The Ivy Coach Daily

September 1, 2023

How to Get Into an Ivy League School

Students walk down an indoor staircase at Harvard University.
Learn the ins and outs of the Ivy League admissions process.

Wondering how to get into an Ivy League school? With overall admission rates to the eight Ivy League schools all in the single digits for applicants to the Class of 2027, some may wonder what it takes to earn admission to one or more of the Ancient Eight institutions. 

Since Ivy League schools reject several entire classes worth of students with perfect or near-perfect grades and scores, while important, it’s not just about a student’s grades and scores. There’s a lot more to it.

So what are the factors in the Ivy League admissions process and how can students optimize their chances of earning admission to these elite universities? Let’s dive in!

The Components of the Ivy League Admissions Process

Below are the core components of the admissions process at each of the eight Ivy League institutions:

The High School’s Reputation

Applicants from one high school are not necessarily on equal footing with applicants from another. A high school’s track record matters.

Some schools are brimming with high-achieving students — with Regeneron Science Talent Search Semi-Finalists, National Merit Finalists, and graduates who have gone on to attend our nation’s elite universities. These schools often have strong relationships with these elite universities and even, sometimes, a shorthand with the admissions offices.

Other schools have a high percentage of graduates who attend community colleges or not particularly selective four-year institutions. Average SAT and ACT scores at these schools are often unimpressive, not instilling faith in Ivy League admissions officers that their graduates will excel at their institutions.

In short, Ivy League admissions officers trust certain high schools much more than others. As such, applicants from these schools enjoy an advantage in the Ivy League admissions process. And, no, it’s not just about public versus private schools, as some sterling public schools across America and around the world boast much stronger relationships with various Ivy League schools than their private school counterparts.

Rigor of the Coursework

No matter the high school a student attends, Ivy League admissions officers want to see that the student is challenging themselves by taking the most rigorous courses available at the high school — and then some.

Too often, we at Ivy Coach hear from parents that a student is already taking the most rigorous courses the high school offers and, as such, there’s nothing more they can do in this area. But they’re wrong.

First, they’re often not in courses that Ivy League admissions officers want to see (e.g., AP Statistics does not count as math and stopping or switching a foreign language can preclude a student’s admission!). And second, Ivy League admissions officers seek to admit students who go above and beyond what their high schools offer in their curriculums. In the age of online learning, students can easily take coursework outside of their high school — not only to stand out from other applicants from around the world but to stand out from other applicants from their own high school.

Grades

All grades are not created equal. Ivy League admissions officers seek to admit students who excel in their rigorous coursework. An A in a non-honors biology course is not the same as an A in AP Biology.

As to the age-old question, “Is it better to get an A in a non-honors course or an in an honors course,” the answer is Ivy League admissions officers want to see an in the honors course. After all, top grades in the most rigorous courses are table stakes for admission to Ivy League schools.

Test Scores

Just as Ivy League admissions officers expect to see top grades, they expect top scores on the SAT or ACT and, ideally, Advanced Placement exams (even if a student doesn’t attend a school that offers the AP curriculum, they can still sit and take these exams).

And while all eight Ivy League schools, as of the 2023-2024 admissions cycle, are test-optional, as we’ve long exclaimed from atop Ivy Coach’s soapbox in elite college admissions, students with great scores will always have an advantage over students with no scores.

It doesn’t mean a student can’t get in without test scores (students do indeed get in without scores!), but they’re at a competitive disadvantage — no matter what Ivy League admissions officers so often tell students and their parents to the contrary. 

Extracurricular Activities

So many Ivy League applicants present activities that make them present as well-rounded. They may play a few sports (but none good enough to be recruited by an Ivy League school), compete in Mathletes, and volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Or they may play a musical instrument, conduct pancreatic cancer research, and volunteer at a hospital. Either way, these are not the kinds of extracurricular profiles that wow Ivy League admissions officers.

To stand out from an extracurricular standpoint, Ivy League admissions officers want to see a depth of involvement. They seek to admit singularly talented students — the recruited baseball player, the award-winning astrophysics researcher, the voice of a generation poet — who, together, will form a well-rounded incoming class when these students.

As such, many of the ten activities a student presents on their Common Application should all tie into a singular narrative, or the student will risk coming across as all over the place.

Letters of Recommendation

The Ivy League schools typically like to see two teacher letters of recommendation — ideally from junior year teachers in core subjects like English, history, math, science, or foreign language — and one counselor letter of recommendation.

Yet too often, students simply ask their teachers and their counselor for letters. Since students waive their rights to see their letters of recommendation, they’re then not privy to what their teachers and counselor write. Well, let’s address that mystery right now: teachers and school counselors, when left on their own to write letters of recommendation, typically write generic letters filled with adjectives that say little about the student.

At Ivy Coach, our students share anecdotes with their teachers and counselors that showcase their intellectual curiosity. For instance, in the case of teachers, they share comments they’ve made in class discussions, projects they’ve worked on, and much more. This way, the teachers will have those reminders in hand and be able to fill up their letters with actual specifics that shine a light on who the student is and how they contribute to the learning experience in the classroom.

