How to Get into an Ivy League Using
"The Hedgehog Concept"
High achieving students are always looking to improve their chances of getting into Ivy League colleges. While there are plenty of people to give you advice on the perfect college essay, the perfect test score, and the perfect extracurricular activities to gain admission to top colleges, few offer a comprehensive plan for how to present the most effective college application. This article discusses The Hedgehog Concept, which consists of crafting unique and compelling Themes to make your college application stand out from the rest.
In this article, you will
1) Read about the best, most comprehensive strategy for how to get into an Ivy League (and other selective schools, e.g. MIT)
2) Learn about how to develop your own unique Theme, which will significantly improve your chances of getting into an Ivy League
3) Read two success stories, one for MIT undergraduate admissions and one for Princeton undergraduate admissions.
“The Fox knows many things, the Hedgehog just one—but it is enough.”
Once upon a time, there lived a Fox and a Hedgehog. They were having a nice conversation and enjoying the sunshine when they began to hear the barks of a pack of wild dogs.
“Here come the dogs,” said the Fox. “How shall we escape? I could run along the fence, or climb that tree. I could scale that wall, or I could hide in the thick brush.”
The Hedgehog listened patiently as the Fox listed his many means of evading the dogs, whose barks were getting closer and closer. Finally, when there was no time left, the Hedgehog curled into a tight ball and the Fox took off running.
The dogs nipped and nipped at the Hedgehog, but his spines protected him and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t snatch him up. Meanwhile, the Fox ran, climbed, jumped, and hid, but in the end, none of his tricks could save him from the hungry dogs.
No one can deny the intelligence of the Fox and his jack-of-all scheming is fun to watch. However, given the situation, anyone would choose to be the Hedgehog with his one solid defense.
What does this have to do with College Admissions?
In the hypercompetitive world of college admissions, being the Hedgehog is key. Unfortunately, many students attempt to out-fox the admissions committee with a quantity of impressive tricks: fairy tale-like essays, myriad small extracurricular activities, recommendations from famous people, and “life-changing” 10-day trips to exotic locales. But ultimately, the Hedgehogs are the ones who are admitted, with their singular, unwavering focus.
Acting as the Fox with the well-rounded approach is not an unusual strategy, and is in fact recommended by counselors, teachers, and parents of students applying to the top schools, e.g. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Columbia, UChicago (HYPSMCCC.) It has long been the conception that with a 4.0 GPA, a perfect SAT score, and appealing extracurricular activities, a student can prove himself a worthy candidate for admission. But recently, the Ivy Leagues have been rejecting up to 95% of candidates, most of whom are the Foxes of the world. Those who are admitted have proven themselves to be very interested in—and talented at—a single thing, much like the Hedgehog.
It is time to stop wasting effort attempting a variety of schemes to gain admission to Ivy League schools, and begin focusing on a single strategy for getting into the Ivy League. It is time to become a Hedgehog.
Before we discuss the strategies for becoming a Hedgehog, let’s remember that the Hedgehog concept is not unique to college admissions, but has proven an effective strategy in many arenas, including business.
The Hedgehog Concept
Jim Collins, a famous Stanford researcher, wrote Built to Last and Good to Great. In Good to Great, Collins discusses Walgreens, one of America’s largest convenience stores and pharmacies. Walgreens outperformed the stock market averages by a factor of 15x from 1975 to 2000. But how did they do it?
Walgreens was founded in 1901 as a pharmacy in Chicago. They provided products like medicines, dry goods, and alcohol, but during Prohibition in the 1920s, Walgreens evolved by turning one store into a milkshake restaurant and opening a huge supply of ice cream manufacturing facilities. They were then able to open a chain of milkshake restaurants in addition to operating the pharmacy and convenience stores. But as time wore on, competition from smaller, more flexible companies in each of these niches chipped away at Walgreens, leaving it a large, but feeble monster decaying under its own weight.
Then, along came Charles Walgreen III, who made the difficult decision of focusing solely on the concept of the convenience pharmacy. That meant some very difficult choices. He had to get rid of the milkshake business that his grandfather started as well as over 500 restaurants. Most people do not have the courage to make such hard decisions. But this kind of decisiveness is a prerequisite for success.
In Jim Collins’s example of the Walgreens’ business model, you can see how practical this Hedgehog approach is. Rather than stretching the business into every industry—pharmacy, convenience store, milkshake restaurant, and ice cream producer—the Walgreens family decided to consolidate their focus, energy and resources into one concept and be the best in the market. Now, Walgreens boasts over 8,000 stores in all 50 states.
