A Columbia Success Story: Creating a Unique and Compelling Theme

Creating a Unique & Compelling Theme for Ivy League Admissions Success + Columbia U Success Story

If you have read our article about the Hedgehog concept for Ivy League admissions, then you already know what makes the IvyZen approach unique in the field of Ivy League admissions consulting. I’m talking, of course, about the concept of Themes and the way they help answer the question of how to get into an Ivy League school. For many years, high school counselors, teachers, parents, and consultants have touted the advantages of being a “well-rounded student” when confronted with the question of how to get into an Ivy League school. After all, what college wouldn’t want the perfect package? Surely if a student can combine good grades in every available AP class, high test scores, and a long list of varied extracurricular activities, colleges would be tripping over themselves to offer acceptance letters, right?

The idea behind creating a well-balanced application is to show that the student has no glaring weaknesses—that he can do everything and is good at everything and that he is a balanced individual and a good citizen. While this is a nice idea, the end result is a student who, on paper, is boring. It is a common myth that colleges are looking for a well-rounded student. Rather, top colleges seek a well-rounded class, made up of a diverse group of interesting students. That is, top colleges want each of these individual students to be the best at something specific and unique. Therefore, a well-balanced student is of no interest to these schools.

It is for this reason that admissions officers ask these questions; all essays questions really boil down to these three.

Answer these well and you will gain admissions to the Ivy Leagues:

  1. Who are you? Do you know yourself? What is your identity? Are you self-aware?
  2. Why you? Why should we pick you over the other 50,000 applicants? What makes you different?
  3. Why do you want to come to our school?

Think about how a well-rounded student would answer these questions. In fact, a well-rounded student is unlikely to have compelling answers to them. But a student with a unique and compelling theme will have specific, articulated responses along with four years of high school experience to offer as proof. This ideal candidate will be the one getting into an Ivy League school. While it is true that college is where students go to acquire knowledge to become the best at something, they can’t gain admission to a top college without prior demonstrated interest.

Demonstrated interest is a term that means a student is clearly interested in something and has taken steps to build knowledge, skills and achievements around this interest. If a student is interested in attending a top college, then it is important to establish a specific demonstrated interest as soon as possible. Then she must begin building the high school experience around this interest. The way IvyZen develops demonstrated interest is THEMES. A Theme is a distinct category in which the student’s experiences can be arranged to craft a demonstrated interest. In other words, the Theme is the name attached to the demonstrated interest. Examples of unique and compelling Themes include Computational Biology, Social Entrepreneurship, Humanitarian Medicine, and many, many others. These Themes are more unique than simply saying “I like science” or “I am interested in majoring in business”. When a college sees a demonstrated interest as specific as one of these, they are bound to take notice.

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So how do I craft a unique and compelling Theme?

When establishing a Theme, a student must cover the following four areas:

  • Academic Index
  • Extracurricular activities – Leadership
  • Extracurricular activities – Scholarship
  • Competitions and Awards

If a student can funnel their activities and pursuits into these four categories, then his or her application will practically speak for itself and the student will be one step closer to gaining Ivy League admissions. Let’s take a closer look at how each of these categories fits into the concept of Theme.

1) Academic Index

It goes without saying that academics are of paramount importance to all scholastic pursuits. Generally speaking, colleges use what’s called an Academic Index (AI) to quantify two main numbers: cumulative GPA (cGPA) and SAT/ACT. The cumulative GPA is calculated with final grades from 9th through the first semester of 12th grade, for early applications, it’s up to the end of 11th grade. For SAT/ACT, colleges generally use super score (the best scores from each section). Many colleges will also incorporate SAT II subject scores and TOEFL scores, but these weigh far less in the formula. As most colleges, including the Ivies, have designated SAT IIs optional, the AI is primarily cGPA and SAT.

Download our free Success Stories PDF for 6 success stories (with full student profiles) of students who gained admissions to columbia, MIT Caltech dartmouth and more!

When developing a theme, course selection becomes important. Course selection is important for demonstrated interest and common sense can show us why. If a student is working on a Computational Biology Theme, then it is assumed that they will have strong skills in the sciences, including biology, computer science, and math. Therefore, it is very important to take the most advanced classes offered in these subjects for the student to demonstrate that he takes his studies seriously. So he would likely choose Bio for 9th grade, Chem for 10th, AP Bio for 11th and Computer Science of 12th, skipping physics or environmental science. He would also have to take the most advanced math courses available, ideally skipping geometry and algebra and starting with Pre-Calc in the 9th grade, AP Calc BC in the 10th grade and then taking Linear Algebra/Multivariable Calculus, if available. Or perhaps an independent study in number theory.