College Admissions Essays

The essays are a critical component of the Ivy League admissions process. They offer applicants the chance to tell their stories, showcase how they think and wish to change the world, contribute to individual college campuses, and much more.

In addition to The Common Application’s Personal Statement, which can be up to 650 words, and the optional Covid essay, which can be up to 250 words, each of the eight Ivy League schools poses supplemental admissions essays to applicants to the Class of 2028.

These essays, many of which need to be tailored to the respective institutions, are as important as the Personal Statement.

2023-2024 Ivy League Admissions Essays

Below are the number of supplemental essays for applicants to the Class of 2028 at each of the eight Ivies:

Ivy League School2023-2024 Admissions Essays
Brown University3 x 200-250-word essays, 1 x 3-word essay, 2 x 100-word essays, and 1 x 50-word essay
Columbia University1 x 100-word essay and 4 x 150-word essays
Cornell University1 x 350-word essay and one of the following: 1 x 650-word essay, 1 x 250-word essay, and 1 x 100 word essay (CALS), 1 x 650-word essay (CAAP), 1 x 650-word essay (A&S), 1 x 650-word essay (Brooks), 1 x 650-word essay (Johnson), 2 x 250-word essays (COE), 1 x 650-word essay (CHE), 1 x 650-word essay (ILR)
Dartmouth College1 x 100-word essay, 2 x 250-word essays
Harvard University5 x 200-word essays
Princeton University3 x 250-word essays, 1 x 500-word essay, 3 x 50-word essays, and graded paper
University of Pennsylvania3 x 200-word essays, and dual-degree essays as follows: 1 x 650-word essay (DMD), 1 x 650-word essay (Huntsman), 1 x 650-word essay (Life Sciences and Management), 1 x 650-word essay an 1 x 250-word essay (Jerome Fisher), 1 x 650-word essay (Singh), 1 x 650-word essay (NHCM), short answers (Bio-Dental), 1 x 650-word essay (Energy Research)
Yale University1 x 400-word essay, 1 x 200-word essay, 1 x 125-word essay, 4 x 35-word short answers

Alumni Interview

In our experience, many students, and especially their parents, think the alumni interview carries more weight than it does. And, too often, they also think it’s a good sign when they receive word they’re being offered an interview. In reality, the alumni interview is one of the least important components of the Ivy League admissions process and being offered the chance to interview is only an indication that there is an alum in a student’s area available to interview.

Of course, if a student makes a terrible remark during an alumni interview, they can sabotage their chances of admission. And a fantastic alumni interview can further tip the scale in an applicant’s favor. But it’s rarely the difference-maker many believe it to be. 

Special Considerations

Beyond the aforementioned factors, certain special considerations can influence the Ivy League decision-making process:

Legacies

Applicants who are the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of a school’s alumni-base currently enjoy an advantage at all of the Ivy League schools. However, Harvard is presently being sued for continuing the practice. After the outlawing of Affirmative Action, our belief at Ivy Coach is that the Ivy League schools will no longer be able to justify offering preferential treatment to legacy applicants. As such, Ivy Coach’s crystal ball forecasts the practice will end in the coming months. But, as of now, it stands at all eight Ivies.

Development Cases

Applicants who are the children of major donors — typically major alumni donors — often receive preferential treatment in the Ivy League admissions process. Have you heard of Harvard’s Z-List? If not, read all about it on Ivy Coach’s blog.

Recruited Athletes

Applicants flagged as athletic recruits enjoy a significant advantage in the Ivy League admissions process. From football players to lacrosse players, swimmers, water polo players, and so many sports in between, a significant portion of Early Action/Early Decision admits are typically recruits.

First-Generation College Students

Students whose parents did not attend college receive preferential treatment in the Ivy League admissions process to create a pathway to the American Dream.

Many students and parents wonder if an older sibling attended college if the younger sibling still qualifies as first-generation. The answer is yes. After all, that older sibling is a member of the same generation as the younger sibling.

But notice we didn’t say first-generation students — as in the children of immigrants. We said first-generation college students. It’s not about the number of generations of a family that has lived in the United States. Instead, it’s about the number of generations that have attended college.

Underrepresented Minorities in Context

In late June of 2023, the United States Supreme Court outlawed the practice of Affirmative Action — or the practice of offering preferential treatment to underrepresented minority applicants, including Black, Latino, and Native American young people.

That said, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion outlawing Affirmative Action, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

So, can Ivy League admissions officers still consider an applicant’s race when it’s presented to them in the context of their storytelling in their essays? As of now, the answer is yes. However, because Affirmative Action was outlawed by the Supreme Court, the Ivy League schools will have to demonstrate they’re complying with the high court’s ruling and this will likely lead to significantly less representation for Black, Latino, and Native American students at the Ivies.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance in Optimizing Chances to the Ivy League

If you’re interested in optimizing your case for admission to Ivy League schools, fill out Ivy Coach’s free consultation form, and we’ll be in touch to outline our college counseling services. We look forward to hearing from you.

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