How to Get Into Harvard (and the Rest of the Ivy League): The Prestigious Guide

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 You know the Ivy League Schools: Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale.

These schools are considered the most prestigious universities in the nation, and they promise students a world-class education, elite networking opportunities, and a leg up in the future hiring process.

Of course, this prestige means admittance to the Ivy League is no easy task. Together, these eight schools received 281,060 applications for the class of 2021. Less than 10% received admissions offers in return, and Harvard accepted only 5% of applicants.

So how can you make your application as competitive as possible? How can you stand out and earn a spot at an Ivy League college? Start by reading this guide!

What Are Ivy Colleges Looking For?

Ivy League colleges maintain their excellent reputations by producing successful alumni. They want graduating students to achieve great success and contribute something positive to society.

So as admissions officers review your application, they’ll want to see that:

  • You’re likely to accomplish something great and maybe even change the world.
  • You’ll make positive contributions to their school and your fellow students.

Here’s what William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s longtime dean of admissions, has to say:

“Each year we admit about 2,100 applicants. We like to think that all of them have strong personal qualities and character, that they will educate and inspire their classmates over the four years of college, and that they will make a significant difference in the world after they leave Harvard.”

But how can you demonstrate your potential to “make a significant difference in the world” in your application?

Well, the best predictor of future success is past success. So you’ll want to show that you’ve challenged yourself and thrived, both with your GPA and your test scores. You’ll also need to demonstrate passion for your particular set of interests (more on that later).

And as Fitzsimmons said, your application should reveal “strong personal qualities and character.”

  • How have you made a difference in your school or community?
  • What do others, like your teachers, think about your character?
  • Have you taken on leadership roles?

If you can check all of these boxes, you’re the type of candidate Ivy League schools are looking for.

What Will an Ivy League Application Include?

All eight Ivy League colleges accept the Common Application, but they also require an additional supplement. In general, you’ll need to include the following information with your application:

Here’s what you can actually do to enhance your application and increase your chances:

Build a Rigorous Schedule

To really have a shot at the Ivy League, you need to challenge yourself. The courses you take should be among the most rigorous available at your school.

Ivy League coursework is immensely challenging, and admissions officers want to know that you can handle it. The best way to demonstrate this is to show that you’ve successfully tackled difficult courses in high school.

Yale, for instance, emphasizes:

“It’s very important that we see a high level (or an improving degree) of rigor and success throughout your high school years.” This includes senior year, so don’t let up as the end of high school approaches.

Of course, your school may not provide you with the opportunity to take many AP or IB classes. Yale also explains:

“We know you did not design your school’s curriculum, and we only expect you to take advantage of such courses if your high school provides them…We only expect that you will excel in the opportunities to which you have access.”

Does this mean you can never take a fun elective course?

No, but you should only pursue electives that truly interest you, and keep them to a minimum.

Challenging yourself might not sound fun, but it’ll make you an appealing candidate for admission to the Ivy Leagues. Plus, it’ll prepare you for the rigors of an Ivy League education.

Here’s the bottom line:

Take the most challenging courses available to you, preferably for all four years of high school.

Earn a High GPA

Taking rigorous classes is great, but it’s not enough. You’ll also need to succeed in these courses. A high GPA is extremely important if you want to be admitted to an Ivy League school.

Although admissions officers will weigh many factors, grades are probably the most important. If your GPA is too low, your application may be discarded before other factors are even considered.

Here are the average weighted high school GPAs of current Ivy League students:

  • Brown- 4.08
  • Columbia- 4.16
  • Cornell- 4.01
  • Dartmouth- 4.06
  • Harvard– 4.10
  • UPenn- 3.93
  • Princeton- 3.90
  • Yale- 4.19

You’ll need to keep your grades up throughout high school. Complete all of your assignments, ask for teacher assistance when needed, and hire a tutor if you find yourself struggling.

If you want to earn an Ivy League acceptance letter, a high GPA is crucial. Ideally, your weighted GPA should be at least a 4.0.

Earn High Test Scores

High test scores are another part of the Ivy League equation, whether you’re taking the SAT or the ACT. Let’s start by taking a look at the 25th and 75th percentile scores at all eight Ivy League schools.

School Name

75% ACT

25% ACT

75% SAT

25% SAT

Brown

343115801440
Columbia35321590

1470

Cornell

343015601410

Dartmouth

34301580

1410

Harvard35321600

1470

UPenn34311570

1450

Princeton

35321590

1470

Yale35311600

1490

So what do these numbers mean for you?

Notice that scores are very similar across the board. All of the 75th percentile scores for Ivy League schools fall in the 99th percentile nationwide.

This means that an SAT score of 1590 or an ACT score of 35 will place you in the top 25% of applicants. If you’re already here, you don’t need to improve your test scores. It’s time to focus on other aspects of your application!

On the other hand, a score of 1470 on the SAT or 31 on the ACT lands you in the bottom 25% of applicants. In most cases, these are great scores, but if you’re applying to the Ivy League, they’ll put you at a disadvantage.

You need to try to bring up your test scores, and make sure that at least one other aspect of your application is extremely strong.

If you’re scoring lower than the bottom 25%, the truth is that your chances of acceptance to an Ivy League school are very low. You can try to raise your scores by purchasing test prep books, signing up for a test prep course, and studying as much as possible.

Pursue Your Passion

Simply being smart, even at an elite level, won’t guarantee you admission to the Ivy Leagues. After all, the majority of applicants have had extremely successful high school careers.

Extracurricular activities are another major factor in your admission to the Ivy Leagues. But one thing might surprise you:

The idea of being a “well-rounded student” to boost your application? It’s a myth.

