Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, University of Pennsylvania… These are pretty big names — intimidatingly big, smart names. However, there is no reason to be afraid of applying to these schools. After all, you will never know if you can get in unless you try! As a current Yale student, I will be honest — that’s exactly what I did. Whether you are confident in your application or just trying your luck, applying to these schools — as many as you can — is the only way you can get into the Ivy League (obviously!). Don’t let the name intimidate you; these schools are looking for regular students with unlimited potential. If that’s you, read on!
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the many schools of Ivy League caliber that are not within the Ivy League. These tips wholeheartedly apply to those schools as well (think Stanford, MIT, UChicago).
Find Your Specialty
“All colleges want well-rounded students”: there is a serious caveat in that statement. Yes, top colleges want you to be good at everything — maybe even great, if you could somehow manage it. The admissions officers want to see your passion in and outside the classroom and analyze how they fit together. They seek to find your life’s pattern and determine if it is ambitious, confident, zesty, and full of potential. Do you love the Debate Team because you have an appreciation for English rhetoric? Did you travel to France because you have a passion for world languages? The pattern of your habits — your life — is your specialty. Whatever you most enjoy, you need to harp on that: within your education and your extra-curricular activities.
You need a “spike” in one area of your application — one space where your talent and experience far exceed that of your peers. This spike is what will set you apart, and allow the admissions officers to identify with your unique application; a spike should reflect who you are, and make you recognizable in a pile of 5,000 applicants — it should make you stand out.
Now, you should have a spike and still be relatively well-rounded; you shouldn’t be excellent in one subject and horrible in all the others. You need to show effort and skill in many (if not all) of your other subjects and extra-curricular activities. In your application, aim to convey that while your passionate spike lies in one place, you are just as dedicated to being a well-rounded person and student.
All-in-all, you should hone your passion into one area and pursue it, taking every opportunity you can. However, while doing this, you cannot forget about the subjects you least like (for instance, my passion is English but I forced myself to take AP Physics). This shows an educational open-mindedness and intrinsic academic dedication (that does not have to be explicitly written in your essay!).
This is not a tip you will see very often. This is also not a tip that will guarantee admission.
I would wager that most students at Yale have traveled outside the country. Some students lived abroad for a year and finished high school in Europe. Others found summer programs to participate in — prestigious ones at Oxford and Cambridge. Some traveled to Korea — knowing very little Korean — to be culturally immersed. These are the stories of my friends, stories I know off the top of my head; I am sure many, many more students have traveled with their family as well.
Traveling adds another dynamic to your application. When described powerfully, this extra-curricular can illustrate your wanderlust, worldliness, and social awareness. Even if you traveled to Europe with your family, did you do anything educational there? Did you learn anything? You need to think about every single thing you do (particularly during summers!) that can be added to your application. And traveling is one of them!
The Ivy League seeks students who are experienced, aware, and willing to learn about anything and everything. Write about your traveling, your mission trip, your backpacking adventure — either in your extra-curricular list or essay — traveling holds more value than you would think.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, traveling is not the end-all-be-all. Many people do not have the agency or finances to travel, and that is more than alright. The real value of traveling (at least to admissions officers) is not where you go — it’s about how you sought to learn outside your comfort-zone and community. And that can be done anywhere, at any time — no planes required.
Target Each School’s Philosophy
You must hand-craft each application — particularly the short answer section. You should answer each question the best you can, putting in just as much effort as you did your longer essay. You may include some “specifics” about the school: their beautiful music hall you look forward to playing in, or the state-of-the-art laboratory you want to explore. But, these appeals to the admissions officers are obvious — of course, everything at their school is wonderful, they have millions of dollars in their budget. Of course, you are writing about the beautiful old building — this just means you have visited their campus. Dig deeper!
Hop on the computer and research. What’s campus-life like? What is it about you that would make you a perfect fit there? Here’s an example:
Yale has a unique residential college system that fosters a smaller community within the larger one of Yale. In this residential college system, you have mentors, advisors, and peers that you are guaranteed to live, dine, and spend time with. The purpose of this is community.
Now, subtlety is powerful. You can’t be obvious and write that you’re overly excited about the residential college system so you can partake in a community — everyone feels the same way, and everyone writes that. Instead, in your supplements, write about an extracurricular you did that helped create a tighter-knit community. Write about the time you left your community to explore. Send those subliminal messages about how important community is to you. For Yale, appeal to that theme a little more than, say, Brown, whose students are generally more independent and free-spirited.
I’m not saying that is Yale’s only theme (it’s not). Yet, this is the approach you should be taking for every school. Honestly, it might help you figure out which school’s philosophy best fits yours. Catering towards the school’s philosophy or habits will incline your application towards acceptance — if only for the fact that did serious research!