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What Do I Need to Get into an Ivy League School?

Many students spend their entire high school careers preparing to apply to an Ivy League school. For some, the dream has been alive since elementary school. The reality is that for the vast majority of these students, the dream will remain just that.

Getting into an Ivy League school is a major hurdle from any standpoint, though. These schools are highly selective, and the admission rates are very low compared to other colleges. On average, the Ivies only admit 7% of applicants. For Harvard and Columbia, it’s just 5%.

To put that into perspective, consider the fact that over 43,000 high school graduates applied to Harvard University in the fall of 2019. Of that pool of applicants, less than 2,200 students were accepted.

What Is the Ivy League, Anyway?

The eight members of the Ivy League are considered among the world’s top universities with long-held traditions for academic rigor and prestige. The eight Ivy League schools are as follows:

  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Harvard University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Princeton University
  • Yale University

The Ivies are mostly located in the northeast, but there are other colleges that are equally prestigious with the same reputation for academic excellence, selective admission, and social prominence. These colleges include:

  • Stanford University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • University of Chicago
  • Duke University

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Admission Process to Ivy League Schools and Similar Colleges

Applying for admission to Ivy League schools is the same process as applying to other colleges. All eight of the Ivies accept the Common Application, which is a college application accepted by all member colleges. The same application is used to apply to any member colleges, although supplemental forms may vary from one college to the next. Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Duke University accept the Common Application, but MIT uses its own MyMIT application.

The application packet may include the following proof of academic standing: standardized test results from SAT, ACT, and AP subject tests, the student’s grade point average or GPA, class rank, and description of coursework. Some colleges may also require the submission of a personal essay along with letters of recommendation from teachers, guidance counselors, and community leaders. In addition, many colleges and universities may provide opportunities for personal interviews with college representatives. These interviews may be held on campus or in locations accessible to applicants in their home state.

Ivy League schools subscribe to a holistic review of applicants’ qualifications. This means that they consider various elements, including academic performance, SAT/ACT scores, extracurricular activities, and community engagement. Preparing a college application for the Ivy League and comparable high-prestige colleges is a process that often begins in 9th grade or as soon as the student enters high school.

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Preparing for Ivy League Consideration

Students who intend to apply to highly selective schools will need to prepare for the process as soon as they enter high school (or even beforehand). The transcript of records that colleges require should demonstrate that students are highly motivated with a stellar record of achievement. Ideally, it should prove that the student took rigorous courses that would include Honors and AP classes. Students should be conscious that grade trends will show in the final transcript that college admissions officers will see. Straight-A students are generally viewed as good candidates for admission to the best universities, but make sure not to shift from Honors classes early in high school to regular classes in junior and senior year in an effort to earn better grades and raise the GPA. Many experts argue that your high school curriculum is the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to Ivy League admissions success.

GPA Matters

These are the average GPAs of students admitted to Ivy League schools. GPA calculations are based on a weighted standard of 4.0 with Honors and AP courses accounted for using a 4.5 or 5.0 scale. With these average GPAs, it is clear that students vying for admission to an Ivy League school will need to earn straight As or close to that to be considered.

  • Brown University – 4.05
  • Columbia University – 4.13
  • Dartmouth College – 4.01
  • Harvard University – 4.10
  • University of Pennsylvania – 4.04
  • Princeton University – 3.90
  • Yale University – 3.90
  • Cornell University – 4.19
  • Stanford – 4.18
  • University of Chicago – 4.29
  • MIT – 4.13
  • Duke – 4.17

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Standardized Tests Are Also Important

Although there is currently a trend toward test-optional college admissions, standardized test scores are still an important factor for Ivy League admissions. That means that students with dreams of attending one of the Ivies have to be prepared with the highest possible SAT or ACT scores for the time being. These students should consider taking the Preliminary SAT or PSAT as soon as they are qualified to hone their test-taking skills. They should also plan to take the SATs or the ACT at least twice to improve your scores. Some students even hire private tutors to help them achieve their optimal test scores before applying to an Ivy League school. There is no limit to the number of times a student can take the SAT, but make sure to comply with final deadlines.

Here are the average SAT scores for students admitted to Ivy League colleges.

School75% SAT25% SAT75% ACT25% ACT
Yale160014903531
Harvard160014703532
Columbia159014703532
Princeton159014703532
Brown158014403431
Dartmouth158014103430
UPenn157014503431
Cornell157014103430

Just for reference, this is the percentile grouping by course for students who took the SAT in the most current year according to Prepscholar.

