A step-by-step guide for study-abroad students applying to America’s most prestigious schools
What are Ivy League Schools?
“Ivy League” is a term used to describe a group of eight elite private colleges and universities in the Northeast part of the USA: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.
These institutions are known for their world-class education, unparalleled reputation, and impressive alumni networks. Most graduates go on to become influential members of society and the cream of the crop in a large talent pool of qualified job candidates.
It’s no secret that these elite institutions are highly competitive, evidenced by average acceptance rates well below 10%. To put things in perspective, Harvard University, one of the most well-known Ivy League institutions, had the lowest acceptance rate in 2022, admitting a mere 4.6% of applicants. Conversely, Cornell University had the highest acceptance rate among Ivy League schools, with 10.3%.
Sounds challenging, but there's a lot you can do to improve your chances of getting in!
How to make it to the Ivy League
The reality is that you have to be an elite student to grab the attention of an Ivy League school, but being seen and getting accepted are two different things. If you’re committed to your goal, here are the steps you can take to land yourself at an Ivy League institution.
- Aim for academic perfection.
- Take difficult classes.
- Participate in extracurricular activities.
- Write a strong college essay.
- Submit your application early.
- Take a standardized exam.
- Earn strong letters of recommendation.
Aim for academic perfection
Your grade point average (GPA) is important in any college application, especially for Ivy League admissions. Being good isn’t good enough, and sometimes great doesn’t cut it either — although there are exceptions to every rule.
There are two types of GPAs: weighted and unweighted. Classes are given different weights based on their level of difficulty. For example, a challenging class will carry more weight and thus have a greater impact on your GPA. Special exceptions notwithstanding, you should aim to maintain a minimum unweighted GPA of 3.7.
According to a 2020 survey, more than half of students admitted to Ivy League schools had a 4.0 unweighted GPA.
The exceptions to these rules are reserved for exceptional students — not only in school but in some facet outside of it. It’s not enough to be a strong student — the best candidates show that they are more than their academic accomplishments. With that said, giving weight to your application starts with adding weight to your classes.
Take difficult classes
You’re not going to impress an Ivy League institution with an artificially inflated GPA. Don’t get us wrong — getting a 4.0 under any circumstance is an impressive feat. But earning it through high-difficulty classes is an accomplishment reserved for the most exceptional students. Not only will this show schools that you’re a high-achiever, it will also speak volumes about your work ethic, discipline, and commitment to success at the next level.
Note: It’s important to take difficult classes, but taking more than you can handle might harm your grades more than help them.
What can you do to maximize your workload without being overwhelmed? Suppose you struggle with specific subjects or have heard a particular class is extremely difficult. In that case, it can help to organize your school sessions (whether semester, trimester, or quarter) to take easier classes along with your most difficult ones. There will undoubtedly be more challenging sessions, but implementing this strategy will let you focus your effort where you most need it.
Participate in extracurricular activities
Where most schools see college applications as a checklist — “has this student done x, y, and z?” — Ivy League institutions give a more comprehensive look at a student’s experiences. It’s become a bit of a cliche, but Ivy League schools want to know what makes you exceptional.
When listing your experiences, be sure to provide:
- Context for the activity
- Lasting results from your participation
- Letters of recommendation from involved supervisors or mentors
The experiences you include on your application should tell a story, even if you only include one or two of them. Focusing on a few select experiences will give a stronger impression and showcase that you have a clear picture of who you are and what you want to be.
What kinds of experiences are schools looking for? You’d be surprised what you can include. Are you a musical prodigy who’s participated in piano recitals and won numerous awards? You can include that. Have you volunteered at a research facility in your home country and had your name published alongside renowned professionals for your contributions? The committee will eat that up. Present your experiences in a way that makes you look like a star.
Write a strong college essay
At this point, your grades have shown that you’re an incredible student, the classes you’ve taken show that you’re not afraid to challenge yourself, and your experiences paint the picture of who you are outside of the classroom. What else does the admissions committee need to know about you? Your college essay can peel back the layers and give representatives the most authentic look at who you are.
Each year, there are several prompts to select from for your essay. At first glance, it can be tempting to select one that highlights your accomplishments or mentions the influence that someone’s had on you. We recommend going in a different direction. You’ve already highlighted many accomplishments throughout your application, from academic successes to extracurricular experiences.
Don’t be afraid to share your shortcomings.
It’s not in moments of strength that we find what we’re capable of but in our weaknesses and failures. As your studies will only get more difficult, schools want to see that you’re someone who can grow from failure and who can face challenges head-on without flinching. For your college essay, we suggest showing a bit of vulnerability. Perhaps mention a time when you failed, but rather than giving up, you picked yourself up and grew from your failures.
As a final step, it’s important to get your essay peer-reviewed. You can be the best writer in the world, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t prone to mistakes. Have an advisor, friend, or teacher proofread your essay for grammar, spelling, tone, impact, and more.
Submit your application early
There are three deadlines at most higher education institutions: early decision, early action, and regular decision.
Here’s a quick overview of each:
Early Decision: Early decision deadlines are for students focused on attending one specific school, and they can apply only to that school. The deadline is usually in early November of the student’s final year in secondary school, and admission decisions are typically made by mid-December. If you’re admitted through early decision, you have a binding agreement and are obligated to attend that school or lose your nonrefundable tuition deposit. Early decision often has a higher admission rate percentage than that of regular decision.
Early Action: Early action deadlines and decisions follow the same general time frame as early decision, but unlike early decision, early action allows students to apply to multiple colleges, and acceptance is not binding. This process gives you more time to decide on a school and allows you to field offers from different institutions. With a few exceptions, the admission rate percentage is about the same as that for regular decision, but you find out earlier.
Regular Decision: Regular decision deadlines start a bit later than early decision and early action — depending on the school, they generally occur from December through February, although the most common deadline is January 1. Admission decisions are usually announced sometime in March, and you have until the end of April to accept. Regular decision is best for students who want to consider all their options, as well as scholarships, financial aid, etc., and there is no limit to the number of schools you can apply to.
When applying to an Ivy League school, early decision can benefit you because being one of the first applicants will give you priority in the admissions process. You can avoid the competition that comes from being a regular applicant, and signal to the school that you are highly committed to attending their institution. It’s human nature — people are drawn to those who show effort and intention.
Take a standardized exam
International students aren’t typically required to take standardized exams in the same way domestic students are, but when applying to an Ivy League school, it is both required and necessary. Exceptional SAT and/or ACT scores can move you higher in consideration than another applicant who otherwise has the same qualifications. Check with individual schools to understand their specific application requirements around standardized exams.
What score do you need to be on par with other Ivy League students?
As of 2021, the middle 50% of scores on the SAT for Ivy League students ranged from 1,468–1,564, with a perfect score being 1,600. You can get by with a score on the higher end of those averages, but if you want to stand out, then you should aim to get a score higher than 1,564.
Earn strong letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation validate your academic and personal achievements. You can boast all you want about yourself, but when someone stands up to praise you and your accomplishments, it speaks volumes about your character, influence, and candidacy.
Most Ivy League schools request two letters of recommendation from teachers and one from a counselor or advisor. Check with individual schools to see if additional letters would be helpful.
What’s important is that your letters come from people experienced enough with your accomplishments to be able to speak about aspects of you that will stand out to admissions officers.
You don’t want a letter of recommendation to simply compliment you and say what a good person you are (we’re sure you’re a great person); it should amplify your work ethic, leadership abilities, growth, potential, and perseverance. Hearing about those traits from someone who’s seen them develop within you is worth so much more than a letter filled with compliments.
We wish you the best of luck!
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