Sunday, December 2, 2007

How to Get Into an Ivy League School

OK, so one of the keys to having a great corporate pedigree is to have attended and Ivy League School (And by Ivy League I do mean any of the top-tier national schools). For most people, it is too late to change this. There is always the option of going to get a graduate degree at a top-tier university, but for most people in the working world, that just isn't going to happen. This is for all the young people who are wondering just how I did it and what advice I may have. Remember my post about compound interest? The point of that post was to emphasize how doing a little bit now, can pay big rewards in the future. This is my view on how important it is to do well at an early age to get into the right school.

I want to be very clear about this point before I move forward. You do not need an Ivy League degree to get a good job or to be successful. Getting an Ivy League degree does not guarantee success. What it does do is present a signal to potential employers is that somehow, someway, you made it through a very selective process. This is an important consideration in many managers hiring process. My alma-mater accepts around 10% of all applicants. And this is 10% of an already very selective group. It reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where George is able to meet beautiful women because he has a picture of a model who is supposedly his dead fiancee. The women accept him because he has already been selected by another beautiful woman.

Every time I go into a job interview, at some point someone says to me, "Obviously you are smart, you went to Princeton..." This is an important point. By default I am assumed smart. I got accepted to Princeton more than a dozen years ago, and yet it still works and is paying dividends for me. It won't get me the job by itself, but it at least allows me to get my foot in the door. It's up to me to shove my way through.

So what do I know about getting into an Ivy League School? Well I got into several, I still do interviews for Princeton, and I actually had a college friend on the admissions board for a while. So what's the secret? Here it is, there isn't any. I can assure you that there is no magic formula for getting into the best schools. Each and every application is read, and read by multiple people. What catches the eye of one, may not catch the eye of another. That being said, here are the basics in order of what I believe is important.

Get good grades in the hardest classes. I want to emphasize hardest, because A's in classes that aren't challenging just don't carry as much weight. You don't have to get straight A's (I didn't. Got a handful of B's) and you don't have to be #1 in your class (I was #8) but it doesn't hurt. Your record has to demonstrate that you consistently challenged yourself and that you excelled in those challenges. Ivy League schools are looking for people who know how to tackle problems, get things solved, and aren't afraid of what might come their way.

Do stuff outside of class. Obvious but important. However, don't join every club for the sake of joining a club. Top schools prefer it much more if you can show you were committed and exceeded in a few areas than you spending an hour a week in twenty different clubs. This of course flies in the face of what I did, as I wasn't particularly talented in any one thing. Everyone at Princeton, besides being smart, tended to have one really good talent whether it be playing an instrument or being good at sports. Be well-rounded. I can't emphasize this enough.

Standardized test are important, but they aren't that important. This is coming from a guy who got 1560 on his SAT's and all 5's on the AP exams that my school saw. If you do well, great. It will just confirm the other facts. If you do poorly, you aren't sunk yet, the rest of your application is much more important. I knew people who got 1600 and didn't get in. I knew some people who were in the 1100's and got in. There were probably people even lower than that. So do your best, and as long as you are OK, then don't worry about it.

Be interesting. Don't do what everyone else does. This will come out in your application. These people read dozens of applications a day. Believe me, they all start to sound the same. If you have some unique talent or some special life experience, make sure it comes out in your application. However don't write about how winning the big game made your realize blah blah blah. They've heard it all before. At the same time, don't be too cute either. Chances are, among the thousands of applications over a dozen years, someone has tried the same tactic. Just be honest, and yourself.

Some things that aren't that important include your recommendations and your interview. Everyone gets a good recommendation. At worse, it can only be a small negative. The same goes for interviews. Don't stress over them. Most high-schoolers have never been in an interview, and they are very nervous going in. Believe me, it isn't weighted all that much. I didn't even interview with Princeton.  If you want advice on how to do well in your Ivy League interview, follow the preceding link.

That's all it takes, and a little bit of luck. Did I miss anything? If you have questions or want to know more about my experiences, feel free to leave a comment, and I'll try to respond.


  1. How about if your family went to the school you're applying? Some applications ask.

  2. Superior athletic abilities should land you a spot and a sports scholarship.

  3. It of course helps to some degree, but it is greatly overrated at Ivy League Schools. Neither of my parents went to college, and I made it in.

