So much of what you read, watch, or hear in the media is there to make you feel like it’s impossible to get into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale without cheating your way in or using some unsavory connection to worm your way in.
Yet, a successful – and ethical – formula for getting into Ivy League colleges does exist and is pretty straightforward.
Below, I share the simple four-step formula for getting into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, or Yale, which has helped 100% of my students who have followed it get into one or more Ivy.
Step 1: Take Rigorous High School Courses and Get As in Them
Notice how it didn’t say “be smart” or “pursue your academic passions.” Such entreaties sound lovely, but they’re beside the point. The foundation of your campaign to get into an Ivy League college depends on you willingness and ability to consistently take the most rigorous courses at your high school and then earn A grades in all such courses as well as whatever other courses you are also taking. If your school reports A grades via a range (such as A-, A, A+ or 90-100), work your hardest to get the highest As possible (A+ or 97+). If your school grades on a different scale than those mentioned so far, simply aim for the top of it.
Every high school is different, but in many cases, taking the most rigorous courses at your high school is synonymous with one of the below three scenarios (or some combination or permutation thereof):
A. Running the table with as many Advanced Placement courses as you can take each academic year and taking all of your other academic courses at the highest levels on offer
B. Taking the most challenging courses offered to students in your high school during your first two years in high school, then becoming a full-fledged International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) student at the start of your junior year, and finally completing the full IBDP with both predictions and final cumulative scores aligned in the 40-45 range
C. Taking as many Honors, High Honors, Gifted, and/or Dual Enrollment courses as possible throughout your four years in high school
In no grade in high school should you take fewer than five academic courses (though I prefer six if you can swing it), and if you are being strategic about things, no matter the exact curriculum on offer at your school or official names of courses available at your school, at minimum, your four-year academic course load in high school should include the following:
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 10th Grade Students (Same Language as Last Year) – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 11th Grade Students (Same Language as Last Year) – 1 Credit
*Or, if an IBDP student:
-Three HLs in areas you are most passionate about and that are likely to align with your potential college major(s)
-Three SLs in areas you are also deeply passionate about
-Of your six IB courses, only one (max) should be arts-related unless you plan to major in one or more art in college
-If your school offers Mathematics: analysis and approaches HL, you should take it and get an A (or Predicted 5+ minimum) in it
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 12th Grade Students (Same Language as Last Year) or Double Up on English, Math, History, or Science, but only with an Advanced/AP/IB/Honors+ Course – 1 Credit
Or, if an IBDP student, continuation of * detailed above.
Notice how I didn’t mention elective/arts courses. They are nice to take too, especially if you need to or want to pursue your passions through them and have the horsepower to do so, but to be completely honest, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale are focused on your academic courses, not PE, Health, Arts (except for AP or IB), Personal Finance, etc. courses.
Remember, the above academic course progression is only a minimum goal; you can always do more, and that would be great – just keep earning As if you take on more rigor/courses than the progression outlined above.
Step 2: Score Very Well on the SAT and/or ACT
To be blunt – aim for 1450 on the SAT or 33 on the ACT minimum. To pump up your standardized test profile also aim to take and submit scores of 750 or higher on at least two SAT Subject Tests. For most people this requires a great deal of studying and a history of actually being a serious student in school. Do students get into Ivy League colleges with lower scores than those stated above? Yes. You should assume that you are not going to be one of them.
– Time Out –
Before we move on to Step 3 and Step 4, I should note that many students around the world are able to beautifully accomplish the aforementioned Step 1 and Step 2; yet, the majority of such students will not get into Ivy League colleges even if they try. This is for the same reason that most professional baseball players have no problem hitting a double but very few will ever hit an inside-the-park home run: they are unable or unwilling to go past second base. Below you will learn how to go beyond second base and return to home plate without being called out.
FUN FACT: the majority of students, parents, talking-heads/influencers complaining about how hard it is to get into an Ivy League college are doing so because they don’t want to or don’t know how to put in the effort necessary to complete Step 3 and Step 4 below.
Step 3: Strategically Differentiate Your Life
Everyone wants to win the lotto these days (hit the jackpot without the effort). But, again, if we are being real, very few billionaires just fell into their money. They or their predecessors developed a plan and executed on it in order to make it big.
The same idea applies to getting into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, or Yale. You need to sit down like a young adult, think critically, develop a plan, and execute on it if you are going to give yourself the best shot of getting into an Ivy League college.
What should the plan look like? It should not look like any other student’s plan, that’s for sure. That’s why sitting down like a young adult and attempting to think critically all alone is often not enough for many teens with Ivy League dreams. Most teenagers with big goals really do need to sit down with at least one older and wiser strategic thinker in order to game plan out a strategy that can be tactically and earnestly implemented.