On the other side of the coin, if a student is developing a Computational Biology Theme, he should also consider what courses NOT to take. What is the relevance of taking AP classes in art or electives in two foreign languages? Of course, the one significant caveat to this is that all students regardless of his Theme must take four years of core classes, i.e. English, Math, Science, Foreign Language and History/Social Studies. A benefit to using a Theme is that a student is allowed and encouraged to play to his strengths, which brings me to the second point: grades. A student will almost always show a demonstrated interest in a subject in which he already shows talent. Why would a student choose a Computational Biology Theme if they truly struggle in math and hate writing algorithms? So, it makes sense that when a student chooses classes suited to his or her interest, the classes will be much easier to achieve high grades in. It follows, then, that a student should not pursue subjects in which they inherently struggle and which will not support the Theme they have selected.

This can only serve to distract from the Theme and put the GPA at unnecessary risk. As an added benefit to playing to one’s strengths, taking many classes in related subjects will give students a greater opportunity to connect with individual teachers by taking multiple classes offered by the same teacher. This will be supremely helpful when it comes time to ask for recommendation letters or even connections to certain universities.

2.) Extracurricular Activities: Leadership

Regardless of the major, Ivy League colleges are looking for future leaders. Naturally, those who are the best in their fields become leaders be it a business, an organization or even a research team. Ivy League schools love having the ability to boast of their most successful and influential alums, and they search for this potential in their applicant pools. Therefore, it is critical to demonstrate leadership in your Theme. The best way to do this is to be strategic about extracurricular activities; that is, choose an activity where they can be a leader. If this isn’t possible with existing clubs, it’s often an opportunity to start their own.

When most students think of leadership in high school, their mind immediately goes to student council or student government. What better way to demonstrate leadership than to add ‘Class Vice President’ to a resume? However, this approach is narrow and uncertain. How can you depend on an extracurricular activity that requires an election to fulfill? Furthermore, a student must ask himself: Will my Theme be better demonstrated by participation in student government? In most cases, the answer is no. Also, remember there are 40,000 high schools? That also means there are 40,000 Student Council Presidents; it’s not that special an activity.

Besides student government, though, there are tons of extracurricular activities that can contribute to strong leadership for those applying to Ivy League colleges. At IvyZen, our mentors recommend participation in a club that is directly related to the Theme the student has chosen. For the Computational Biology Theme, it is recommended that students participate in math and science clubs in order to expand their understandings of both subjects. For an Entrepreneurship Theme, a leadership position in the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) club can contribute nicely to an application resume. But what if there aren’t any clubs relevant to your Theme? In this case, you’re in luck.

Starting a club at your high school is easier than you may think. In most cases, all you need is a few interested members, a staff sponsor (another reason to form close relationships with your teachers), and permission from the administration via a signed form. Being the founder of a club gives students a unique opportunity to step right into a leadership role. Plus, founding a club demonstrates initiative, which is a highly favorable trait in the eyes of an admissions officer. This is how to get into an Ivy League school rather than a second choice.

3.) Extracurricular Activities – Scholarship

While the leadership aspect of extracurricular activities fosters a group approach to a Theme, the scholarship aspect is all about becoming the most knowledgeable person. This truly encapsulates the meaning of demonstrated interest, and there are many ways that one can do this. First, students should consider an internship at a lab, business or organization related to their Themes. For an example of how this works, I draw your attention to Karen’s success story.

Karen chose a Theme in Humanitarian Pre-Medicine and was able to secure an internship at a large hospital that belonged to a university. For a few hours each week, she worked in a research laboratory with several graduate students under the supervision of a professor. This experience was helpful for three big reasons. One, Karen was able to prove that she could earn a competitive internship. Two, she was able to show maturity by working with older individuals in a controlled environment filled with delicate and expensive instruments. And three, Karen was able to forge meaningful relationships with professors and graduate students, whom she was then able to ask for recommendation letters.