Here’s why:

Being “well-rounded” won’t make you stand out. In pursuit of well-roundedness, many high school students have good grades, play sports, participate in numerous organizations, and volunteer in the community.

And being like “many high school students” won’t get you into the Ivy Leagues.

Instead, it’s better to focus on developing one, two, or maybe three specific passions.

Ivy League admissions officers are looking for students who will change the world, and that’s best exemplified by your commitment and dedication to a particular area. Excel at one or two things deeply, instead of juggling many activities at a surface level.

Don’t believe us? Here’s what Ivy League colleges have to say:

“[Accepted Harvard students] have made a commitment to pursue something they love, believe in, and value—and to do so with singular energy, discipline and plain old hard work.” –William Fitzsimmons, Harvard Dean of Admissions

“We are interested in the talents and interests you would bring to Princeton outside the classroom. We don’t value one type of activity over another. Rather, we appreciate sustained commitment to the interests you have chosen to pursue.” –Princeton’s Admissions Office

“Our advice is to pursue what you love and tell us about that. Be yourself.” –Yale’s “What Yale Looks For” page

Here’s what that means for you:

  • Find your passion, and pursue it. Your application should tell the “story” of your deep involvement and expertise in a particular area (or two).

For instance, let’s say you’re super interested in science. Do this:

  • Take the most challenging science classes, and excel in them.
  • Participate in science competitions, and take home a few trophies.
  • Volunteer or find an internship in a science lab.
  • Dedicate a portion of your summers to science research and/or attend science camps.
  • Join science-related organizations at school, preferably with a leadership role.
  • Get recommendation letters from your AP Physics teacher and a supervisor at a science camp you attended.

Now you stand out, thanks to your clear passion for science—and your scientific abilities.

You don’t have to play an instrument or a sport. In fact, unless you’re a team captain or an elite player, sports don’t add a whole lot to your application.

All you need to do is find what you love, and then pursue it as much as you possibly can. Hone your abilities and excel in this particular area.

Demonstrate Character and Leadership

Ivy League schools are also interested in your character and leadership abilities, so find opportunities to demonstrate these attributes.

Whatever you’re most interested in, try to take on a leadership role in a relevant organization at your school. If there isn’t an existing organization, start one. That’s even more impressive!

Beyond just holding a leadership title, make sure that you’re taking action to better your organization, your school, or your community.

  • What problems do you recognize?
  • What can you do about them?
  • What were the results of your actions?

Volunteer, but don’t do it solely for the sake of volunteering. Try to find opportunities related to your area(s) of interest, like teaching science to disadvantaged students. If that’s not possible, find other volunteer work that’s truly meaningful to you.

These attributes won’t be as apparent throughout your application, so try to spend some time touching upon them in your essays. You can also ask the teachers who write your letters of recommendation to mention accomplishments or anecdotes that reveal your leadership skills and strong character.

Write Memorable Essays

When it comes to writing essays, you want to be memorable. Our website is full of advice about writing stellar college application essays, but the basics are:

  • Choose topics that are meaningful and significant to you.
  • Write in your own unique voice. Your personality should shine through!
  • Be specific, giving examples and anecdotes to illustrate your points. College application essays are more creative than your standard five-paragraph essay, so don’t be afraid to use vivid details, figurative language, and maybe even some humor.
  • Highlight aspects of your personality, values, goals, or experiences that aren’t apparent elsewhere in the application.
  • Proofread, and have trusted friends, family members, or teachers review your essay. Have them look for errors, but also ask them if it “sounds” like you. If not, you might need to make some adjustments!

Remember that the essays are your best opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions officers (you, not just your stats). Take advantage of this opportunity by being yourself and reflecting on meaningful topics that have significantly shaped you or your life.

Your focus shouldn’t be on impressing admissions officers. It should be on painting an accurate, memorable picture of yourself. Believe it or not, this alone will make you stand out!

Apply Early Action/Early Decision

Now that you’ve put together a competitive application, here’s one more tip:

Boost your chances of acceptance by applying early decision or early action.

If you apply early decision, you must be fully committed to attending. This means that if you’re accepted, you’ll withdraw your application to all other schools. Early action, on the other hand, isn’t binding.

Whether you apply early decision or early action, you’ll have an advantage. According to Business Insider, Early Decision/Early Action acceptance rates for the class of 2021 were significantly higher than regular decision acceptance rates:

  • Brown- 21.9% compared to 9%
  • Columbia- N/A for ED/EA; regular acceptance rate was 6.04%
  • Cornell- 25.6% compared to 12.5%
  • Dartmouth- 27.8% compared to 10.4%
  • Harvard- 14.5% compared to 5.2%
  • UPenn- 22% compared to 9.2%
  • Princeton- 15.4% compared to 6.1%
  • Yale- 17.1% compared to 6.9%

Applying early shows admissions officers that you’re genuinely committed to attending their school, and you’ll also be compared to a smaller pool of applicants.

If you’re truly serious about admission to the Ivy Leagues, submitting an early application can give you a significant boost.

Conclusion: Getting Accepted to the Ivy League

To join the elite Ivy League, you’ll first need to have elite test scores and a high GPA. It’s also important to take the most rigorous courses available at your high school.

Instead of trying to be well-rounded throughout high school, find one or two specific passions to pursue. This will help you stand out far more.

You’ll also need to write excellent essays and demonstrate strong character and leadership abilities.

Lastly, you can improve your odds by applying Early Action or Early Decision!

Taking these steps won’t guarantee your admission to an Ivy League school, but you’ll significantly increase your chances of success. Good luck!

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions essay writing, check out our college essay boot camp.