We can learn from this example when charting our own paths to success. In addition to decisive action, a determined Hedgehog must consider the following three questions:
1) What are you passionate about?
2) What can you be the best at?
3) What can actually make you money?
Keeping these things in mind, many high school students stick to a well-balanced strategy which is quite similar to the clever Fox who is trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Frequently, students feel the need to attempt to excel in all subjects and will take AP classes in every subject. Similarly, they might decide to pursue musical performance, debate, student government AND a sport, just to show that they can be good at all things.The success of a well-balanced strategy is a common Ivy League Myth.
Don’t be Well-Balanced!
This approach is a negative one, usually based on a fear of weakness. For example, a student may not excel at foreign language, but then take AP Spanish in order to cover up this deficiency. Likewise, a student may join the volleyball team just to seem involved in athletics, when really he spent the whole season on the bench. These efforts, of course, are based on the false premise that top schools for the “perfect student” with no weaknesses. However, this could not be more wrong.
Ivy League schools scan applications for strengths and pass over those with none. They want to see students who have genuine love for a particular subject. How can a student develop that love when they are so busy building up weaknesses? In order to become a Hedgehog, a student must first reject the notion that he or she must be good at (or interested in) more than one thing. This is the first step to getting into a top college.
Well-Balanced Campus, not Well-Balanced Student
Knowing what top schools like Harvard are looking for, why these schools exist, and what they want to achieve will help you plan your steps the right way in order to get Ivy League admissions. So how do you get into Ivy League schools? The top schools are looking for deep achievement—that one thing in which you are best in the world. Ivy League schools look for a balanced class, not perfectly balanced students, which means each student is free to pursue their one favorite thing. And, when you know how to accomplish that deep achievement, you will sail through the process of Ivy League admissions the easy way.
Top college admissions officers are looking for students with a singular passion, that one unique gift, and most college essay questions are designed with the purpose of finding out what that gift is. For instance, many Ivy League schools have an essay about extracurricular activities. They do not ask for a long list, but rather 150 to 200 words about one particular activity that is “the most meaningful to you.” That’s right, just one activity. Even the activities section, in which you list your activities, has been whittled down from unlimited to 20 to 15 to now only 10 (the MIT application allows 5!). You are allowed to list only 10 activities, but they want to know how long, how deeply, and how passionately you worked on these.
An Ivy League Hedgehog’s Defining Characteristic: a Unique Theme
So how does one become a Hedgehog? How does one develop a singular interest then build that interest in such a way as to become the very best? How can a student impress an Ivy League admissions committee?
The answer is Themes. A Hedgehog must first develop a core Theme, and then build an entire body of work around that Theme. Creating a powerful, unique Theme begins by answering the same three questions as above:
1) What are you good at?
2) What do you like?
3) What will help with admissions?
At IvyZen, our staff of experts implemented the use of Themes to help students learn how to get into Ivy League colleges. More than 75% of our students gain admissions to their first choice college (HYPSMCCC) and over 80% of our students gain admissions to the top 20 schools. Our students have gained admissions to the most prestigious HYPSMCCC schools every year since we have been in business. The secret to our success is not a secret: we work very hard to create compelling Themes for our students.
What Makes a Strong Theme?
Themes can be constructed in various creative ways, depending on the theme itself, but generally, themes should cover the following four areas:
2. Extracurricular Activities- Leadership
3. Extracurricular Activities- Scholarship
As you are writing your application, consider each of these five areas. Can you say something related to your chosen theme about each of these areas? If not, it may be wise to consider another theme. It is important to make sure that everything is covered in order to present the strongest case possible.
Your transcript will tell most of your academic story. In terms of your theme, you need to make sure your curriculum matches up with what you are trying to present. If you think you want to create a math theme for your applications, you had better have taken all of the most advanced math classes your school has to offer. You also should have gotten excellent grades in those classes. If you are working on a theme that doesn’t easily correlate to specific classes (like a political activism theme, for example), then your transcript should reflect the fact that you took classes that reasonably translate into knowledge you would need in the human rights/politics world, e.g. economics, European history, foreign policy.
If you are still in your early years of high school, you have plenty of time to carefully choose your classes so that your transcript is solid evidence for the theme you are trying to present. This is one of the many reasons it is advantageous to be thinking about Ivy League admissions long before senior year. It is much more difficult as a senior to try and spin your transcript one way or another when it may or may not be telling the story you want told.