Research papers are also significant accomplishments for Ivy League admissions. Most top colleges ask to attach the abstract or the full paper along with the application. If a student is able to show the initiative and discipline to write a scholarly research paper, then admissions officers look favorable upon his or her application. If a student is then able to have his research published in a scholarly journal, it’s even better. When choosing a topic for a research paper, the Theme is very important. Once a student has selected a subject based on the Theme, he or she will also need the support of experts such as teachers or skilled professionals in order to gain access to resources. After the paper has been written and published, it can then be attached to the application as a supporting document. Further, the paper is a great subject to write about in the “Why Major” essays, which many top colleges ask, i.e. “Why did you choose the major indicated in the application?”

Similar to a research paper, a blog in which the student writes about his or her interests and discoveries related to the chosen Theme can help show admissions officers persistence in an interest. Beginning an activity early in high school then writing something about it each week shows a long-term commitment to the Theme. A third extracurricular activity that demonstrates scholarship is the development of an educational tool, such as a mobile application. Designing and building a mobile application sounds very complicated, but the important part is having an idea for a useful app. There are many helpful guides and experts to consult for building this tool.

Imagine an Ivy League admissions officer, reading the application and seeing that the student built a mobile app. If the officer were then able to reach for his phone, download the app, see the student’s name as the app’s author, and use the app, then that officer would likely be very impressed. IvyZen is here to facilitate these processes and connect students with the best experts to help these scholastic pursuits come to fruition. Remember, the goal is for students to appear as though these are the projects that they work on in their free time, for fun. What Ivy League wouldn’t want a student who does research and development in their free time?

4.) Competitions and Achievement

The final component to crafting a good Theme is to prove that a student is, indeed, the very best in his or her chosen field. Having a demonstrated interest isn’t enough without the skills to back it up, and academic competitions are a great way to prove that those skills exist when applying for Ivy League admissions.   If a student has chosen to pursue a Political Activism Theme, then it is logical for that student to participate in some sort of speech or debate club in order to demonstrate a strong voice. In accordance with the leadership component of the Theme, it makes sense for this student to pursue a leadership position within the club. This is good on its own, but what if that debate team went on to win a local competition, then a state competition, then a regional competition? This would prove a student to be not only an aspiring leader interested in political activism, but also a skilled and formidable speaker capable of formulating sharp arguments. Having the extra achievement of being the best at something is the best way to stand out in a competitive pool filled with Ivy League applications.

Another example of an Ivy League-level competition is the American Mathematics Competition (AMC). In truth, all math and science students interested in applying to the top schools should be taking this test. MIT, Caltech and many other top colleges have special sections on their applications asking for AMC/AIME scores. One reason for the AMC’s importance is that it is an easy way to distinguish students. Each year, more than 350,000 students compete in the AMC in order to show their mathematical talent. Of these only 2,500 make it to the next round, AIME. That number doesn’t change much. In contrast, over 38,000 students get in the top 2% for SATs.

If the student scores well, he or she will be presented with a special certificate of achievement that they can attach to the college application. For elite schools like MIT and Caltech, as well as the math, science, or engineering departments of most top colleges, these AMC certificates are highly valuable. It takes a lot of skill to be the best at a subject like math, which everyone is supposed to learn, and the AMC is a well-known and well-respected test. Although competitions are stressful and nerve-wracking, they are a great way for students to test their skills against those of their peers. IvyZen encourages students to actively seek and participate in any available competitions that their school or region offers.

So how do I craft a unique and compelling Theme – Fundamentals?

For those seeking Ivy League admissions, selecting the perfect Theme can be difficult, especially since the Theme will set the trajectory for the student’s academic and extracurricular tracks. The selection process requires a lot of careful thought, which begins with three questions:

  1. What are you good at?
  2. What do you like?
  3. What will help with admissions?

While these questions appear simple, they are deceptively so. It is actually difficult to come up with something that meets all three criteria at the same, but almost any idea can be manipulated into a workable Theme.   For example, let’s pretend that a student is really interested in video games. This student plays a lot of video games and is very good at them. In fact, this student actually competes in video game tournaments and ranks fairly high. This positively answers questions one and two, but will this interest and skill help with college admissions? Most likely not. However, a demonstrated interest in building video games using computer code and simulation could be very appealing qualities in an applicant, regardless of where the motivation comes from. The key to this approach is to take something broad and whittle it down into something just specific enough to become a subject of interest.