  4. Lots of the kids who go to these schools were actually pretty decent athletes. I was amazed by how many people were not only brilliant but gifted athletically. That being said, no athletic scholarships at Ivy League Schools. For that matter, no academic scholarships either. Only financial based need.

  5. [...] now you have that great Ivy League Degree, now what? How do you go about finding a job? Well, it isn’t always as easy as it sounds, [...]

  6. How many of the Ivy League grads worked a Summer job--or any job, for that matter? How many paid their OWN tuition?

  7. I'm not sure what you are trying to suggest? Are you saying that somehow, Ivy League students are spoiled? I held a job during BOTH the year and during the Summer. EVERY body I knew held a job during the summer. Over 50% of all Princeton students get financial aid of some sort.

  8. Do you know how much being a minority (hispanic) will help someone? Or does it even matter at all?

  9. It does make a difference depending on your ethnicity. For someone like me, who is Asian, it doesn't really help all that much, and if anything probably hurts me a little bit.

    When I was at Princeton, there seemed to be an under-representation of both Hispanic and African-American students. The goal of most of the Ivy League schools is not to have the absolutely smartest kids on the planet. it is to have a diverse student body where the students can learn from each other. To foster this, you need to have people of all types of backgrounds. So if you belong to one of these under-represented minority groups, and are equally qualified as someone else, you most likely will receive an advantage.

  10. [...] and get to understand the person behind the application.  I’ve stated before in my post on how to get into an Ivy League, that an interview won’t make or break you.  It really is just one of those things that the [...]

  11. Please help me, I am really stressed right now. I am a freshman in high school. Before this, I attended a private Catholic school for 7 years. I didn't know anything about honors, pre-ap, or AP classes. So about one month into high school, I found out about them, however, the guidance counselor and the assistant principal told me I would have to wait until next year! So this year (freshman) I do not have any of those classes. I do however have A's on all of my classes. What I'm wondering is, will a wonderful University such as Princeton turn me down because of my freshman year? Next year, however, and all years following that year in high school I plan to take the hardest classes available. Please reply back you would do me a lot of good. Thank You for taking the time to read this.

  12. Hi Edwin. Thanks for your comments. I actually decided to dedicate my next post to answer your question. Watch for it tomorrow. let me know if it helps.

  13. [...] got a comment yesterday on my post on How to Get Into an Ivy League School. In it, the reader was stressed about [...]

  14. I have come top in all my classes and recieved diligence, service, etc awards.
    But however, I live in New Zealand and there are no SAT or AP tests. What do I do, if I want to get accepted to Harvard or Ivy Legue?

  15. How smart do you actually have to be to get accepted to Harvard?
    How many hours did you do in high school, on average?

  16. Ann Jun,

    I'm pretty sure you have to still take the SAT test. The SAT test is administered around the world by various 3rd parties. I'm no expert though.

    As for how smart do you have to be. You have to be pretty smart, but that's a subjective thing to say. There wasn't anybody that was of low intelligence at Princeton and most if not all were in the top few of their class.

    And I don't have an answer for you about the number of hours I spent. I assume you mean per night on homework but that doesn't really tell you anything. Some people do lots of homework. Others don't. I never really did.

  17. The thing about coming first in my class and receiving other character awards...
    To tell you the truth, when I was eight, I found out that I couldn't read!
    My parents panicked so my much because my sister was a valedictorian and head girl and everything. They got such a shock! (it probably would have been very funny!) But somehow I recovered very rapidly and now I am in the top class.
    I don't know how I recovered, but I did.
    As you can see, I am not a clever individual. I has 'learning disabilities' as some will call it. To get accepted to Harvard, you have to also work hard, but don't you have to have some 'smartness' within you?
    Even if I work hard, I don't think I'll ever be good enough.
    I also play the piano and is setting the exam for grade 8 this june.
    But that is hardly nothing compared to others who apply, right?
    Thank you so much for replying, I didin't think you would!

  18. If you have to work your butt off, just to "get in" any of the Ivy League schools...
    Should you even be there?
    I mean, if you have to half-kill yourself just to get accepted?
    Doesn't that mean that you are not at the level of intelligence they require?
    Also, if you do work tremendously hard just to get in, will it be worth it?

  19. I think it is overly simplistic to say if you have to work your butt off to get in, then you don't belong there. I was definitely one of those in high school who go by more on my brains than my hard work, but I know many of my fellow Princetonians were the exact opposite, and they did quite well.

