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How to Get Into the Ivy Leagues: Looking Beyond the Hype

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Every academically-conscious student has probably dreamt of going to one of the Ivy Leagues for college—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell. And although they’re technically not Ivy League institutions, the same can be said for other highly-competitive schools like Stanford and MIT.

From a student’s or a parent’s perspective, successfully making it through an Ivy League admissions process means getting as close to being perfect as possible. When people think of an Ivy League school, they often picture an institution that demands a bunch of extra-curricular activities, sky-high SAT scores, and of course, a perfect GPA—no more, no less.

They think that falling short in an aspect or two—albeit slightly—guarantees that you’ll be weeded out like a bad seed that’s threatening to corrupt the rest of its more brilliant peers. If you’re among the people who have fallen into the trap of adopting this dangerous thinking, then maybe it’s time to step back, look beyond the Ivy League hype, and reevaluate your perspective.

It’s understandable that many high school students are so wrapped up in attending a top-ranking college. After all, these universities have exuded prestige for years and years, and the mere mention of their names have always commanded respect.

However, know that when it comes to college admissions, heavily focusing on the school that you’re applying to is much less of an effective strategy than focusing on yourself. That’s right: no matter how competitive the college you’re planning to go to is, the number-one deciding factor on future success isn’t really the school, but you as an individual.

No matter how competitive the college you’re planning to go to is, the number-one deciding factor on future success isn’t really the school, but you as an individual.

Beyond the Ivy League hype: What really matters

Now, I’m not trying to discredit those who are working as hard as they can to ace the SAT/ACT. Likewise, I’m not saying that studying hard every single day in hopes of getting into Harvard is a futile effort.

What I’m getting at is this: successfully getting into an Ivy League college is not so much about cold hard stats like your GPA and test scores. Instead, it’s more about how you position yourself as an applicant, and along with this, all the tiny little steps that you took along the way in hopes of achieving your goal.

To put it simply, how you are as an applicant could be more important than the numbers written on your profile. Going through a competitive admissions process shouldn’t be about mindlessly working hard to come up with what you might think as “the perfect application”.


Successfully getting into an Ivy League college is not so much about cold hard stats like your GPA and test scores. Instead, it’s more about how you position yourself as an applicant.

There’s a lot more value to the admissions process than this. Your earnest efforts to find and pursue your passion, set and achieve goals, and put in all the work day in, day out to improve as an individual could speak volumes about you—and consequently, attract admissions officers—just as much as your academic stats. This becomes even truer for admissions officers in the Ivy Leagues who are likely desensitized to applications that solely leverage their 4.0s, 1600s, and pretty much nothing else.

The truth is, trying to do things just for the sake of getting admitted into an Ivy League school can be counterproductive and taxing.

The myth of the jack-of-all-trades

Another all-too-common mistake that students make on their application is participating in an overwhelming number of extra-curricular activities. These students will try to cram as many activities into their schedules as possible, blindly believing that the more varied their interests, the higher are the chances of these top schools noticing them.

How mainstream media portrays the typical overachiever in the movies and TV doesn’t help either. Usually, you’ll see this character as an overcompetitive (and often overworked) student who’s trying to get into Harvard or Stanford. This kid, aside from having perfect grades and test scores, will be portrayed as someone who’s also in the Key Club, participates in the debate team, plays an instrument, and is a part of a sports team of some sort.

Basically, the kid is a jack of all trades. Thousands of impressionable real-life students will then attempt to emulate this kid that they saw on TV. They’ll try to achieve decent levels of knowledge or skill in various fields in order to demonstrate their ability to be adept in a lot of things.

But is this really the type of applicant top schools look for?

To be frank, not really.

What present and future college applicants need to understand is that year after year, all of the most prestigious universities try to take in freshmen that are as outstandingly world-class as possible. Outstanding alumni bring glory to a school’s name, and the Ivy Leagues–with all splendor that they bask in—will make it a point to prioritize applicants who are likely to be the most successful in the future. This is why being a jack-of-all-trades doesn’t give you that much of an advantage.

Say you’re decent at playing the violin, but you’ve never performed in a legitimate concert in the biggest theatre in your city. Would admissions officers be inclined to think that you have what it takes to be a world-class one musician day? Nope.

You’re part of the track team, too—but you’ve never won a regional medal in your entire high school career. Does this make you look like someone who could win Olympic medals in the future and subsequently, bring glory to Harvard by association? Probably not.

