long period in the ‘80s and ‘90s there was a common refrain that said students needed to be ‘well rounded.’ This may have been accurate at the time, and might still be for less selective schools, but it is useless for the purposes of Ivy League admission.

Ivy League admissions officers think in terms of well-rounded student bodies not well-rounded students. That is, they would rather have a class of award-winning poets, math prodigies, and polyglots than they would a class of students who all took the same classes, participated in the same clubs, volunteered at the same organizations, and played the same instruments.

How to Achieve Strong Performance in Each Category

Now that we have a target in mind: strong performance in one category, we will discuss what strong performance looks like in each and provide guidance on how to achieve it. 

Academics

Grades (GPA)

While there is no definitive benchmark GPA that will ensure acceptance into an Ivy League school, there is a trend when it comes to coursework difficultly and GPA: respectively, the harder the better and the higher the better.

A competitive application shows that the applicant has taken the most challenging curriculum available to him or her, and that student has achieved high grades on top of that.  In other words, they have both a high GPA and many AP, IB or Honors classes.  For the Ivy Leagues, a high GPA is, on average, a weighted 4.0.  The chart below shows the average GPA of accepted students, and as it demonstrates, only two universities have an average accepted GPA of lower than 4.0 – and even then, it’s not by much.

The takeaway here is that students seeking admittance into the Ivy’s should strive to achieve the highest grades they can, but they should not shy away from difficult coursework.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  A weighted 4.0 usually encompasses high A’s in any regular coursework and high B’s in challenging coursework.

If a student’s school does not offer a wide variety of challenging classes (or if a student simply wants to add even more difficult classes to their course load), he or she can further round out their curriculum by attending classes at a community college.  

Students should also remember that GPA takes his or her entire high school career into account and demonstrating either a steady increase in or consistently high performance.  As such, students should take extra care to maintain their grades in their junior and senior years. 

SAT/ACT Test Scores

But good grades are not enough.  You also need good SAT and ACT scores, and for the Ivy’s, “good” means nearly perfect: no less than 1400 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT.  Unless a student can stand out in some exceptional way or fulfill an important institutional need, subpar test scores are a one-way trip to the rejection pile.

If a student falls within these ranges, then he or she is on track for acceptance in an Ivy League school. 

Performance

When it comes to the performance section, we refer to extracurricular activities. In this, the Ivy’s are looking for three things: integration, continuity, and significance.

Integration refers to the way an extracurricular fits into a students’ overall story. A student who took courses on political science, wrote articles for a poly-sci peer-reviewed journal, and who attended model UN camps would have an integrated extracurricular portfolio. A student who was a math Olympiad who spent weekends as a DJ and volunteered at a soup kitchen would paint a less integrated profile than a math Olympiad who spent weekends writing software to find the next large prime number and volunteered tutoring math to weak students.

Just as important as integration of an extracurricular is proof that a student has participated in said activity for a meaningful amount of time as well as the unspoken promise that that student will continue their extracurricular in college.  Participating in an activity for a long period of time is part of proving passion.  

For example, if a student starts a lobbying campaign through heir local government, they need to have other activities from previous years which show interest in that same pursuit or cause.  Even if they had not been leading the charge during their Freshman or Sophomore year, they likely volunteered for other organizations, participated in internships, and so on.  Without that continuity of interest, at best, the activity looks like it is insignificant to the student, and at worst, it looks like a hollow grab for admissions brownie points.

However, the most important factor is significance.  Significance, or credibility, is the part of an activity which truly sets an application apart.  Getting the chance to work in a local laboratory as a research assistant is one thing.  Doing that and being a co-author on a scientific article published in a peer reviewed journal is another thing entirely.

Unfortunately, Ivy League admissions officers tend to be older and therefore more traditional, so they value traditional forms of validation and credibility, such as patents, publications, and serious research experience. This doesn’t mean that you’re limited to traditional forms of credibility, but it does mean that you should look for ways to deepen the impact and purpose of your activities. Being an influencer with 100,000 plus followers likely means little to them.  However, being an influencer with 100,000 plus followers, using it to fight negative body-image messaging, and having a Huffington Post article written about your media platform will catch their interest. Being a top-ranked World of Warcraft gamer is indeed an accomplishment, but you could deepen it by donating a portion of your Twitch earnings to fight online bullying. 