    And yes, if you have to work hard to get in, it still makes it worth it in the end. Like I always say, it is often better to work hard earlier than later. Compound interest. I would say that my life is much easier now than it would have otherwise been because I put more effort into things than others did when I was younger.

  20. My sons Score 2230 in sat have ap courses, great grades but don't have extracurrical activities . he works 30 hrs a week since he's a will help him or not, please anwser thank you

  21. It's difficult to say how a school will view a student holding a job as opposed to doing extra-curriculars. In general, having at least one extra-curricular that you are passionate about is crucial. Don't spread it thin. Don't do 10 and only lightly participate. In this case, better to go deep than broad.

  22. Hi, I really liked your article and I was hoping you could answer some things for me.
    My dream school is Princeton, I absolutely love it. I've been aiming for the Ivy Leagues since even before I was in school and have made sure to work my hardest since the very beginning. I'm now a senior and am getting ready with my applications, but while I have a lot of family that attened the Ivy Leagues (my Dad's entire side of the family for generations) the only ones who have gone to Princeton are cousins which aren't asked about on the application, so will that hurt my chances of getting in (that basically no one close to me even applied there)?
    If you don't mind I was also wondering, the people writing my reccomendation letters will be my teachers, as requested, and none of them attended Princeton, yet I read that having an alumni write you a letter helps. I'm just wondering if that will hurt my chances too?
    One last thing if you have time, I have straight A's and was in the running for Valedictorian before I decided to homeschool this year and take college courses as well, I also am on NHS, volunteer loyally, teach religious education, do clubs, play an instrument, have had a job, etc.. But I don't feel like I have anything that sets me apart, are there some small things I'm misssing or not thinking of that would really help me to be noticed amongst all of the applications?
    Sorry that was incredibly lengthy, and if you can't answer it all that's fine. Thank you very much!

  23. Laura,

    I'll do my best to answer your questions. First off, it doesn't matter at all that your parents or anybody else you know didn't attend Princeton. An alumni connection really buys you little if anything. The same can be said about who writes your recommendations. I knew nobody who attended Princeton before I got in. I just had my teachers write my recommendation like you will.

    Like I said in my article, it is important to try, through your application, set yourself apart. Just don't try too hard. Even looking back now, I don't know how I stood out compared to my fellow Princeton students. I was a smart guy but didn't have the same level of talent as some of my fellow Princetonians. Just a lot of passion, drive, and determination.

  24. Hi. I am 17, in my final year of college and currently sorting out everything for university. I have pretty much chosen one (in New Zealand, which is where I live) that I want to go to, but have recently been thinking more and more about applying overseas (I have always wanted to, but kinda realised that my money situation made this a not-so-viable option). I was named dux of my year for the past two years (1st in 5 subjects, 2nd in 1 and 5 in another - taking one extra class), I do sport as well as a variety of extra-curriculars blah blah... but the one thing is that I have pretty much no way of getting into an ivy league school as I have NO money except what I get from my job (which is not a lot). Do you reckon that I have any chance of even getting an interview because of where I live? I know absolutely nobody who has even gone to university at ANY ivy league school as most people just go to uni in NZ if they decide to go? Like, could you find out if any people from my side of the world get in over there?

    Thanks heaps.

  25. Money shouldn't be your main concern. I came from a family considered poor by Princeton Standards. The financial aid package was fantastic. If you are qualified to go, Princeton will find a way to make sure you go.

    Interviews are also very overrated. Just like I said in the post, they are unimportant. I didn't even have a Princeton interview.

  26. Thank you so much for answering all of my questions; you've been really helpful!

  27. I live in New Zealand at the moment, with my family. While my family is really looking at ivy league schools, I was wondering if the location of where I live now will affect my placement consideration at any of the Ivy League Schools, if I do put in an application form. Because I don't think even one student in New Zealand get a place in any of the Ivy Schools a year ( I heard one girl that got accepted five years ago).

  28. I don't have a lot of expertise on international applications, so I'm not sure what standard they hold people too. That said, I do know that Princeton has a decent international population. Not huge though. Not to discourage you, but when I was there, there was only one person who came from New Zealand.

    But if you want to go, apply. The worse thing that can happen is you don't get in. The exact same outcome if you were to do nothing.