Sadly, many students only turn to a mom, dad, sibling, friend, or teacher who means well but doesn’t know much about what Ivy League colleges are really attracted to in students. Other students go to their high school’s college counselor hoping he or she will be the “older and wiser strategic thinker” that they are so desperately looking for in order to give themselves the best shot of Ivy League college admission. Pretty soon most students figure out (if they do at all) that even if their college counselor is well-meaning and knowledgable (the student would actually be very lucky to find these characteristics in his or her college counselor), very few high school-based college counselors have the time, interest, and/or ability to provide the personalized and highly strategic college admissions coaching students with Ivy League goals need.
For example, so many students go to their high school counselors looking for advice on how to get into Ivy League colleges and their counselors summarily advise them to consider other colleges all together because, “fit matters more than rank, Johnny” or, if the students are lucky, maybe the counselors will advise the students to become extracurricular leaders! Woopdidoo!
Both scenarios make my blood pressure rise, though at least in the latter case the counselors are respecting students’ questions and goals. Yet, as attractive as student leaders are to Ivy League colleges, there is a very important characteristic that trumps leadership in the eyes of Ivy League college admissions officers:
The earlier in high school you can sit down with someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about and has the time and interest to get to know you and your goals well the more likely you will be able to strategically differentiate your life choices over the course of your high school career while also aligning your life choices to your unique value system. This in turn will allow you to stand out for all the right reasons to Ivy League admissions committees and ultimately reach your full college admissions potential.
Step 4: Communicate Like a Teenager from a Bygone Era
There has been a complete implosion of English instruction in K-12 education. As I have alluded to before: most students capable of getting straight As in high school English classes can’t write well or speak well. This is because most students capable of getting straight As in high school English classes have never learned how to think critically, which is a prerequisite for eloquent writing and speaking. Many students get As in English – even AP-level English – without actually being able to think, write, or speak that well.
Layer on top of that travesty the advent of smart phones and other forms of electronic communication, which have corrupted teenage minds and writing skills over the past twenty years, and you have a nightmare scenario for the future of humanity.
Yet, in this living nightmare there is an opportunity for those high school students who have actually – miraculously – been taught how to think, write, and speak clearly – like mere peasants, high school dropouts, and ragamuffins could in 1938. I mean this seriously. I was looking through an English test that my grandmother had to take in eighth grade in a Baltimore public school, and it was far harder than any English test I EVER took in high school or college. As a point of reference: in the last twenty years I’ve earned an MA in Education Administration and a BA in History (the latter from Penn no less…). Maybe I would have been better off being born in 1922 and simply graduating high school in 1940 (as long as I survived the war)? I digress.
If you are in high school and open to actually learning how to think clearly and write and speak articulately, the world is your oyster. Frankly, the Ivy League would be luck to have you – and their admissions officers know it. Thus, if you pull off high level thinking and communicating in your application to an Ivy League college, you are going to set yourself apart from the average Ivy League applicant.
Many students (and their parents) realize that they need help in the communication portion of their college applications. That’s why every year in late spring I start getting calls from rising high school seniors and their parents begging me to help edit college applications – specifically extracurricular resumes and college application essays.
Frankly, I find providing developmental editing, substantive editing, copy editing, proofreading, and constructive critiquing for rising seniors increasingly tedious and often painful because it’s pretty time-consuming and emotionally draining for me to fix over a several-week period what took twelve years to do to you, namely, destroy your ability to communicate effectively. That’s why I much prefer meeting with students early in high school in order to start the important process of teaching them how to think deeply and write and speak well. This is also a reason why I developed the How to Build and Extraordinary Extracurricular Resume short course; creating a good resume is pretty much a science, but it’s a repetitive one.
To meet your full potential on college application essays, only personalized coaching can get you there – especially if you have not benefited from the rare instances of proper English instruction that still remain in this anti-intellectual age. As such, I do still take on a limited number of clients each year for college admissions coaching services (resumes, essays, interview prep, college list development, extracurricular planning, etc.) even though such work becomes harder each year because of the daily devolution of institutionalized K-12 education.
Long story short, the earlier you become a master communicator the more likely you will actually be able to share both your own voice and a voice worth listening to on your college applications and in college admissions interviews.
It’s really that simple. If you can tackle the four steps above with grace and gusto (and dare I suggest, gravitas), you are extremely likely to get into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, or Yale. Yet, even more important than getting into any Ivy League college, if you can accomplish all of the above, you will have learned a lot and grown a lot as a person and remained ethical in so doing.