And hey, don’t forget about the debate team! But if you’re merely a part of the pool of debaters in your school—without having won awards that substantiate your skills as a speaker—admissions officers probably won’t be too impressed.

Do you see my point? As I have said earlier, doing things just for the sake of getting admitted into a great school is never a good thing. This type of unmotivated (or more accurately, wrongly-motivated) behavior results in a run-of-the-mill application that has lower chances of being accepted compared to one that boasts a more specialized set of skills.

Do you want to know why? It’s because an applicant that demonstrates sustained commitment to a certain field exudes passion and drive. Prized Harvard alumni like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are ridiculously amazing at what they do. They didn’t get to where they are because they’re above-average in technological know-how, reasonably-skilled at football, and decent piano players all at the same time.

This type of applicant, one who is good at their craft beyond doubt and who has already demonstrated the ability to achieve great things, is exactly what the Ivy Leagues are looking for.


Doing things just for the sake of getting admitted into a great school is never a good thing. This type of unmotivated (or more accurately, wrongly-motivated) behavior results in a run-of-the-mill application that has lower chances of being accepted compared to one that boasts a more specialized set of skills.

Beyond the Ivy League hype, it’s clear that these colleges aren’t looking for students with perfect grades, perfect test scores, and a dozen unrelated extra-curricular activities on their resume. They’re looking for people who will, in the future, change the world—or contribute massive value to the respective communities they’re in, at the very least.

In short, to improve your chances of getting admitted to your dream school, you have to be able to exhibit the potential to become a game-changer in the future. This means being able to demonstrate pronounced success in the field you’re passionate about. Whatever field it is doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it motivates you to work hard for the right reasons and encourages you to push your limits as an individual.

This approach shows top colleges that you have what it takes to push the boundaries of knowledge, leadership, or whatever skill it is that you’re specializing in in the future. But more than that, it allows you to shift your focus from these schools back to yourself as a dreaming, working, and thriving individual. From merely trying to give colleges what you think they want, you’ll become more in touch with your personal journey towards self-development.

And these skills and attributes—namely, tirelessly and passionately working towards a single pursuit and pushing yourself to be ridiculously-good at it one day—will ultimately dictate your success later in life more than any college ever will.

Getting into an ivy league school: a two-part process

To summarize all the points I’ve discussed above as well as to give you a concise idea of what you actually need to do to get into an Ivy League school (or any other school, for that matter), let me share this two-part process.

1.      Get the academics part taken care of

The advice I have given will work assuming that you have competitive test scores and good grades. Take note: good grades—not necessarily perfect. Just like the rule with extra-curricular activities, failing to get an A+ in AP History won’t really matter too much if you’re applying for an engineering program.

That doesn’t mean you should completely neglect your English and History subjects, though! But if you have straight A’s and a bunch of AP classes in science and math, and maybe a National Science Fair medal or two, you really shouldn’t stress too much about that B in English Literature.

Next, make sure that your test scores are in order. Big Brains Education offers personalized SAT/ACT test prep for students who are applying to top schools, and I highly recommend that you check it out.

2.      Find your passion and develop your story alongside it

I’ve said this many times, but how you position yourself in your college applications can make or break your chances of getting admitted. With that said, find a niche that you’re sincerely interested in and focus on it. Devote ample time and effort into that discipline in hopes of achieving an impressive level of success in the field. Whether it’s through winning a competition, getting awarded a national prize, or making a groundbreaking discovery, it’s more likely to land you a spot in an Ivy League school than being a jack-of-all-trades ever will.

However, I do understand that not everyone can win prizes, compete abroad, or invent the next big app while they’re in high school. In this case, just demonstrating a high level of commitment to your cause will be enough. For instance, you don’t necessarily have to discover the cure for cancer ASAP (but if you do, hats off to you!). But if you’re gunning for a pre-med program, say, in John Hopkins, then spending your summers volunteering at a research lab and assisting professionals with high-level work will do you just fine.

Lastly, know that doing all these amazing, interesting things isn’t the end of all your work. You have to be able to tell your story in a compelling manner so that admissions officers will have the urge to fight for you. One of the best ways to accomplish this, of course, is by writing an effective essay. With that said, if you need help with crafting the perfect essay to go with your application, we have a personalized essay tutoring program that’s designed especially for students like you.