  29. Hi, I have been dreaming of getting in a great school like Princeton since I have been in middle school. I am now a junior in high school and would like to become a psychologist and I have read that Princeton has an excellent graduate program in that department. I am wondering if I will be able to stand out enough to get in. I am from a small town and my school doesn't offer AP classes. I am however taking the hardest classes that are offered at my school. I am 3rd in my class and have held a 4.08 GPA throughout my high school years. I would love to volunteer somewhere, but I'm not where to start. Could you please give me advice on how I could stand out or what more I could do? Thank you very much!

  30. It really is impossible to tell you a strategy that will definitely get you in. The best you can do is do what I outlined above and hope you get in. There really isn't any secret.

    While it isn't totally random who gets in, there is some amount of luck involved. I knew people who had better grades than me and were more involved in extra-curricular activities and didn't get into Princeton while I did.

    The best thing you can do is not set your sites on any one school but to apply to lots of schools. Chances are, if you are truly qualified, you will get into a great school

  31. Okay, I'm a freshman at Baylor University and I'm stressing out a little about my grades. I was never a straight-A-student, as a matter of fact I got here by sher luck. My GPA all through high school was a 3.2, and my SATs were horrible but I was still very involved around campus, I was a class officer, a member of the National Art Society and some other stuff. I also took a fair amount of AP and honors classes in my junior and senior years.

    So here's my problem: I am a freshman, with a Biology major and Economics minor. I am also enrolled in Baylor's Interdisciplinary Core program within the Honors College. My classes are already really rigorous (especially in the honors college), hence my grades aren't even close to A's at the moment. I like the challenge posed by the interdisciplinary core program and it fits my learning styles too but, don't you think it might be better to take regular classes and try to make A's in those rather than remaining in this program?

    I've never made a 4.0 in my life, but I've set that as a goal for myself in college and another goal is to attend Harvard Medical or Harvard Law. Almost everyone else I know in the honors college is used to having perfect grades and are currently maintaining that standard. So now I wonder how I'll come close to that 4.0 benchmark with the kind of workload I have. I'm also involved in medical organizations around campus and I'm currently waiting to be appointed and confirmed to the Baylor Student Court. Obviously I have more to worry about than grades and it actually gets worse because I have to take much more difficult classes in the spring.

    I need help and advice. Let me know if you need clarification

  32. First off, I don't want to pretend I'm an expert on how to get into a top-tier Medical or Law program. I never tried to get into one, so you need to take anything I say with a grain of salt.

    I can only speak in generalities on this one, and not on your specific situation. I know several people who did get into Harvard Med or Harvard Law. They were all extremely smart people who took some of the hardest course AND got the best grades in those courses. You really can't trade one for the other. These schools are extremely competitive, even more so than the undergraduate programs, and only the best of the best are going to make it. You can't be the best if you don't do the best in the toughest of situations.

    Not to discourage you, but I also know people who went to school with me who had great grades in hard courses, and still didn't get in. There is really no secret formula here. As a baseline, you have to be extremely smart and talented, but there is nothing I can tell you that will allow to to stand out.

    In general, it is always best to aim high. The worse thing that can happen is that you don't get in. Believe me, it won't be the end of the world. There are many good medical and law schools, and if you are aiming for the best and fall just short, you should be a shoe in at any number of other schools which will also offer you a bright future.

  33. Hi im a senior in a queens hs and I just finished sending out my secondary reports to 5 privates and cuny honors. I applied to columbia, upenn, nyu, brown, and cornell. Im not the brightest of the bunch and im asian too which worries me since as u mentioned before, they usually want a diverse amount of racial group and im sure plenty of asians are in ivys. I also know many are applyin for columbia and nyu as of fall 08. I took 4-5 aps, but as of scoring I only have 2 since I am taking 3 this year. Im worried that my extra curricular activies are also not enough because I don't do any inside of school. I only do things in church (but in church I participate in everything - pianist, group leader, music director, piano teacher, worship team member etc) and outside of church, I work a a piano teacher. Yet im in no clubs or teams as a result. Is it bad?

  34. As I stated in my post, it is impossible to know if your involvement or lack of involvement is "good" or "bad".

    The most important thing to consider is depth, not breadth. Most colleges want you to show passion in something, not show that you can attend a different meeting every day of the week, but do no actual work.

    At this point, I'm not sure you can do anything given that you are a senior and your have or about to submit your application. So don't stress about it. If you worked hard, got good grades, and generally are a good person, you will get in somewhere.

