How to get into the Ivy League, according to Ivy League students

Every secret revealed

A gasp, disbelief, and then the tears – the moment of getting into an Ivy League school is the culmination of years preparation. For high schoolers across the States, being accepted to an Ivy is still seen as the only way to a future paved with gold, penthouses and JP Morgan internships. But how do they do it? We spoke to a student from each Ivy for their secrets on how to get into one of the world’s top schools.

How to get into Brown

Arthur Back, sophomore

Find an original way to write your common app

My essay went from the specific to the global. I talked about an experience I had playing guitar on stage at a family event, expanding from there in a cheesy way that through music and from the act of playing music to music as communication and my bilingual culture and my biculturalism. Music as a metaphor for transcending all languages. Being bicultural means a lot to me, so I wrote about that.

Remember the alumni sit-down is just a chat

I sat down with an immunologist at a medical institute in Paris. A really nice guy, so we had a really nice conversation. Be relaxed, go in pretending you’re having coffee with an old friend or distant relative. Don’t spout out your résumé. Ask them your questions, find a few questions to make them think back to their time at Brown.

Get there on time

I’d recommend not arriving late, that’s what I did for another school, Duke, and I didn’t get in. I was wearing sweatpants and a stained shirt. It was not meant to be. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – especially if you want to apply to the Ivies as they have tedious applications.

Be original

Don’t be too clichéd – there are a few things my guidance councillor taught me not to say – avoid generalities, make sure it’s your voice coming out and not somebody else’s. Don’t get your mom to write your essay. I couldn’t have made it without my guidance councillor. She helped organize my time and sort through essay topics that won’t work, and get to the point much more clearly. I’d really recommend finding one.

How to get into Columbia

Francesca Croce, sophomore

Research the professors

For the essays, I definitely recommend looking up the professors of the fields you want to study in, read one of their books or papers or look up what they’re working on at the time, and write about what you want to do with that professor at Columbia. Include the names of the professors who you want to work with.

Be passionate

For the common app general essay, I would encourage people to talk about their passions. Most of the people who apply to these colleges will have excellent grades, so you need something different from the rest of the applicants. It might just be a quirky fact about yourself, or some special interest that you have that makes your essay different from everyone else’s, and make it outstanding. Not saying that mine is outstanding! But I wrote about my passion for history and the books I read and how I wanted to feel like I was to be part of the books I read.

Link your interests to your studies

My best friend is studying electrical engineering and is also a musician, a guitar player. He wrote his essay about his guitar pick and how he loves the guitar and how that links to the work of the guitar as an electrical object and hence engineering. It’s super important to link what you love to do with your studies.

How to get into Cornell

Imani Luckey, junior

Imani Luckey, left

Write about how Cornell can help you, and how you can help Cornell

For my essay, I wrote about myself and how I was in the inner city schools in Philly. My teacher told my parents that if I wanted a better education, I should transfer. So I went to go live with my grandparents for a different school. I wrote about how I wanted to use my future degree in communication to talk about issues in education, and how Cornell could help me do that.

Don’t try to be flashy

Don’t try to get loads of letters of recommendations. Cornell only requires two or three. I heard of one kid who sent in 13 – one was from his dentist, saying he had good teeth. Don’t do that. Just do that the application requires.

Do activities that are genuinely useful

I did a lot of community service, over 50 hours. My mom used to work in a homeless shelter bookstore, so I got books donated for a book drive, I was happy to do it. I was VP of my school’s BSU, and secretary for Zeta Phi Beta – these things show you’re trying.

Be yourself in the interview

I was going to talk all fancy, until I realized: speaking otherwise is not who I am, so why would they not want to be myself? So I spoke normally, using slang. I didn’t think she liked me, but I got in! She must have liked me.

Know why you want to go to Cornell

The interviewer didn’t try anything sketchy. The main question is “Why Cornell?” First I was like: “Isn’t it obvious?” But you really have to dive into the crevices of your mind, and think what Cornell offers, and why you want to study there. Also some research on the school. When I spoke about Cornell, I mentioned how I was drawn by the fact it was the first non-sectarian school, which is odd because it opened in 1865 – my interviewer was impressed.

How to get into Dartmouth

Alyssa Jorgensen, senior

Be smart

You need extremely high test scores to get in, and people are mind-blowingly well rounded. Kids come here from all over the world: there are published authors, talented people who have gone out and made significant strides in their communities and around the world. Everyone’s extremely passionate about what they do, it’s an intellectually stimulating environment

Know what Dartmouth is looking for

Dartmouth is the smallest Ivy League, very selective, very liberal arts. They exercise the mind to make someone ready for a specific trade – a communicator, a writer, a master of a bunch of different skills. The essay is so important, as it’s the chance to show you can really write.

Be as original as possible

I wrote about how for me, jumping into a book and going into a different world is ironic. Although I am momentarily leaving reality, I re-emerge with a whole different life experience. Whether it’s fiction or non fiction, leaving reality for those hours and days, you are enveloped in this book, and then emerge more in-tune with reality. It’s shaped me in that way – it’s made me more compassionate. Don’t be afraid to be personal when you write yours, whether it’s about a quirk, a tough incident, or a disability. They want to see how you articulate yourself in different ways.

