6 Myths about Ivy League Admissions

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Applying to college can be a daunting task. What makes it worse is that, often, students and parents find themselves bombarded with conflicting information about the best way to apply. While it does take hard work, getting admitted to a top school does not need to be painful or confusing. In this article, we highlight 6 Myths about Ivy League Admissions.

Myth #1: Perfect grades and high test scores will be enough

In 2015, Stanford University received applications from 42,497 students, each of whom was vying for a spot in the fall freshman class. Of those students, only 2,142 students were admitted (a 5% acceptance rate). Let’s take a closer look at those 2,142 students:

  • 76% applied with a GPA of 4.0 or higher -> but that also means 24% didn’t have a perfect GPA!
  • 97% of admitted freshman were in the top 10% of their graduating class -> top 10% in a class of 300 students means 30 students or that 29 students admitted to Stanford were NOT #1 in their class
  • Only 18% of applicants achieved a perfect score of 800 on the SAT Math section, and of those applicants, only 9% were accepted.

Clearly Stanford is not looking for perfect scores. Shoot for a good enough GPA and test scores and spend the rest of your time on strong activities. Furthermore, consider that in America, there are around 40,000 high schools, which means there are around 40,000 valedictorians every year trying to clench the few coveted spots in the Ivy Leagues. Here’s the reality: If your student is applying to an Ivy League school, perfect grades and high test scores are not an achievement. They are the standard.

Every year, we hear about students who are flabbergasted by rejection letters from not just one but all top colleges that they applied to. These students worked hard to achieve perfect GPAs and have frequently earned not high, but PERFECT test scores: 2400 SAT or 36 ACT. Students have grown up under the impression that a perfect test score is the golden ticket to a top college, but these schools are so competitive that nearly every applicant demonstrates these academic achievements.

A better approach is to aim for numbers that are good enough and focus more on developing a unique and compelling theme; in other words, focus on a student’s strengths and foster an interest in honing them. For example, if a student has an interest in engineering and a talent for math and science, then there is no reason to put his GPA at unnecessary risk by enrolling in AP English, AP French, and an art elective. Students should instead use that extra time and energy to participate in an engineering project or work on an engineering research paper.

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Myth #2: Senior year is a good time to focus on college applications

For many students and their parents, the college admission processbegins in the fall of senior year. Sure, there has probably been some thought of where to apply, and certainly there has been consideration of class selection and grades, but the applications aren’t due until the winter (usually December 31st/end of the first semester of Senior year), so what’s the use in rushing?

The truth is that building a unique and compelling application is not a simple matter of filling out paperwork, collecting a transcript, and writing some essays (actually, if you’re applying to 10-12 of the top schools you’ll have 30-40 essays to write). It is about building a strong profile early on that represents the very best possible version of a student and showcasing his or her accomplishments. The application is simply an expression of all that hard work – strategic packaging for solid strengths already made. The hard reality is that it takes a long time to develop those strengths and accomplishments.

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    In order to show demonstrated interest in a specific area, the student must have a believable track record for such an interest. Beginning an activity senior year, or even in the spring of junior year, does not do much to foster credibility. Similarly, a research paper that was conceived of, planned, and written senior year does not leave enough time to seek publication (or indeed enough time to be properly edited). To assemble a solid college application, students need to consider their strategy much earlier than the start of their senior year.

    Test scores are also a factor that should be considered early on. Many students prefer to take the SAT many times to improve their scores, and each test requires a lot of preparation. Senior year is not the best time to prepare for standardized tests, since that time is already filled with the most difficult class load and, of course, preparing the actual applications. Any student interested in applying to Ivy League schools should endeavor to complete as many tests as possible prior to their senior year. Doing so will free up some much-needed time and eliminate the pressure that accompanies preparing for such tests.

    Another point to consider is the amount of time it takes to prepare a college application. The Common App has helped ease the burden of redundant paperwork, but there are more essays now than ever, e.g. Stanford has four supplemental essays, MIT has five. Crafting an effective essay takes a great amount of time and effort, and as such is not a task to be taken lightly or put off until the eleventh hour.
    Now imagine that a student is applying to seven or eight colleges and must consider a thoughtful essay for each school. Combining the stress of this process with the stress of studying for the SAT, completing research papers, participating in extracurricular activities, and maintaining a senior level class load is enough to lead any student to a meltdown. Therefore, proper planning needs to be considered well before the start of senior year for those considering an Ivy League application.