  35. Well I need some advice here.

    Ok, here is my case.
    I am a student at a magnet high school currently in my Junior year. I am Indian (India) but I was born in the US, but my family moved to a lot of countries and we came back to the US when I got to the 5th Grade. I struggled my elementary school years but then my middle school years I made all A's.

    Then came high school, unlike most kids I never had an opportunity to go to a nice Public High school (most public high schools in Georgia are extremely unsanitary and full of gangs and nothing but gangs) so my parents told me that it would be best if I went to a Magnet School. My magnet school in on the top 20 when it comes to best schools in America.

    Well my 9th grade I did not know how magnet schools worked, so I kept on missing the honor roll (mostly by C's and I even made some F's which were in Spanish, I already knew Hindi extremely well). By the end of the year I had a B average in every class (in my school all classes are honors or supposed to be hard).

    My sophomore year I missed the honor roll but avoided getting any F's. I made good progress and my teachers were proud of me but still I was required to take Spanish 2, which I only made C's and B's on.

    Finally I am in my junior year of high school. They have changed the format, so now you do not have a 6 week grading period but only a 9 week grading period. So only 4 report cards go out unlike 6 from the past two years. I made AB honor roll on my recent report cards and I am taking an AP class (AP European which I have an A in). I have YET to take the SAT but on the college board preparation courses I usually get around 2000s to 1900s on the practice tests. I plan on doing some sports my senior year of high school.

    My current GPA in my CORE classes is a 2.8, my GPA overall is a 3.2 (not counting core classes). I speak Hindi and English fluently.

    So is it too late for me to get into an Ivy League school?
    Should I not apply at all?
    What can I do the rest of my Junior year and Senior year to give myself a shot at the Ivy League schools (be realistic here)?

  36. wait, I have a 3.2 GPA OVERALL!

  37. I know that this is pretty late, but I was wondering about the admission process. I was pretty high in my ranks in the beginning, but I had problems in my home during my junior year- and that really threw my year off (rank 43 out of 630 students). Will it help to explain that in my essay? I am also a minority, and my parents make very little money in comparison to my peers-
    I have recently received a letter from Columbia University telling me that they saw my college profile, and were wondering if I would be interested in their colleges- Do you think I should be a little hopeful towards making it? I am applying to many colleges as I can just in case. Please let me know what you think.
    Thank you!

  38. I go to school in Georgia. Our school is sanitary and isn't made up of gangs, nothing but gangs.

  39. Hi there! I'm Shelby, and I attend a public school in rural Georgia. I want to attend an Ivy League, but I worry about it a lot. Being at a small school, it only offers 4 AP Courses and one foreign language. I have maintained all A's throughout my high school career, though. Also, I managed to get enrolled in online classes and I'll take up to 4 more AP classes, and I've already taken two semesters of Latin online, coming out with high A's. I plan on taking Spanish my senior year, too. I've played soccer all of my years of high school and intend on playing through the rest of it. I've also done All-State choral programs and participate in the choral program at my school. I was on the AA State Championship One-Act Team my freshman year, and I also did a bunch of assorted clubs that I either cut out or were cut by the school. I was nominated for Governor's Honors in Lit but did not make it. I hope to make it next year. But I still worry, will this be even close to satisfactory? The few people I know who attended Princeton who came out of Georgia public schools did different things. One girl attended MIT summer programs, but attending pre-college programs is something I've looked into but cannot afford. Any advice? Thanks so much.

  40. I am a junior in high school with a like a 3.9 cumulative G.P.A. On my first quarter report card I got a 84 in AP English, 90 in AP Human Geography, 97in AP World History, and the rest A's in my regular classes. I haven't taken the SAT yet nor the ACT. I am the Drill Commander in J.R.O.T.C. and play softball. On some the weekends, I help out at Bladensburg Waterfront park. I'm also in the National Honors Society and has a talent in drawing buildings. What are my chances of getting into Princeton and how can I improve my chances?

  41. What "interesting thing did you do?" Suppose I'm in...7th grade. All B's with a couple of A's, willing to be ready motivated but no motivation for that, only do track, soccer and fencing, an immigrant indian, determined to be #1 in high school...what "special" thing can I add to make a salad bowl instead of stale bread? (to my arsenal to make it "special") I have a renegade attitude, self-involved, and typing this right now when I should be studying. But I will change if someone answers this question: how "special" do you have to be?