Here’s what it really takes to get into the Ivy League these days

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The eight Ivy League schools — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale — had a total of 281,060 applicants for the class of 2021. Of those applicants, less than 10% got admissions offers. Harvard had the lowest acceptance rate out of all the Ivies, at just 5%.

Clearly, getting into any Ivy League school is an impressive achievement. So, how do people do it?

GET THOSE GRADES AND TEST SCORES UP

For starters, if you want to go to an Ivy, you’re going to need stellar grades and test scores. These are the two most important admissions factors according to The National Association for College Admission Counseling. Ambitious students should take rigorous courses that they can do well in.

“Grades are still the most important factor in admissions,” Kat Cohen, the founder of admissions consulting firm IvyWise, told USA TODAY College. “Course rigor is also extremely important. Schools look to see if students are challenging themselves and still succeeding.”

Test scores are just as important. Students who lack scores in line with Ivy standards “will be sent right to the ‘no’ pile unless they have some other achievement(s) that really help them stand out or fill an institutional need for the school,” she said.

These are the GPA’s and test scores you will need in order to avoid the “no pile” throughout the Ivy League. They’re similar to what they’ve been in years past.

ivy league grades

Do your grades make the grade? (Graphic: George Petras, USA TODAY)

Just having a high GPA and ACT or SAT score won’t get you into an Ivy League school, however — most highly intelligent and qualified students get rejected. In order to get admitted, you’re going to need to show that you’re not just smart, but special, too.

FOLLOW YOUR PASSION

Really.

Logan Powell, dean of admissions at Brown University, noted that it doesn’t necessarily matter if a student is doing athletics, community service, academic clubs or anything else. What he’s looking for is why a student is choosing to do those activities and what they got out of it.

“Have they learned time management skills, leadership, teamwork, discipline? How have they grown as a person and what qualities will they bring to our campus?” he asks.

Cohen tells students Ivies are looking to “admit specialists who focus on a few core interests for all four years of their high school careers.” So she tells students to focus on what they love instead of joining a bunch of random clubs that they don’t care about because admissions readers see right through that. “Being genuine is what will make them stand out,” she says.

Students who get admitted to Ivy League schools are talented and have lives outside the classroom.

BE A GOOD PERSON

Believe it or not, being nice might just be the thing that solidifies your spot at an Ivy League school.

Cohen said that over the last 10 years or so, more and more universities want the students they admit to be good people who give back.

Case in point: A letter of recommendation from a high school custodian helped one student get into Dartmouth, according to a piece in the New York Times. The letter noted that the applicant was the only student who knew the names of every janitorial staff member and would help custodians with menial tasks like turning lights off in empty rooms and cleaning up after other students.

Don’t just do nice things to get into an Ivy League school, however — you should do them because you feel it’s right. The custodian who wrote that recommendation pointed out that the student would do these things when no one was watching. The key is to be genuine.

APPLY EARLY DECISION/EARLY ACTION

Applying this way significantly boosts your chances of getting into one of the Ivies. You only get to apply early decision for one school, though, so choose carefully. “We encourage students to apply early only if they are ready and if they will enroll if accepted. If a student is accepted under ED, he or she must withdraw [from] all other schools and he or she is committed to attending that school,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that students also have an advantage by applying early action and, unlike early decision, it’s not binding.

According to Business Insider, the Early Decision/Action acceptance rates for the class of 2021 show how much better ED/EA applicants’ chances are:

  • Brown: 21.9% compared to 9%
  • Columbia: N/A for early decision/action; regular acceptance rate was 6.04%
  • Cornell: 25.6% compared to 12.5%
  • Dartmouth: 27.8% compared to 10.4%
  • Harvard: 14.5% compared to 5.2%
  • U Penn: 22.0% compared to 9.2%
  • Princeton: 15.4% compared to 6.1%
  • Yale: 17.1% compared to 6.9%

WRITE A REALLY GOOD ESSAY

Powell says, “The essay is one of only two places where the student can tell us exactly who they are, in their own words (the other place is the interview).”

He advises students to write about something not found anywhere else in the application. It’s a chance to show what you’re interested in, what your passions are and what’s important to you. “Be yourself,” Powell advises, but keep it simple, too. “In many cases, the best essays are the simplest.”

Cohen says to remember that admissions officers are real people: “They like to laugh, or empathize, be entertained and get to know these students.”

ATTEND AN ELITE PREPARATORY HIGH SCHOOL

Elite high schools send a high percentage of their student body to Ivy League schools. On the plus side, going to an elite prep school gives students access to plenty of hard classes and great college admissions counselors. Then again, these students compete for admission against classmates who have taken similar classes and done extracurricular activities.

GET PROFESSIONAL HELP

Kat Cohen, founder of admissions consulting firm IvyWise. (Photo: IvyWise)

Increasingly, students whose sights are set on elite colleges use admissions consulting firms to get ahead of the competition.

IvyWise, for example, says 92% of students who use their services got into at least one of their top choices. These services include not just college counseling but also tutoring — and can be pricey. Cohen says, “Prices range from around $1,000 into the six-figure range for full-service counseling, tutoring and research for all four years of high school.”

If you can follow all or many of these steps, you might just get into an Ivy League school or, if you’re really lucky, more than one.

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