Let’s say another student is very good at art and has been building a portfolio. But let’s say that this student’s real passion is helping people, so he is reluctant to go to art school. Why not create an Art Therapy Theme? Art has been proven to help people overcome traumatic events or mental illness, and could thus compose a very worthy Theme. Plus, it has the potential to offer a lot of volunteer opportunities. Another factor to consider when choosing a Theme is which major and which department a student is interested in applying for. This factor is of paramount importance since a Theme should connect directly to the major. Why would a Computational Biology Theme student apply for a fine arts major and expect to be admitted?

Ambitious students should also consider the concept of “new majors” when making their decision. A new major is a field of study that is so unique and cutting edge that it is specific to the school in question and perhaps has been recently developed. Alternatively, a new major could be one that will lead to newly developed jobs, whose necessity has only recently been discovered. Examples include blockchain technology, cybersecurity, biometrics and new media. Imagine building a Theme around a newly created field of study, then applying directly to those departments at top universities. This is a wise course of action not only for those seeking admission to Ivy League colleges, but also for those looking for a lucrative career as an expert in a cutting-edge industry.

Success Story: The Cultural Anthropologist

When Jess first came to IvyZen, we asked her what she liked to do in her free time and immediately, her face lit up. She began telling us how she spent her summer watching documentaries on Latin American tribes in South America, reading about the history of hieroglyphs, and keeping up-to-date on blogs written by her favorite anthropologists. We knew that cultural anthropology would be the best Theme for Jess.We started her Theme by helping her establish a blog of her own and then we helped her start a cultural anthropology club at school.

We knew that she could use these two outlets to explore different aspects of her passion, and hopefully she could meet like-minded students who also enjoyed the subject. At first, Jess was a bit reluctant to do these things because she still wanted to join other clubs like speech and debate and Model United Nations. However, we convinced her that starting a cultural anthropology club would be much more impressive than the activities that all the other students at her school were doing.

We also wanted to make sure the Jess balanced her future college application with extracurricular and academic activities, so we came up with a topic for a cultural anthropology research paper, which compared women’s roles before and after World War II. However, to the burgeoning anthropologist, the research and activities were not enough. Jess wanted more than simple anthropology discussions – she wanted an anthropological experience.

We were able to help her connect with a local university professor who was leading a team to Peru on an archaeology research internship.Jess came to IvyZen with an impressive academic record. Her GPA was almost perfect at 3.85 out of 4.0, and she had already scored a 2280 on her SAT I. She had also signed up for several AP classes, which we were able to adjust in order to enhance her cultural anthropology Theme, and she had taken three SAT Subject Tests.

Despite this excellent performance, however, Jess had many doubts about her future. Unfortunately, after receiving some bad advice at school, Jess felt that she was not well-rounded enough to be an ideal candidate for getting into an Ivy League school. This is often the case with high achieving students who believe that they must be exemplary at every subject. Top students frequently experience a fear of failure that will lead them to make irrational decisions like forfeiting their focus on showcasing their talents in favor of following the well-rounded crowd.

Jess believed that participation in Model United Nations, Debate Club, and community service events would make her the most appealing candidate rather than focusing on the path that we advised. After Jess expressed her doubts, we sat down for a serious conversation. Jess knew that she wanted to apply to her dream school, Columbia, and she knew that she wanted to apply as an anthropology major. So, we began to think like Columbia University admissions officers. “What is more appealing in an anthropology major,” we asked. “Anthropology Club, of which you are the founder, an anthropology blog and an anthropology research paper, both of which you wrote, and an anthropology trip to Peru with a class of university students OR Model United Nations, Debate Club, and miscellaneous volunteer work?”

Painting the picture in this light made a lot of sense to Jess. She realized that she was not laboring to be the ideal person, but rather the ideal candidate on a Columbia college application. She decided to stick with the course that we laid, and after three years of hard work, she was accepted to Columbia University, early decision. Conducting fieldwork in a specific community observing the culture, writing a research paper, and participating in numerous opportunities available to students in the cultural anthropology field will provide a powerful foundation that cannot be overlooked by Ivy League admissions.

Download our free Success Stories PDF for 6 success stories (with full student profiles) of students who gained admissions to columbia, MIT Caltech dartmouth and more!