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    Myth #3: It is important to have many extracurricular activities

    When filling out college applications, especially for Ivy League admissions, this should be your mantra: “Quality, not quantity.” This is certainly the sentiment among top colleges, and this trend is growing every year. Consider the Common App as an example. In the past, the Common App allowed students a maximum of 20 activities on their applications, perhaps with the idea that students would not be compelled to fill everything in, but that a handful of students may have participated in a lot of activities.

    However, it soon became clear that students felt obligated to fill in all 20 items and were stretching the legitimacy of some of these activities. In response, the Common App restricted the list to 15 items, then again to ten. The Common App is not the only place in which applicants are limited. In fact, MIT admissions only allow students to write four activities on their application, regardless of how many they participated in. Quality, not quantity.

    Top colleges are interested in seeing depth of interest in each student’s extracurricular activities. They pay a lot of attention to how many years you participated and what leadership positions you held there. They also want you to write lots of essay content on them. One of the most popular essay topics is one where they ask you to discuss in 150 word one activity that is the most meaningful to you.

    However, let’s ignore our mantra for a minute and consider the difference in the quantity and quality approaches. Let’s pretend for a moment, that there are two students, A and B. Both students are applying to the Harvard biology department with the hopes of pursuing pre-medicine, and both are asked to write a list of extracurricular activities. Student A decides to go with the quantity approach and begins to craft his list: student council member, first chair clarinet player in concert band, second chair clarinet in marching band, volleyball team, soccer team manager, science club, participant in science competition, volunteer who helps the elderly with taxes, yearbook committee, spirit squad member, and the list goes on and on. Student B, on the other hand, attempts the quality approach and makes sure that these activities demonstrate her interest in pre-medicine. Her list includes only five items: Intern at local hospital research facility, co-author of biology research paper, volunteer at local clinic, president of the biology club, and designer of a mobile application that reminds new parents of immunization schedules.

    If you were the Harvard admissions officer and it was your job to choose pre-medicine students, which student would you choose? Student A’s activities show a committed interest to involvement with his school, but they fail to show and interest in pre-medicine. Student B, though, has shown that she has considered her major and career choice carefully by selecting activities that support her goals. Regardless of the reality of the situation, Student B appears to be the more dedicated student and is more likely to be offered admission, given identical grades and test scores as Student A.

    It simply takes too much time to participate fully in more than a few activities, and Ivy League colleges recognize this. Students are much better off showing committed involvement to a few activities than many. The application will likely only ask for the top five anyway, so why spend time on anything else? Quality, not quantity.

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    Myth #4: You must apply for a “conventional” major

    Many students are under the impression that their odds of admission are higher if they apply to a large department with a conventional major, e.g. econ, premed. Their reasoning is that a larger department means more open spots, which means a higher likelihood of admission. However, this is not always the case.

    Ivy Leagues and other top colleges are frequently devising new majors to keep up with the changing world, and actively attempting to generate interest in these majors. Unfortunately, many students overlook these majors in favor of pursuing something more general, and as such, admission spots for these majors can be difficult to fill. It can be to a student’s advantage to apply for a unique major as a first choice and design a theme that appeals to this major.

    Consider Stanford University admissions as an example, where it has lately become notoriously difficult to gain admission and acceptance rates have been hovering around 5%, as mentioned earlier. However, Stanford recently started offering a major called Art Practice and Computer Science. Since this is a new major, few students have heard of it. To apply as an Art Practice and Computer Science major, rather than Art or Computer Science alone, can present a significant admissions advantage to a savvy student. Additionally, the hard sciences are receiving a particular overhaul at top colleges in order to keep up with rapid technological advances. Stanford now offers majors in Bioengineering, Biomechanical Engineering, and Biomedical Computation in addition to the standard hard sciences. By choosing to apply for one of these majors rather than a simple Biology major, students may increase their odds of admission.