Any way that a student can establish that type of validity will strengthen their application.  If a student likes computers, he or she should think about what interesting, stand-out thing they can do with that passion more than simply being the head of their schools computer club.  Maybe they can collect used computers, repurpose and donate them.  Even better would be to combine it with another passion.  If that same student also had family ties to another country (lets use Brazil as an example), they could take those used computers to a needing community in Brazil, then spend the summer down in Brazil teaching computer literacy to those students.

One thing to beware of here is activities which sound interesting but which a lot of students already do.  Tutoring English in a foreign country is a good example.  While it may be a great experience, unless something about that experience was truly exceptional and noteworthy, it will sound similar to the hundreds of students who participate in similar programs every year. This goes for spending one-to-two weeks in a foreign country building houses or something similar. 

Connections

Up to this point, we have discussed connections in terms of traits that are largely out of one’s control—being a legacy applicant, having a wealthy donor on your team, or being the progeny of a powerful person. We will now discuss the ways you can create connections and use your existing ones. 

First, connections can be built, but you should start very early, otherwise your attempt will look self-serving. If you are interested in economics. Follow your favorite college’s economics chair on twitter and engage with him or her there. Develop a relationship and ask them for their opinion on topical research.  Try to nurture this connection over time, and it can turn into a very useful aid when applications season comes. 

Athletic connections can serve an applicant well, and they can be similarly created and nurtured. We will not discuss them further because being a recruited athlete is similar to being a math prodigy or a very well connected student, and these traits are often the outcome of paths started long before high school.

Another side of connections is your connection to your family and your circumstances. You may come from a single-parent family or you may have grown up in poverty. This is not what we traditionally think of in terms of connections, but it is organic, and it can serve you. Colleges recognize the hardship of growing up in adverse environments, and they recognize the difficulty of being the first person in your family to go to college. 

You can play to these connections in your application and receive a similar boost to your application as someone who is a legacy applicant. 

To Get Across the Finish Line

Establishing a significant passion is the most important part of a successful application.  However, on top of that, here are some additional tips and tricks to make an application even more competitive.

Write an amazing personal essay.  This is one of the most straight forward ways to improve the odds of being accepted. While personal essays deserve an article onto themselves, a few key takeaways include be authentic, be personable, and write about something that does not appear in the rest of your application.  Check out these college essay examples from top-25 schools for some inspiration.

Tailor the application to the school.  The different Ivy’s specialize in slightly different areas of study.  Yale is known for its music and foreign relations programs.  Brown is known as the most creative.  The list goes on.  Knowing the niche of each Ivy not only highlights which university’s environment would be best for a student but helps students focus on the most useful parts of themselves in their application.

Apply early decision or action.  Early decision/action acceptance rates are nearly double those in regular decision.  In 2017, Brown’s overall acceptance rate was 9.2%, but it was 18.5% for Early Decision.  Take these numbers with a grain of salt, as they may be skewed due to recruited athletes.  However, showing an interest early can only help a student’s acceptance chances.

Fill an institutional need.  There are two types of institutional need: program needs and demographic needs.  Certain programs are less competitive than others and certain demographics are underrepresented in certain programs.  

To take advantage of this, students can either apply to a program where they are an in-demand demographic, such as women in Computer Science, or they can apply to a less competitive program and transfer to a different program being accepted.  

Furthermore, belonging to an underrepresented minority or a low-income family can also be an advantage, as all of the Ivy League schools want to make their student bodies as diverse as possible (it should be noted all eight of the Ivy’s signed the American Talent Initiative in 2016, promising to enroll and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students by 2025).  However, students looking to take advantage of this should check the demographic of their target school.  Each minority group is not equally in-demand at each of the Ivy’s.

Family connections.  This does not just mean being fortunate enough to be a legacy student (the child of an alumni).  Recruited athletes, children of faculty and staff, and having a relative who has donated money to the target school all achieve a similar benefit.  And it is a major benefit – 36% of Harvard’s class of 2022 falls into this category, and the Washington Post estimated that children of alumni were 45% more likely to be admitted than other applicants.

The Takeaway

Unfortunately, even following all this advice to a T does not guarantee acceptance into an Ivy League school.  They are just that competitive.  However, even if a student does not get into the Ivy of their choice, being competitive on an Ivy League level means they likely have their pick of the top schools in the country, and this is a powerful place to be.