2. Extracurricular Activities – Leadership
If you are trying to present a certain subject as a theme for your college applications, then it would stand to reason that you are interested in that subject outside the classroom as well. Your extracurricular choices should reflect your chosen theme every bit as much as your transcript does. In other words, if your entire application is developed around a math-related theme but you are not a member of the math club or team, that is a conspicuous red flag. This kind of hole in your theme damages your credibility and makes admissions committees question your commitment.
The best thing about extracurricular activities is that you are not bound by your school’s offerings like you are with classes. If your school does not offer a club for a particular interest you have, you always have the freedom to start it yourself. Starting a club not only gives you an opportunity to fill in a hole on your application, but it gives you valuable leadership experience. The skills you will develop in the process of starting a club will help you in college and later in life. College admissions committees will also be impressed by your motivation to start something brand new at your school.
3. Extracurricular Activities – Scholarship
Rigorous academic activities will not just fall in your lap; you will have to seek out these opportunities yourself. Rarely do high school students have the chance to participate in research or write legitimate research papers, but that is mainly because it is not part of the usual curriculum. If you were to approach your teacher with an interest in completing a research paper, he/she might be willing to help you. Research papers are tough and they take a lot of time to complete, but learning to write them in high school will give you a big leg up on many of your peers.
Research papers are not the only things that fall into this category; any academic work you do that was not assigned to you in school could fulfill this requirement. For example, if you are choosing an art theme, you might complete a mini-collection for an exhibition or for publication in a literary magazine. The main idea you are trying to get across in this area of your theme is that you have given your theme subject a lot of thought, including scholarly thought outside the context of school.
Be sure to also mention any summer programs you have attended. Many summer programs are prestigious, challenging, and difficult to get into. They are impressive on college applications because they show that you are dedicated to learning, even during your summer vacation. If you are able to take any knowledge from your summer program and apply it to something else you are working on, for example, research that you started over the summer and that you are now writing up in a paper on your own time, then that is hugely impressive. Admissions committees like to see students who follow through, especially academically. Showing that your summer program has actually helped you learn is important.
4. Competitions and Achievements
To put it bluntly, top colleges like winners. A list of achievements that put you ahead of other students is a great asset to any college application. This means that in order to win, you have to compete! Many high schools have competition teams for various subjects, so be sure to see what your school has to offer. Competing on a team is fun, it can help you gain useful communication and problem solving skills, and it takes some of the pressure off of each individual.
Individual achievements are great as well. Whether you submit a paper for publication, compete to enter your artwork into an exhibition, or enter a math competition alone, you should make sure to mention it on your college applications. These types of individual efforts strengthen your theme and show admissions committees how motivated you are to work on something independently. When you compete against other students with your work, you automatically show your application readers how you compare to other students. Obviously, the higher you place or the more successful you are in your competitions, the better it looks for you, but admissions committees will look highly upon the effort regardless. In other words, do not be afraid to mention a contest or competition you entered just because you didn’t win.
Seek out opportunities to show your skills in competition so that admissions committees can see what you can do. They are going to compare you to all of the other applicants anyway, so help them (and yourself) out by giving them something truly outstanding to look at.
Examples of Themes include political activism, encryption and data security, social entrepreneurship, humanitarian biology, and a huge range of other subjects. The more specific, the better! By applying a Theme to these areas and working very hard, any student can transform into a Hedgehog.
What Happens If You Don’t Choose a Theme?
When you do not consciously choose a theme for your applications, your readers unknowingly do it for you. Because they have to categorize and remember so many students, they place applicants in categories without even necessarily meaning to. They have to make quick decisions about each applicant, and some of those decisions can unfortunately send an application directly to the rejected pile. Nothing is ever guaranteed when it comes to the college admissions process, but if you could do something to make sure that you put your best foot forward, wouldn’t you want to do it?
Think of the application review process as an interview, except the only answers you can give to questions are the ones that are already written on your application. You have no chance to chime in and expand on a topic or explain anything. You cannot defend yourself when presented with a critical question. In a live interview, you always have the option to shape how you are perceived by answering questions in a certain way and using non-verbal cues to your advantage. When everything is written on paper and you are not there to witness the review, you are limited in your ability to control the outcome.
By choosing a theme, you present yourself and your qualifications in a specific and strategic way. You give yourself an identity, and you give your application a story. Not only does this help your application to be more memorable, but it gives the readers a mechanism by which to categorize you so that they do not have to come up with one themselves. You may think of yourself as an outstanding chemistry student who also happens to be the best cello player in your state, but an admissions committee may only notice your musical credentials and decide that they’ve already chosen enough strings players for their incoming freshman class. The chemistry piece may fly completely under their radar—unless you make it too obvious to ignore.
MIT and Princeton Success Stories!