    Stanford is not the only school offering new majors. Princeton University offers majors in Operational Research and Financial Engineering, and Yale offers a major in Computing and the Arts. As with Stanford, designing a theme around these unique fields of study then applying for these majors could give students a powerful edge in the admissions pool.

    Advantages of choosing a “new major” do not stop with admissions. In fact, new departments or new majors mean access to small class sizes and personalized attention from committed and specialized professors, compared to a more general major, where you might find yourself in an auditorium with dozens or even a couple hundred students. Furthermore, new majors can lead to more fruitful “in-demand” careers. Colleges create new majors in response to a limited supply and a high demand. A student who chooses to graduate with a new major will be among the first in their field, which generally leads to higher pay and greater opportunities.

    A degree in Biology from Stanford University will certainly open many doors. However, a degree in Biomedical Computation from Stanford University will open many specific doors, since there is clearly a demand for such specialized skill and knowledge.

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    Myth #5: You must show your commitment to bettering society through community service

    Ivy League college admissions officers do enjoy seeing students who are legitimately committed to bettering society and have a demonstrated history of community involvement. However, the notion of community service has become so overused and abused that it is almost impossible to discern those who have an interest in community service from those who are “doing it to get into college.” Most high schools offer a plethora of community service opportunities; some require them to graduate. Because so many students have community service activities on their application, it has lost its uniqueness.

    A good rule of thumb is that if the community service applies to a student’s unique theme, e.g. political activism or social entrepreneurship, then it should be included in the application. On the flipside, if the activity is one that is very popular you should be suspicious. Choose one that will provide a unique way for you to contribute in a compelling way.

    For example, consider political activism, like getting involved with local politics or petitioning for a certain cause related to the theme. When a student chooses to participate in a particular cause, the doors open up for organizing fundraisers, marches, petitions, and informational seminars, all of which provide great material for admissions essays.

    If a student is not interested in a political cause, then the student could think about ways to involve others in their theme. For example, if the student’s theme is Art as Therapy, then the student could organize an art class for local seniors suffering from loneliness. As long as the student is able to commit to many hours of legitimately bettering the community in a way that is related to his or her theme, it may be included in the application. However, any community service that’s sole purpose is to provide fodder for the application should be avoided.

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    Myth #6: Attending a summer program at my dream school will help with admissions

    For the past few decades, colleges around the county have played host to thousands of high school students who gather to take classes, listen to lectures, and live in the dormitories, just as a college student would. These programs can run parents thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, but these expenses are expected to be worth it if it gives their son or daughter a competitive edge when they apply to that school a year or two down the line. However, this is based on the assumption that attending these programs will help the student get admitted. In truth though, they won’t.

    In the words of Brown University’s Dean of Admissions, Jim Miller, “Zero. We actually don’t know who’s been to our summer school. Some tell us. Some don’t. We have no idea what courses they’ve taken. We have no idea what their grades are .” That ‘zero’ represents the weight that admissions officers assign to these summer programs, and Brown is not an anomaly in this sense.

    Regardless of what school or program a student attends, doing so will not affect admission to said school. There are several reasons for this. First of all, many of the programs offered at Ivy League colleges are not offered by the Ivy League college, but rather contracted to an outside firm. In other words, while the class is being held in a Yale classroom, the instructors and materials are not affiliated with Yale, and thus Yale admissions officers do not care.

    This is not to say that these programs aren’t valuable. In fact, there are a handful of summer programs that are very helpful and, at IvyZen, we help students prepare for these. In the STEM areas, good summer programs include PROMYS, RSI, SuMAC and the Ross Mathematics Program. For creative writing, we highly recommend the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. All of these programs are highly competitive and require a lot of preparation beforehand. Compared to the special Ivy League hosted summer camps, these prestigious workshops are much more likely to help in the admissions process.

    Most students are better off spending the summer months (and all that money) on an internship, a research paper, a project, one of the above listed camps, or some sort of community activism. Almost anyone can go to an Ivy League campus and take a class if they have enough money. Not everyone has the discipline and the know-how to spend their summer productively contributing to their themes, which is what Ivy League admissions officers really want to see.

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