The Ivy League Admissions Process: Less About Chance and More About Overall Personal Equation

The Ivy League Admissions Process: Less About Chance and More About Overall Personal Equation
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Kylie Thompson is University Chic blogger and underclassman at Harvard. The following is a student's perspective on navigating the admissions process within the confines of an Ivy League education.

Many students who get into an Ivy League school feel ridiculously lucky. While some may attribute their success to a high G.P.A., competitive SAT scores, or parents who make a substantial monetary donation, admissions counselors maintain that all applicants are evaluated equally with a comprehensive formula and that each application is often read multiple times.

Unfortunately, this vague process does nothing to calm the nerves of millions of high school students (who meet Ivy League criteria) and their parents (who endeavor to ensure their children's future social capital via an Ivy League degree) given the competitive landscape. Last year, Yale's undergraduate college only accepted 8 percent of applicants, Princeton accepted 10 percent, and Cornell (the least competitive and the largest of the "ancient eight" college), accepted 19 percent of students. Meanwhile 30,489 students applied for admittance at Harvard, but only 7.5% of applicants were admitted. With thirty thousand applicants, Harvard could easily fill an entire lecture hall with students who received a perfect SAT score.

Now what happens if your child is a "regular" student hoping to apply to an Ivy League institution? Is there any point in investing the time and money? As a student tour guide in the admissions visitor center of Harvard College, I'm often forced to field questions about each individual student's "chances." (This word is often repeated across numerous admissions blogs, websites, and college counseling offices everywhere.) "What are my chances if I retake the SAT three times?" "What are my chances if my two older brothers were accepted?" "What are my chances if I had a typo on the paragraph about my extracurricular activities in the tenth grade?" "What are my chances if I had a B- in first semester Algebra II?"

"Chance" is a relative term that suggests there's no clear methodology to all this Ivy League admissions madness. But if you dig a little deeper, you quickly start to surmise that each school's criteria reads less like a academic to-do list and more like a profile. According to, Yale lists class rank, extracurricular activities, character/personal qualities, and talent/ability as "very important admissions factors." The level of the applicant's interest, geographical residence, and work experience are also listed as "Considered" admissions factors. While these categories are rather broad and may differ from student to student, they clearly show that grades and test scores aren't the only elements that make or break this "mysterious" admissions formula.

Research and personal experience has taught me that Ivy League college admissions officers like applicants that are well-rounded and demonstrate ongoing commitment to both their studies and extracurricular activities: play the same sport for 4 years, master the guitar, pursue supplementary classes to make up for a poor grade in your weak area, or start your own club or organization. Clearly demonstrating a passion for "something" is better than just displaying a perfect report card in their eyes.

While many people continue to insist that "chance" and "luck" have a frightening amount of influence on Ivy League decision makers, things like personal interviews, creative essays and (yes) SAT scores are all important components that are factored like a complicated mathematical equation. And mastering this equation DOESN'T begin with the application process - it should be an ongoing endeavor your son or daughter starts to learn at the beginning of their high school career.

So what does all this mean? Prepping for a Harvard or Yale education is a four year proposition and not something you should attempt on a whim. By building a well-rounded educational portfolio, you're also building an argument that you're thoughtful, intelligent, and prepared to embrace the ideas and tenets that make the Ivy League what it is today.

Kylie Thompson, Harvard University

Read our five tips for snagging an Ivy League acceptance letter at

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