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How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

Getting into elite schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and others is a goal of many high school students. How exactly to accomplish this is often a mystery to students and parents going through the admissions process. Lots of unhelpful and vague advice abound, especially from people who have never gained admission themselves to these schools.
In high school, I got into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford, and I attended Harvard for college. I also learned a lot about my classmates and the dynamics of college admissions in ways that were never clear to me in high school. Now, I’m sharing this expertise with you.
I’ve written the most comprehensive guide to getting into top schools. I’m going to explain in detail what admissions officers at Ivy League schools are really looking for in your application. More importantly, I’m going to share an actionable framework you can use to build the most compelling application that’s unique to you.
How to Get Into the Ivy League: Brief OverviewIf there’s one central takeaway from this article, it’s that most students are spending their time on entirely the wrong things because they have an incorrect view of what top colleges are really looking for.
If you’re struggling to stay afloat with a ton of AP classes in subjects you don’t care about, a sports team, SAT/ACT prep, and volunteering, you’re hurting yourself—and are probably incredibly unhappy, too. We’ll drill down into exactly why this is such a huge mistake.
Before we dive in, I need to get a few things out of the way. My advice in this article is blunt and pragmatic, and I have strong opinions. Even if one of my points rubs you the wrong way, I don’t want one bad apple to spoil the bunch—you might end up ignoring advice that would otherwise be helpful. So let me clear up some common misconceptions about what I’m saying.
First of all, it’s completely OK if you don’t go to Harvard. I wish I were joking about having to tell people this. Attending Harvard or Yale or Stanford doesn’t guarantee you success in life. Lots of students who go to these schools end up aimless, and many more who don’t go to top schools end up accomplishing a lot.
More than anything, your success in life is up to you—not your environment or factors out of your control. The school you go to cannot guarantee your own success. So whether you get into a top school or not, it’s only the beginning of a long road, and what happens during your journey is almost entirely up to you. (That said, I believe going to a top school gives you huge advantages, particularly in the availability of resources and strength of the community. If I had to do it all over, I would have 100% gone to Harvard again. More on this later.)
I don’t believe that getting into a top school like Stanford or Duke should be the singular goal of high school students. Happiness and fulfillment are really important and are rarely taken seriously enough. Luckily, with the approach to admissions that I explain below, you’ll be able to explore your passions while also building a strong application.
This article is a guide to admissions to the top schools in the country. To be explicit, I include in this the most selective schools in the Ivy League (consisting of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia) as well as Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Caltech. Generally speaking, these are the top 10 schools according to US News and have admissions rates below 10%. Following this guide is really helpful for these ultra-selective schools and important for raising your chances of admission.
There’s a second group of high-quality schools for which admissions is relatively easier (Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Washington University in St. Louis, Cornell, Brown, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Rice, UC Berkeley—ranked #11-18 in US News). If these are your target schools and you follow the advice in this guide, you will absolutely blow away admissions at this latter group and get accepted to every one of them. Big claims, I know, but I stand by my advice here—you’ll see.
More than a guide on how to get into Stanford or MIT, this is really a guide on how to explore your passion and structure your life around it. I believe that getting into schools is really just a positive consequence of doing things you’re sincerely interested in. Keep this in mind as you read on. As you’ll see, trying to do things only for the sake of getting into a top school can be counterproductive and burdensome.
Throughout this article, I’m going to sound a bit elitist. For example, I’m going to refer to what it takes for you to be “world class” and what it means to be “mediocre.” This might sound distasteful, as it seems like I’m judging some efforts to be more worthwhile than others. Try not to be turned off by this. Michael Phelps is a world-class swimmer, and I am a terribly mediocre one. Facts are facts, and I’m just presenting how admissions officers will think about comparing you with the 30,000 other applicants from the rest of the world.
I currently run a company called PrepScholar. We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to your strengths and weaknesses. I believe we’ve created the best prep program available,and if you want to raise your SAT/ACT score, I encourage you to check us out.
