Application Themes

Posted by Mark Lee | February 3, 2016

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. In reality, top colleges seek a well-rounded class. That is to say, colleges want a graduating class with a variety of majors and interests, but 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 tend to ask these questions:

  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?

A well-rounded student is unlikely to have compelling answers to these questions. But an ideal candidate will have definitely articulated responses 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 clearly taken every possible step to build skills and knowledge 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 begin building the high school experience around this interest. So how can IvyZen assist in proving a demonstrated interest? The answer 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 Themes include Computational Biology, 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.

When establishing a Theme, a student should consider the four following areas of success:

  • Academics
  • Extracurricular activities – Leadership
  • Extracurricular activities – Scholarship
  • Competitions and achievement

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) Academics

It goes without saying the academics are of paramount importance to all scholastic pursuits. When considering Ivy League college admissions, academics should be considered in two ways: class selection and grades. Class selection is important for demonstrated interest and common sense can show us why. If a student is working with 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 in order for the student to demonstrate that he is interested in Computational Biology and that he takes the study seriously. On the other side of the coin, if a student is developing a Computational Biology Theme, what is the relevance of taking AP classes in art or electives in two foreign languages? A benefit to using a Theme is that a student is allowed and encouraged to play to his or her strengths, which brings me to the second point: grades. A student will almost always show a demonstrated interest in a subject in which he or she 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. Aside from class selection and grades, the academic section also encompasses standardized tests. These tests include AP tests, SAT I and SAT II, and ACT. AP tests are a great way to prove to colleges that a student not only demonstrates interest in a given subject, but also possesses great skill in that subject. If a student is pursuing a Computational Biology Theme, scores of 5 on all available math and science AP tests can offer the student strong support on his or her application. SAT II is also an impressive addition to an academic resume when trying to get into the Ivy League. SAT I and ACT are important to a college application regardless of the chosen Theme and a high score is necessary to impressing Ivy League admissions officers. Before a college admissions officer reads an individual student’s application, the application will need to be vetted for GPA and standardized test score just to make the cut and be passed to a real, breathing human. In order to prove that a student’s application is worth looking at, he or she will first need to prove academic excellence. SAT I or ACT is a critical component for this reason. It is proven that SAT I and ACT test scores can be improved with diligent study, so it is important to time the tests accordingly. A student must allow himself enough time to take the tests repeatedly, if necessary, in order to maximize the score potential. The earlier a great score is achieved, the more time there will be to focus on demonstrating interest in a Theme later in the high school career. Academics lay the foundation for building a compelling Theme, so it is important to chart a course early on in high school to make sure these academic goals are reached.

   2.) Extracurricular Activities: Leadership

Regardless of the major and regardless of the Theme, Ivy League colleges are looking for future leaders. Naturally, those who are the best in their fields become leaders whether of a business, of a research team, or even of a government. Ivy League schools love having the ability to boast their most successful and influential alums, and they search for this potential in their applicant pools. It is important to demonstrate leadership in your Theme, but it is difficult to do so within class hours. This is why it students must choose an extracurricular activity in which they can do so.   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.   Another way that students think to show leadership is by becoming captain of some sport. This too is problematic. Participation in athletics is incredibly time consuming. Teams usually practice every evening of the week, are required to enroll in gym classes during the school day, and must travel long hours to compete in other cities. If a student does manage to seize the captainship of his team, he is committing to hours and hours of time that could be otherwise spent honing a solid Theme. If a student is not vying for an athletic scholarship, then captainship as a soul means of demonstrating leadership is generally discouraged.   Besides student government and athletics, though, there are tons of extracurricular activities that can contribute to strong leadership for those applying to Ivy League colleges. IvyZen consultants 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 on the Theme. This truly encapsulates the meaning of demonstrated interest, and there are many ways that one can do this. First, students should consider an internship in a 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 local university. For a few hours each week, she worked in a research laboratory with several graduate students under the supervision of professors. This experience was helpful for three big reasons. One, Karen was able to prove that she could earn a competitive internship, thus demonstrating superiority in her field. 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 becoming valuable tools for Ivy League admissions. 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, 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.   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 the longevity of 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 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 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 a competition is the American Mathematics Competition (AMC). Each year, more than 350,000 students compete in the AMC in order to show their mathematical talent. 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. Doing well in the AMC is a great component to any math or science based Theme, especially when seeking MIT college admission.   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.

Choosing a Theme

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? Choosing the right major can dictate the entire future career for some students and it is not a decision that should be made lightly when attempting Ivy League admissions. 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 of new majors include cybersecurity, biometrics, e-business, 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. This approach looks really good to Harvard college admissions, UChicago admissions, Yale admissions, and others.   IvyZen is committed to helping students unlock their potential using the talents and skills that they already possess. Everyone has a Theme inside just waiting to be discovered and shared with a top college.

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.

Jess is a good example of a student whose application and clearly reflected the four aspects of an effective Theme:

        1.) Academics

  • GPA: 85
  • SAT I: 2280
  • Courses: AP Spanish Language and Culture, AP World History, AP Comparative Government and Politics, AP Psychology

         2.) Leadership

  • Founder, Cultural Anthropology Club
  • Peru Archaeology Research Assistant

         3.) Scholarship

  • Cultural Anthropology Research Paper
  • Cultural Anthropology blog

        4.) Competitions/Achievements

  • Research paper published in The Concord Review

Cultural Anthropology Theme

What are Guatemalan war orphans like twenty years after the most brutal period of genocide? What effects do policies in Buffalo, New York have on refugee groups resettling in that area? Why do a quarter of Japanese women stay on a career track, while the rest drop out of the workforce? If your student is asking questions like these, then a Cultural Anthropology Theme may be a perfect fit. Anthropology is the study of humans, and cultural anthropology is a subdivision of the study that focuses on the cultural variation among humans. Cultural anthropologists study the language, art, traditions, and customs of societies past and present to learn how humanity has developed over time. They analyze sociocultural systems around the world to solve a variety of mysteries about humankind, such as how civilizations formed, how customs came into existence, why cultures differ from one another, or how a culture’s use of technology and economy shaped the world. Cultural anthropology uses a variety of methods to observe living populations of humans, including participant observation, interviews, and surveys.    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.

Also check out some of our other articles:

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Humanitarian Pre-Med

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Zach came to us after hearing about our service from a former student. He and his mom were nervous that Zach wasn’t on the right track with his applications. As soon as we met, Zach …


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