However, you do not need to simply take our word for it. Below, we present two stories of brilliant Hedgehogs, James and Karen. James focused on an Artificial Intelligence Theme, and Karen developed a Humanitarian Pre-Medicine Theme. By applying their Themes to the four areas listed above, James was able to fulfill his dream of getting into MIT and Karen was able to gain admission to Princeton.
Success Stories of Brilliant Hedgehogs:
James’ Artificial Intelligence Theme
James was most likely born a Hedgehog, but his family pushed him hard to explore many areas of interest. He was an award-winning pianist, an artist with a compelling portfolio, a member of numerous community service organizations, and even a researcher, committed to several projects. He was also the head or captain of three different student organizations at school.
Initially, James’s parents learned about IvyZen through a referral from a close family member. They came to us because they found themselves frequently arguing with James, and he was starting to shut them out of his life and school activities just one year into his sophomore year at Phillips Andover. Although he was young, James knew his dream was to get into MIT, and he was frustrated that he did not know how.
As is our custom, our consultants spoke with the whole family together at first, in order to get a sense of the family dynamic and the different concerns about college admissions. Once these concerns became clear, one of our mentors talked with James one on one. James’s family came to us because the parents weren’t sure what to do, and they knew that MIT admission was very important to James. One on one counseling gave our mentors just the information they needed to help formulate a plan.
James met with Alex, an IvyZen Director and Senior Mentor specializing in math and computer science. Together, they discussed James’s interests, passions, and frustrations. James was feeling frustrated at home because his parents were ignoring his wishes by pushing him to pursue so many activities that he was not interested in. Lately, he had been attempting to explore new interests related to computer programing, but his parents still wanted him to follow the ‘well-rounded’ approach. Talking with Alex was like a breath of fresh air for James. Finally, there was an adult who understood what he was about. Alex reassured James that most bright, gifted students experienced such conflicts, but together, they could form a new plan that would impress MIT admissions officers and appease James’s parents.
Prior to meeting Alex, James had been teaching himself how to program on the side, and had developed an interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. He first learned about AI while wondering how games like Starcraft could increase the level of difficulty in its games. When he learned that many of these games used genetic algorithms and other evolutionary-based technologies, James was hooked. From then on, all James wanted to do was program.
By the time James arrived at IvyZen, he had developed many interests. However, his strongest interests centered around numbers and code. Alex knew that this was the avenue they should pursue, so throughout the next few weeks, they exchanged emails until they developed an Artificial Intelligence Theme. Both James and Alex felt that the Artificial Intelligence Theme would fairly represent James and his interests to MIT admissions officers while providing a lot of opportunity for James to set himself apart.
James’s customized Artificial Intelligence Theme was designed to play to James’s strengths and interests, while adhering to the four categories mentioned earlier. The Artificial Intelligence Theme was applied as such:
GPA – His GPA was a 5 on a 6-point scale, which is good but not great. Alex advised James to focus on taking challenging classes that he would do well in.
Courses – AP Physics C courses, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and an independent study in number theory would highlight his course load.
Test scores – Alex encouraged James to study for and take the standard exams as well as some specific math and science tests. (At the time of application, James’s SAT I super score was a 2260, his SAT II Math IIc score an 800, his SAT II Chemistry score a 760, and his SAT II Physics score an 800.)
2. Extracurricular Activities – Leadership
Captain of the Math Club – His goal was to raise the school’s ranking in regional competitions from #4 to #3 or better.
Founder of a new Artificial Intelligence Club – Alex encouraged James to start a WordPress site along with his club in order to log, discuss, and share his findings.
3. Extracurricular Activities – Scholarship
Existing research projects – James was already experimenting with three separate projects, one on cryptography and two on robotics. Alex helped James make a plan to finish these projects.
New research paper – Alex and James would work together to plan a project on neural nets (artificial intelligence), which James would then complete. This research paper would be attached to James’s college application as well as submitted to a few academic competitions and journals for high school students.
4. Competitions and Achievements
AMC 12 – James was to prepare for AMC 12 with the goal of getting a 125 or better and making it to AIME where he aimed for a 10+ After Alex presented this plan to James and his parents, everyone seemed enthusiastic. However, James’s parents were still concerned about how James would complete every aspect of the plan and all of his activities. Alex explained to the parents that James would not being doing “all of his activities.” In fact, many of James’s activities would be cut. Alex patiently explained that a well-balanced approach would not help James gain admission to MIT and that there would be no room for every activity in the application anyway, with the 5-activity limit. Eventually, Alex was able to win over James’s parents and the personalized plan was immediately implemented.