I want to emphasize, though, that you do not need to buy a prep program to get a great SAT or ACT score. Moreover, the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. But if you’re aren’t sure what to study and agree with our unique approach to test prep, our program may be a great fit for you.
Lastly, this article is not a reductionist magic guide on how to get into Stanford or MIT. There are no easy hidden tricks or shortcuts. There is no sequence of steps you can follow to guarantee your personal success. It takes a lot of hard work, passion, and some luck.
But if it weren’t hard, then getting into these schools wouldn’t be such a valuable accomplishment. Most students who read this guide won’t be able to implement it fully, but you should at least take key elements from it to change how you view your college admissions path.
With all that said, I hope you can take what I say below seriously and learn a lot about how colleges think about admissions. If you disagree with anything fundamental below, let me know in a comment. I strongly believe in what I’m saying, and most of my friends and colleagues who went to top schools would agree with this guide, too.
Part 1: Why Schools Exist and What They Want to Accomplish
To fully understand my points below on how to get into Yale and similar schools, we need to first start at the highest level: what do top schools hope to accomplish by existing? This will give us clues as to how a school decides what types of students it’ll admit.
All top schools like Harvard, UPenn, and Duke are nonprofits, which means that unlike companies like Starbucks, they don’t exist to create profits for shareholders.
But they do something similar: they aim to create as much value as they can in the world. Value can come in a lot of forms.
A common one you hear about is research. Through research by faculty members, schools push the boundaries of human knowledge and contribute to new inventions and theories that can dramatically improve human lives. If you’ve ever heard a news story saying something like, “A team at Stanford today reported that they found a new treatment for pancreatic cancer,” you can bet that Stanford’s darn proud of that team.
Another one is through services. Universities often organize programs to consult with national governments or assist nonprofits. A third way of creating value is by publishing books and disseminating research information. The list goes on and on.
But here’s one final, huge way schools create value: by educating students who then go on to do great things in the world.
Do you know where Bill Gates went to college? You’ve probably heard it was Harvard (even though he dropped out). Don’t you think Harvard is thrilled to be associated with Bill Gates so publicly, and to be part of his lore?
How about Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google? You might have heard that they went to Stanford. And President Barack Obama went to Columbia as an undergrad and Harvard for law school.Every single school has alumni who make their schools proud. (Can you think of any from, say, the University of Chicago or Princeton?) By accomplishing great things in their lives, these alumni carry forward the flags of their alma maters, and their schools then get associated with their accomplishments.
Think of schools like parents and students as their children. The parents provide a nurturing environment for their children who will eventually go on to do great things. The parents are proud whenever the children accomplish anything noteworthy. (And if the children make it big, they might give some money back to their parents.)
To see proof of this in action, visit the news office website of any school. All schools publicize theworld-changing things that are happening at the school and by its graduates.
Why do they do this? Because it generates positive feedback loops (remember this from biology?)—aka virtuous cycles. The better the achievements at a school, the better the reputation it has. The better the reputation, the more funding it gets and the better the students who want to attend. The better the students, the better the achievements the school creates. And this continues perpetually so that places like Harvard will likely remain at the top of the education game for a very long time.
We know that schools like Princeton and MIT care about creating as much value as they can, including educating their students. Now for the important question: what does this mean about what schools look for in their next class of freshmen?Part 2: What Types of Students Ivy League Schools Want to Admit and Why
Let’s cut to the chase. Schools are looking for two main qualities in applicants:
    Students who are going to accomplish world-changing things.
      Students who are going to contribute positively to their communities while in college and help other students accomplish great things as well.That’s essentially it.
      For every student who enters Harvard or Stanford, the school hopes that he or she will go on to change the world. Again, this can be in a multitude of ways. The student might start the next huge company. She might join a nonprofit and manage a large global health initiative. He might write a novel that wins the Pulitzer Prize. He might even “just” become a great parent to children who will then also go on to do great things.
