City kids get their Paul Mole coiffures all tousled up over acceptance into the Elite 8: Yale, Harvard, Princeton…you know the rest (Columbia, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth and Brown — if you deign to think the unis beyond that first holy trio count).
“The admissions landscape for Ivy League schools has never been more competitive — not only are the Ivies receiving more applications than ever before, but the last two admissions cycles have marked some of the lowest acceptance rates in Ivy League history,” said Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education.
“As these schools receive tens of thousands of applications each year, they could fill entire classes with valedictorians — students need more than just perfect grades and test scores to stand out. They need to demonstrate their passions by creating positive change in their communities: raising thousands of dollars, publishing cutting-edge research, starting a small business — the possibilities are endless, but the expectation remains high.”
Ahead, Rim of industry-leading Command Education and other college admissions consultants chime in on what it takes to get into these storied institutions.
Manhattan may be the only city in the world where a positive pregnancy test necessitates applying to daycare. So are you really that surprised that college coaches say embracing a similarly proactive attitude matters to gain acceptance into the Ivies?
“The day after you graduate middle school, you are ‘live,’” said Laurie Kopp Weingarten, CEP, president and co-founder of One-Stop College Counseling.
“Everything you accomplish is fair game for your college application, so you need to hit the ground running. It’s essential to understand what it takes to be a strong candidate for acceptance into a highly selective college.” As she cautioned, “If you first decide that you want to aim for an Ivy League university when you’re a junior in high school, it may be too late.”
Of course, grades matter. “While grades and test scores are not all that you need to earn admission to top schools, they are the foundation of a strong application. Ivy League admissions committees want to see that you can rise to the rigor of their coursework, and earning exceptional grades and test scores will demonstrate your academic capabilities,” said Rim.
“If you find yourself struggling to keep your grades up or achieve the score you want on standardized tests, work with a tutor or seek help outside of class from a teacher in order to ensure that your transcript reflects your academic mastery.”
Have your hook
But are grades the only thing? Nope. Gone are the days of great grades from an upstanding school being enough to open the pearly gates of prestige.
In this day and age, Rim urges Ivy hopefuls to make a positive impression with “a specialized and actionable hook” on their application. “Ivy League schools seek to put together classes of students who are specialists in their areas of interest. For that reason, it is important to lean into your unique passions rather than seeking to become a ‘well-rounded’ student,” he said, adding that the takeaway here is that colleges want to build a well-rounded class, not necessarily admit well-rounded students.
“Have a singular focus that allows you to authentically stand out. Find ways to put that passion into practice through extracurricular activities, summer programs, and independent projects in your community,” he continued. “Not only should you have a distinct guiding interest, but you should use those interests to enact meaningful change in your community.”
Cindy Chanin, a college admissions and educational consultant of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring based in Los Angeles and New York City. Chanin describes this ethos as presenting yourself as an outlier.
“When Ivies make up their incoming freshmen classes, they’re aiming for a diverse ensemble — a dynamic cast of characters. They’re not only looking for well-rounded students but also for angular students — students who can fill a specific niche or role as part of this season’s curated student body,” she said, ticking off an example such as a desire for more female artists or students who hail from Midwest public schools.
Still, when presenting yourself on an application, whether on the personal statement, the resume, or the interview, you don’t want to compete against everyone else, conceded Chanin. Instead, focus on the superpowers you possess and lean into those.
“You want to show how these unique qualities will make you an asset to a specific Ivy — how you would ‘add value’ to the campus culture — and how your being at that Ivy would prove invaluable for your educational, vocational and personal goals and aspirations as an emerging adult,” she said.
To that end, Chanin said to make sure your application has a narrative throughline — namely an underlying thread that weaves your activities, passions, and academics together into a coherent story with a distinctive point-of-view instead of a mish-mash of random, albeit impressive, facts.
“If you’re a straight A-student captain of the baseball team with an affinity for math, that is excellent. What’s more memorable, however, is to show the relationship between your passions,” said Chanin. “Perhaps you use your math prowess and data analysis to optimize your performance in baseball, making you an even more competitive performer. This framing weaves together your various passions.”
Rim also stressed the importance of being strategic about how you present your accomplishments so that your hook is the anchoring point for your application materials.
Make sure your personal statement is a grand slam
There’s a reason essay tutors can charge exorbitant fees to help your kiddo with their personal statement: They matter — A lot. In fact, Chanin said that the personal essay is the best way for an admissions committee to get to know you. “This should resonate with your personality so strongly that it should feel as if the admissions team went camping with you for a weekend,” she said.
Chanin shared that it is ideal to demonstrate vulnerability as long as it does not raise a red flag about your character, just as it’s advisable to discuss a challenge as long as it contains a positive arc. “In other words, it is inadvisable to ‘trauma dump,’ or to unload a series of unfortunate events; rather, if students choose to discuss a trial, they should emphasize how they overcame it and what they learned from it,” she said.
Stylistically, Chanin recommends hooking the reader with an intriguing anecdote that reveals something weird and compelling about you. “You’re not showing off as much as helping the Ivy see how your brain is wired and what you geek out over,” she said.
To address all this advice, it will take multiple drafts. “Begin by brainstorming, then free-write, then edit, then edit again, and again — writing is rewriting!” said Chanin, who also advised that once you feel confident in your essay, share it with a few trusted adult mentors for their two cents.
Bond with the people in your bullpen
Kopp Weingarten underscored the value of cultivating strong relationships with your teachers and school counselors. “Not only is it terrific to have mentors, but you can ask them to write your letters of recommendation.”
With that in mind, you should still select your recommenders wisely offered Kopp Weingarten. She advised to choose people who can speak to your strengths and accomplishments along with your personality and character traits. “Ideally, you should choose junior-year teachers. “Try to identify, at the beginning of your junior year, which core-subject teachers (English, math, science, history/social studies, foreign language) you might like to write for you and get to know them well throughout the year,” added the admissions guru.
Keep it succinct
Brevity is your friend. “As you craft your personal statement and supplemental essays and compile your other application materials, focus on telling a cohesive story to admissions committees,” said Rim, stressing that your college application affords you a limited space to communicate who you are; 150 characters on the Common App Activities list description, for example.
“You won’t be able to tell them everything about yourself, so focus on quality rather than quantity,” he said. Again, it all comes back to that one peg that grounds your application: “Be strategic about how you present your accomplishments so that your hook is the anchoring point for your application materials,” said Rim.