For an even further glimpse into what it takes to be accepted into an Ivy League school, take a look at these case studies from Ivy Coach, an admissions counselling company:

Case studies

Sam

Sam was an orthodox Jewish student coming from a yeshiva. He had an A average, and between a 720 and 740 on each section of his SATs. He had scores of 700 and above on three Subject Tests. While his extracurricular activities were good, there was nothing that he had that would wow admissions officers at Ivy League colleges.

Sam applied to Yale early action and was deferred.  After some research, Sam found out that Yale had a student body that was about 30% Jewish.  He took a look at the rest of his application list – Harvard (25% Jewish student body), Columbia, Penn (27%), Cornell, and NYU – and decided to add Princeton (with a 7.5% Jewish student body) to his list of colleges.

With the only change to his original application being a refinement of his personal essay to better reflect his unique personal experiences, Sam was accepted to Columbia, Cornell, NYU, and Princeton. He was waitlisted at Harvard and Penn and denied admission at Yale.   He chose to attend Princeton.

Deepak

In his senior year of college, Deepak had applied to Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Amherst, none had accepted him, and he had not applied to any backup schools.  He had an A- average in the most rigorous high school courses, solid SATs and good Subject Tests.  However, his extracurricular activities were ordinary: he played the piano, was a member of his school’s math team, ran track, and volunteered at a local hospital.  In other words, he looked just like many other Indian American applicants.  To make matters worse, both of his personal essays involved how much he loved to sleep.

He needed to take a gap year to boost his extracurricular activities for his new applications (he would need to apply to an entirely different set of school as the schools he had applied to previously would have reviewed his old application).  During his gab year, Deepak visited his family in Mumbai, India while also volunteering as a tutor at a rehabilitation center for children with neurological disorders.  However, since this on its own would not be enough to set him apart, he also brought in his love of filmmaking by making a documentary on the center which he later showed to raise money for the center.

During his second round of applications, Deepak applied to Penn, Duke, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Emory.  He was accepted to all of those colleges and ultimately chose to attend University of Pennsylvania.

Kimberly

Kimberly was a Chinese American with an A average in the most rigorous courses her high school offered with respectable test scores. She played the clarinet, was on the varsity soccer team, and participated in the drama club. Her was interests were biology and chemistry and wanted to conduct science research, but there were no opportunities to do so at her school.

To make her application more competitive, Kimberly found a professor at a local university working with nanoparticles to attack ovarian cancer cells willing to mentor her.  Not only was Kimberly able to tell a powerful story about her experience and love of science in her personal essay, she also submitted her research to the Intel Science Talent Search and was the only student from her state to be named a semi-finalist.

Kimberly’s dream school was Harvard, but she also applied to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, and Brown.  She was ultimately accepted to all the colleges to which she applied and chose to attend Harvard University.

Sources:

“Where The Forbes 400 Went To College: The Top 10 Schools” by Elana Lyn Gross

About ¼ of the people who are part of the Forbes top 400 list came from Ivy’s.  Only 1/5th of top 400 were self-made and attended Ivy’s

https://www.forbes.com/sites/elanagross/2019/10/19/where-the-forbes-400-went-to-college-the-top-10-schools/#66d3618a3487

“Here’s what it really takes to get into the Ivy League these days” by Scott Behrens

Laundry list of qualities that increase chances of getting into ivy league school

https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2017/04/26/heres-what-it-really-takes-to-get-into-the-ivy-league-these-days/37430681/

“Can I Get Into The Ivy League Schools?”

Has a list of average GPA, SAT, and ACT for all Ivy Schools (2017)

https://www.crimsoneducation.org/us/blog/ivy-league-schools

“Harvard’s freshman class is more than one-third legacy—here’s why that’s a problem”

Harvard’s Class of 2022 is 36% Legacy

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/07/harvards-freshman-class-is-more-than-one-third-legacy.html

“A new statistic reveals the startling privilege of white kids admitted to Harvard”

https://qz.com/1713033/at-harvard-43-percent-of-white-students-are-legacies-or-athletes/

“How to get into an Ivy League school, according to an expert” by Charlie Chapel

https://thetab.com/us/2016/11/22/ivy-league-schools-55826

Charts and Graphs (accepted student profile)

https://www.thoughtco.com/brown-gpa-sat-and-act-data-786392

Reference for SAT and ACT average accepted scores

https://www.thoughtco.com/act-scores-for-ivy-league-admissions-788783

https://www.thoughtco.com/sat-scores-for-ivy-league-admissions-788638