Don’t sound arrogant

Sell yourself without sounding narcissistic. You want to build up a narrative, not show off a list of accolades.

How to get into Harvard

Ericardo Edwards, sophomore

Make sure your common app has a narrative

My common app went well, given that I navigated it mostly on my own. I wrote about the transferability of the skills I acquired in band to my academic and social life. I would strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you have a theme for your essay: one statement you want an admissions counselor to take away from your narrative. Also, I would make sure your essay is a narrative! There’s (probably) just as much to learn from you as from a Dickens or Morrison novel.

Be ready to talk about yourself in the interview

I thought it went horribly! My school does not know what heating is, and they put us in the notoriously cold room on the first floor. My alumni interviewer was shivering the entire time. I was first asked to describe myself, to tell him who Ericardo is. I immediately went into being a guy from Hyde Park, with the 90 minute commute to Boston Latin every morning. It evolved into an explanation of how important education was to me and how I was not afraid to sacrifice for it.

Speak naturally

Everything was impromptu! No one even told me I would have been asked the generic “who are you” question. I would strongly suggest you answer this question for yourself and know what you want and how you have evolved. That’s what the university wants to know.

I wouldn’t suggest throwing out a bunch of adjectives in your interview. Don’t list a bunch of traits and such either. Make a statement, literally. Corroborate it, or make it speak for itself.

Make sure your application shows your interests

Communicate a passion! Show that you can maintain academic achievement AND still dedicate time to something you would’ve been doing anyway (the same goes for a career). But in order to do so, you have to actually do things. Academics and extracurricular activities are necessary but NOT sufficient by themselves. If you can list all your academic achievements with great detail but can only summarize your extracurricular involvement as “various activities,” then you have all the right in the world to be anxious.

How to get into UPenn

Julia Barr, sophomore

It can be a game of chance

It’s somewhat cynical, but the best advice I ever received was at a Yale info session. There really is no perfect equation of SAT scores plus varsity credits divided by number of babies saved during a summer program in Africa. At the end of the day, it’s a game of chance and the most exceptionally qualified candidates will on average receive as many rejections as the seemingly less qualified candidates.

Use your connections to Penn

At Penn, I would say that working your connections to the school can sometimes be helpful. Also just in general, try to show a lot of facets to yourself but show some kind of cohesion between them. It doesn’t matter if you’re president of 10 clubs if you can’t show how they’re collectively impacting you. I think it’s good to show not only that you’re involved on paper but you’re actually gaining something from those experiences.

Don’t do stuff for your résumé – show you enjoy it

Obviously they want to see you’re doing things with your time, but don’t do stuff just for the resume. You have to actually get involved in it and show some enthusiasm for it to actually matter.

Keep your essay simple

Write about yourself in a way which makes your personality come alive and transforms your two-dimensional application into a three-dimensional personality. Don’t try to act older or “mightier than thou.” You also don’t need to write about something sad or overly complicated – sometimes the simple things are the most effective

How to get into Princeton

Dom Olivera, sophomore

Don’t be boring

I wrote about the time I was on Jeopardy and lost. I used that to write about failure – I was 12 when I was on the show, and when I lost, it was so crushing for me. A lot of Ivy League applicants are virtually the same on paper: good SATS and extra curriculars. Essays and the interview are the one place when you can distinguish yourself

Don’t be cheesy

One of the biggest things people screw up on is essays – they write something utterly fake and cheesy, and nobody’s going to believe that. A stereotype is saying something like: “I went to [insert poor country] for a month and it changed my life. Be honest!

Relate your application to Princeton

Pick prompts that are Princeton-related. Princeton has an informal motto of “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” So figure out how you’re going to relate to that: I mentioned my six years in the Boy Scouts, and volunteering at church.

Choose your extra-curriculars wisely

People might have a tendency to do loads of these and not dedicate enough time to each, but admissions offices want to see you’re heavily involved or have leadership positions in two or three, rather than spread thin across 10 or 11.

How to get into Yale

Emily Reinwald, senior

Come with questions about Yale

My advice is make sure you’ve looked up Yale before your sit-down. Be prepared with questions – it’s a discussion, a two-way conversation. They’ll know if you’re not interested in Yale – ask questions, they like to see that. I spoke about football – my interviewer was a former player. It helped break the ice.

With extra-curriculars, it’s quality not quantity

Everyone at Yale has a great GPA and great SATs. Yale is looking for students who are more than just the classroom. They want to see impact and involvement in a variety of different things outside school. Say if you’re passionate about the environment, you don’t need to join five different clubs – just show you’re interested in one. Yale can see through you saying you volunteered at a charity one time.

Be honest about yourself

Don’t try to be something you’re not. Science is not my thing, so my application didn’t mention that, that’s not what I’m about. They see through the phoney stuff, so avoid all clichés, try to be original – which can be hard.

Make sure you really want to go to Yale

Every year you see stories like “I got into all Ivies” – it bothers me because the Ivy League schools are very different. It’s weird someone would apply to all eight, they’re not the same type of schools, each one focuses on different things. You should apply to Yale because you want to go to Yale, not just because it’s an Ivy League school. Yale in New Haven is different to Cornell in upstate New York and Columbia in NYC. Show the admissions office you have the passion to go to Yale.

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