      Here’s some proof of this from William R. Fitzsimmons, long-time Dean of Admissions at Harvard College:
      «Each year we admit about 2,100 applicants. We like to think that all of them have strong personal qualities and character, that they will educate and inspire their classmates over the four years of college, and that they will make a significant difference in the world after they leave Harvard.»
      This, of course, is hard to predict when you’re just 17 years old. You’ve barely developed, you don’t know exactly what you want to do with your life, and you have a lot of room to grow. But the college application process, as it’s designed now, is the best way that colleges have to predict which students are going to accomplish great things.
      Your job is to convince the school that you’re that person.
      This naturally leads us to our first of four questions:
      #1: How Do You Predict Who’s Going to Change the World?
      This is the challenge that all colleges face. Based on the first 17 years of your life, top colleges like Stanford and UChicago want to determine the potential you have to make an impact throughout the rest of your life.
      In trying to do this, top colleges adhere to one golden rule: the best predictor of future achievement is past achievement. If you make deep achievements as a high school student, in the college’s eyes you’re showing that you’re capable of achieving great things in the future.
      This rule actually holds true in a lot of scenarios outside college admissions. In college football, for example, the Heisman trophy is given annually to the top player. Then, in the NFL draft, Heisman trophy winners are often picked in the first round—in other words, they’ve proven that they have a huge likelihood of succeeding.
      The same goes with decisions you might make in your everyday life. If you’re looking for an orthodontist to straighten your teeth, you’re more likely to choose someone who has years of making happy smiles. Likewise, you’d probably avoid the rookie dentist just out of dental school who doesn’t have a lot of experience and positive results yet.
      The point of your application is to convince the school that, based on your achievements so far, you are going to continue succeeding and achieving great things in college and beyond.
      Of course, this isn’t perfect—the past doesn’t always predict the future. Tom Brady, star quarterback of the New England Patriots football team, was a no-name when he was drafted in 2000. He didn’t have a standout college football history, and he was drafted as the 199th pick in the sixth round. So even though you might not have a stellar college application, you could still achieve great things in your career.
      Pretty much every football team wishes they’d drafted Tom Brady earlier.Colleges do make mistakes, but, by and large, they try to adhere to this rule most of the time to predict future success. Therefore, to get into a top school, you need to demonstrate the ability to succeed in the future by achieving great things now.This idea might not be new to you: “Duh, Allen—of course Harvard wants to admit students who accomplish great things!”
      But most likely you’re making a mistake in how you demonstrate that you are both world class and capable of accomplishing great things. Most students tackle this in entirely the wrong way; they try to be “well rounded,” thinking this is what colleges want to see.
      It’s a big mistake.
      #2: What Is the Critical Flaw With Being Well Rounded?
      Most students aiming for top schools make the huge mistake of trying to be “well rounded.”When I was in high school, I heard this refrain over and over and over again, from older students and teachers to counselors and supposed “college admissions experts.” I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase, too.
      The typical student who wants to be well rounded will try to demonstrate some competency in a variety of skills. She’ll learn an instrument, play a JV sport, aim for straight As, score highly on tests, volunteer for dozens of hours at a hospital, and participate in a few clubs.
      In these students’ minds, they’re telling their schools, “I can do everything! Whatever I set my mind to, I can learn to do a pretty good job. This means I’ll be successful in the future!”
      This is wrong. The world doesn’t see it this way, colleges like Yale and MIT generally don’t see it this way, and far too many students waste thousands of hours in their lives pursuing this.
      Here’s the problem: well-rounded students don’t do anything particularly well. They’re not team captain of a national-ranking soccer team, or head of a new statewide nonprofit, or concertmaster of a leading orchestra. This means that none of what they do is truly impressive.
      To put it bluntly, “well rounded” means “mediocre at everything.” Jack of all trades, master of none.