PercentileEBRWMathTotal
90th percentile (excellent)670*680*1350
73rd percentile (good)6005901190
50th percentile (average)530**520**1050
25th percentile (poor)460450910

Clearly, students who want to be considered for admission to any of the Ivies are expected to perform better than 90 percent of their peers.

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Beyond Grades and Test Scores

Contrary to what you may have heard, getting into an Ivy League school isn’t just about grades and test scores. There’s much more to the process of admission than just these two factors. To illustrate, imagine that you are building a house. Your GPA and SAT scores make up the foundation of a house, with the completed structure being your Ivy League acceptance. You can’t build the house without a strong foundation, but you’ll need much more material to complete the final construction.

So, what extra materials will you need to bring your dream into reality? For one thing, extracurriculars are a big deal. Ivy League schools want to see that you’re involved at your high school and that you’re a well-rounded student who has discovered something to be passionate about. That means you’ll need to choose an activity and follow through. It doesn’t matter what activity you choose—track, band, debate team, or cheerleading will all do the trick—but the extent to which you participate does matter. It’s best to find your niche in ninth grade and stick with it until you graduate. Feel free to delve into more than one activity, but don’t spread yourself too thin. You’ll need to devote enough time to each of your extracurriculars to make an impact. Pursue leadership roles within whatever organization you’re involved in and show up to every meeting and event that you possibly can. Demonstrating passion and dedication can go a long way with an Ivy League admissions committee, and commitment to an extracurricular activity can help you do just that.

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Perfect Your Personal Statement

Can a single essay or writing sample alter the course of your future? If you’re applying to an Ivy League school, it most certainly can! When completing the common application, you’ll be given several essay prompts and asked to write a response. Use this as an opportunity to really introduce yourself to the admissions committee—after all, it’s your chance to shine.

Essay prompts can vary from year to year, but usually, they will allow applicants to express their challenges, triumphs, and passions. There is typically an option to write a free response as well. This is your chance to share something of importance with the committee that doesn’t fit into any of the other topic categories.

When evaluating your personal statement, Ivy league schools will look for clues into your true character and personality. In doing so, they want to get a sense of who you really are, so try to be as open and authentic as possible. These are experienced evaluators, so they’ll see right through you if you attempt to be disingenuous!

Of course, the admissions committee will frown upon any distracting errors in grammar or spelling, so be sure to give your essay a good thorough revision (or five!) before submitting it. You may even want to have another set of eyes go over your draft—ask a trusted teacher, mentor, or parent to give it a once-over.

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Applying for admission to any of the Ivy League schools and similarly prestigious colleges is a long, drawn-out process that must start as soon as the student starts high school. These students have to stay focused, organized, and motivated because Ivy League schools are considered extremely competitive when it comes to GPAs and highly selective when it comes to test scores and other requirements. Still, with the right qualifications and a bit of good advice, your dreams of attending an elite Ivy League school could very well become a reality. Best of luck!

Frequently-Asked Questions About Applying to An Ivy League School

If you have hopes of getting into an Ivy League school, then there’s a good chance you have more than a few questions about the admissions process for these prestigious colleges and universities. Below, our editors have fielded a handful of the most commonly posed questions about Ivy League admissions. Please keep in mind that the information provided here is general in nature. Though our answers are research-based, they are not meant to replace specific counsel from an admissions counselor or other school representative.

Q: How do you apply to the Ivy League?

A: All Ivy League schools use the Common Application. Applications can be accessed online.

Q: Can I get a scholarship to attend an Ivy League school?

A: Yes, but only if you can demonstrate financial need. Ivy League schools do not offer merit-based scholarships as many other colleges and universities do.

Q: Do I have to be wealthy to apply to an Ivy League school?

A: Ivy League schools are notoriously associated with expensive tuition, but that doesn’t mean you have to be rich to apply or even to attend. These schools are need-blind, meaning they will consider any application, no matter the applicant’s financial status. More importantly, the Ivies have impressive aid packages that pay the way for many students who may not be able to afford tuition otherwise.

Q: What do Ivy League admissions look for?

A: There is no single factor that influences Ivy League admissions. Instead, the committee attempts to get a full picture of an applicant through indications like GPA, test scores, personal statements, and extracurriculars.

Q: Can I apply to the Ivy League as an international student?

A: Yes. Ivy League schools are well-known for welcoming diversity. The admissions process may look a bit different for international applicants, though, so it’s wise to speak to an admissions counselor before applying.

Q: What are the chances of getting into an Ivy League school?

A: Ivy League schools only admit about 7% of all applicants on average, so your chances are slim. That’s why these schools are often seen as reach schools. Still, with stellar grades and test scores, you can tip the odds in your favor.

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