James took Alex’s advice to heart and worked very hard to reach all of the goals that they had established together. After about three years of hard work, Alex received an SMS image of James’s MIT acceptance letter!
Karen’s Humanitarian Pre-medicine Theme
Karen and her mom requested a meeting after attending an informational seminar. The seminar was about creating unique and compelling Themes for students to make them stand out from the tens of thousands of outstanding students who apply to the top schools every year. In other words, Karen and her mother were searching for advice on how to become a Hedgehog.
Karen’s mom seemed intent on applying to the top schools but didn’t seem to be on the same page as her daughter. We asked Karen’s mother to step outside so Karen could speak with one of our Directors and Senior Mentor, John, one on one. John and Karen discussed her dreams, goals, and aspirations. They talked about her intended major, especially why biochemistry was in the past and why bioengineering is the future. John and Karen determined that applying to Princeton was a better fit than applying to Duke because she loved to learn by discussion and Princeton’s small class sizes would be much better than Duke’s large seminars. John also asked Karen about her fears, pressures and stressors.
Students like Karen put a lot of pressure on themselves. She complained about her schedule and the overemphasis on test scores. She celebrated aloud when John told her that four SAT II 750s were good enough and that she did not need to take any more SAT IIs. She celebrated aloud again when John told her that 2260 was a good enough SAT I score. Over an hour later, John and Karen agreed to exchange emails for the following few weeks to get to know each other better. After this initial meeting, it became clear that Karen’s mother was right; Karen definitely had what it takes to get into the Ivy League. She just needed a sharper focus and some guidance.
Karen was involved in many extracurricular activities. Too many, in fact. There is a finite number of hours in the week so Karen needed to pick and choose which activities to focus on. But how? At this point, John and Karen began discussing a Theme. As a general guide, students aiming for the top Ivy League colleges should be doing 20 hours of extra-curricular activities each week. Karen was doing about 25 hours, but the activities were all over the place. She was exhausted and confused.
In order to focus Karen’s Theme, John started with the simple question of what she was passionate about. That was easy: biology research. She was already an intern at Korea University, doing cellular biology research. What else? She wanted to develop her leadership skills more. She was head of her Amnesty International club and several other community service organizations. What did she want to do for a career? She wasn’t sure but she knew it would be related to the medical field. With all this information, Karen and John decided on a Humanitarian Pre-Medicine Theme. This Theme would make Karen a very effective Hedgehog because it is so unique. Princeton was bound to take notice.
Right away, Karen eliminated activities from her schedule that did not support her Theme. She quit orchestra, band, her school newspaper and many other small but time consuming activities. She then increased her involvement in Amnesty International. Amnesty is an organization devoted to fighting for human rights. Karen picked campaigns that focused on health and increased here activity in the Amnesty International club. She also increased her hours as a research intern and asked to be involved in another project that could lead to a research paper being published with her name included. Research opportunities like this are rare, and any student that is fortunate to have one in a field that they like should jump at the opportunity, especially if it will eventually produce a research paper.
According to John’s customized plan, Karen’s Theme was applied to the four following areas:
GPA – 3.95/4.0. Karen attended a rigorous school where her 3.95 made her Valedictorian of her class (but remember there are 40,000 Valedictorians every year!).
Courses – AP Bio, AP Physics, AP Calc BC
Test scores – As mentioned earlier, Karen’s test scores were already great when she came to IvyZen. To reiterate, she had scored 750 on four SAT II tests and 2160 on SAT I.
2. Extracurricular Activities – Leadership
Amnesty International – Karen intended to participate in campaigns that focused on health. She also increased the number of hours she spent participating in the club activities.
Founding Editor – A WordPress site that discussed her passion for bringing first world medical technology to third world countries.
3. Extracurricular Activities – Scholarship
Research intern – Karen was a research intern in a cellular biology lab at Korea University. She asked to work additional hours in the lab in order to build greater practical experience and have further exposure to graduate students and professors who might assist her with recommendations.
Research paper – Through this internship, Karen was able to participate in a project that eventually lead her to contribute to a published research paper.
4. Competitions and Achievements
Karen was unable to participate in any notable competitions After a year of hard work, Karen’s Theme was much stronger. When it came time to write her applications, it was easy to choose the schools, major, activities and essay topics. Karen sent in her applications about three weeks before they were due and applied to Princeton early.
In the middle of December, John received a call from her saying, “I got accepted to Princeton.” She had been taking a walk after receiving the email and John was the first person she told. Karen found her inner Hedgehog and let it guide her all the way to the Ivy League.
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