      By being a jack of all trades, you risk being master of none.Mediocre people don’t end up changing the world. They might be great low-level employees. They’ll be followers, not leaders. But top schools like Harvard and Stanford want to train leaders who will change the world.(Is this rubbing you the wrong way? Let me pause here. Remember above what I said about possibly sounding elitist? There’s nothing wrong with being a jack of all trades and master of none. You might not even be that interested in success or achievement as traditionally understood by society. That’s completely fine. It might be the best way to make you happy, and if so, that’s the path you should take, no matter what anyone says. But top schools aren’t looking for people like this. And since that’s our goal right now, excuse me for being blunt.)
      Think about this—do the New England Patriots care about whether Tom Brady can do math? No—he just needs to be a great quarterback and team leader. Few other things matter.
      If you break your arm and need surgery, do you care that your surgeon has a fly-fishing hobby? Likely not—you just want her to be the best surgeon possible so she can fix your arm.
      Does being well rounded sound like your plan? Be careful. You’re going down the wrong path, and you need to fix your course before it’s too late.
      Here’s why students make this common mistake: because they’re not yet in the real world, they have a warped impression of what it takes to be successful. In a young teenage mind, it probably seems like to be successful in the future, you should be successful at everything—you need to be charismatic, be super-smart in all subjects, have a great smile, and be a great public speaker.
      Let me clear up this misconception with a lesson I learned the hard way.
      #3: What Does It Really Take to Make a Difference in the World?
      In a word, focus. Relentless focus.
      The world has gotten so specialized now that the days of the successful dilettante are over. Each field has gotten so developed, and the competitors so sophisticated, that you need to be a deep expert in order to compete.
      If you become a scientist, you’re competing with other scientists who are thinking about the same problems all day, every day. And you’re all competing for the same limited pool of research money.
      If you’re a novelist, you’re competing with prolific writers who are drafting dozens of pages every day. And you’re all competing for the limited attention of publishers and readers.
      This applies to pretty much every field. There really is no meaningful area that rewards you for being a jack of all trades (I would argue that early-stage entrepreneurship comes closest, but it’s still far away).
      If you don’t have your head 100% in the game, you’re not going to accomplish nearly as much as those who are 100% committed. This is what it takes to make a revolutionary difference in the real world.
      This does not mean you can’t have multiple interests. Successful people often have wide-ranging interests and do especially interesting things at the intersection of them. I’m just saying that it’s harder to be a true Renaissance man now than it was during the Renaissance, when much less was known about the world. Life necessarily has tradeoffs—the more areas you try to explore, the less deeply you’ll explore any one of them.Note as well that this does not mean colleges expect what you focus on now to be your focus for the future. This is a common worry among high school applicants. But the reality is, colleges knowyou’ll change, and they want you to change. You might be a top ballerina today and a neurosurgeon tomorrow. What’s more important is that you demonstrate the capacity for success.
      If you work hard enough and have the passion and drive to become a top ballerina, the colleges know you’ll be much more likely to succeed in whatever else you put your mind to later because the personal characteristics that earn success are pretty common in all fields.
      To find evidence of this, we looked at Princeton’s admissions office:
      «We are interested in the talents and interests you would bring to Princeton outside the classroom. We don’t value one type of activity over another. Rather, we appreciate sustained commitment to the interests you have chosen to pursue.»
      Clearly, it’s important that you show your capacity for achieving success. We’ll cover this a lot more in the next sections.
      Once again, if you’re not that interested in making a huge difference in the world, that’s completely fine. Many people don’t. But you’ll have to accept, then, that top schools won’t be that into you.
      Back to your application now—what does all of this mean for you? Essentially, you need to prove that you’re capable of deep accomplishment in a field. This is what your application ultimately must convey: that you are world class in something you care deeply about.
      In other words, forget well rounded—what you need to do is develop a huge spike.
      #4: What Is a Spike and How Can You Develop One?