How to Get into Ivy League and Elite Colleges in USA? Tips on Successful Admits at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford & Co.

Many high school students (and parents) dream of getting into a top college for the undergraduate program. Among those, the number of families aiming for Ivy League Schools and other Elite Colleges is also very high. But, the competition for getting into those top-tier universities is fierce. The acceptance rates for the top US schools fall between 5 – 20%. During the initial screening, the admission committee spends roughly 2 minutes accepting or rejecting an applicant.

So, what does it take to get into Ivy League schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Princeton & Co.? 

How to Get into Ivy League Colleges

How to Get into Ivy League & Elite Colleges

To disappoint you all – there is no clear and secret recipe for getting into an Ivy League school. However, I will discuss a few case studies of Ivy League Schools, feedback and suggestions from the Admission Heads and Deans, and tips from a few world-class grads who made it to Ivy League for their Undergraduate programs. Besides, I am also going to share with you some interesting data.

What Do the Ivy League Colleges Look for in International Applicants – Inside Stories from Yale & Harvard

Jeremiah Quinan, the Dean of Admissions at Yale University explained to Quartz – “We’re looking for a passion and civic engagement”. Richard Weissbourd from the Harvard University echoed similar suggestions for the prospective students, as quoted on PBS and NPR.

As per Quinlan and Weissbourd, the Ivy League wants the applicants to demonstrate a keen and deep interest in their communities and to reflect a genuine passion for a subject, hobby, or anything.

Quinlan also stressed the fact that most of the students go overboard and try too many clichés and gimmicks in their essays. The Ivy League Colleges want game-changing applicants who are spirited, passionate about learning, and involved in doing the greater good for the community and public in general.

According to Weissbourd, students burn out themselves and become aimless if they take too many AP (advanced placement) courses, join too many clubs and/or societies and do too much. He explained that it’s perfectly okay to do a couple of courses, two or three extracurricular activities, and describe their importance in an applicant’s life. A long list of activities is a big no for the admission committee.

It is not mandatory, but Harvard does encourage applicants to undertake something meaningful and do it for 9 – 12 months. Doing something for a short time of period (even if it is overseas) does not really qualify. It’s, therefore, better to do something actively and passionately in the same city (or country), but for a longer time.

In fact, not only Yale and Harvard; 85 of the top elite schools in the US are now endorsing the idea of emphasizing community involvement over the personal success in their admission policies.

The Ivy League Colleges care about your:

  • Growth & Potential
  • Interests & Activities
  • Character & Personality
  • Contribution to the Community & Peers
  • Creative & Reflective Values

High Grades & Test Scores are NOT Guarantee of Success: Case Studies & Adcom Feedback

In 2013,  Stanford University rejected 69% of applicants with a perfect SAT score as quoted in the Stanford Alumni Journal. Stanford stated that they prefer well-rounded applicants with leadership, prolific extracurricular activities, and volunteer experience, rather than just very high test scores and grades.

Acceptance Rates at Ivy League Universities

Case Study of a Successful Admit at Davidson College

Davidson College is a top-tier Liberal Arts College in North Carolina, with an acceptance rate of just over 20%. They accepted a teenager who had an ACT score of 25 (out of 36; so, nothing like extraordinary). She had an impressive mix of grades and extracurricular activities. But, none of them were exceptional or world-class. But, her personal statement and recommendation letters revealed something extraordinary. The applicant was raised by a single mother and had a 6-year-old brother. The candidate has been taking care of her brother (dinner and taking him to bed) while their mother was working to make living.

Chris Gruber, Dean of Admissions at Davidson College, said “Look at what she’s juggling”, as quoted by the New York Times. Gruber praised the applicant’s maturity, determination, and independence. So, there was no point in denying her an admission.

Case Study of a Successful Admit at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC admitted a young man from rural North Carolina with an ACT score of 22. His test scores and grades placed him almost at the bottom end of the applicant pool. But, he had shown signs of improvement in his grades. But most importantly, it was his personal story that grabbed the attention of the admission committee.

He used to belong to an immigrant family who was not proficient in English. The applicant used to devote 30 hours a week to his family translating for them and helping with the family business, and even with the banking formalities. One of his Letters of Recommendation stated: “He needs a bridge to his future”. Stephen Farmer, Admission Director at UNC-Chapel Hill revealed this to the New York Times.

How to Get into Ivy League & Top Schools

Where Applicants Went Wrong with the Applications

Admission Committee members of Ivy League Schools say that students put more focus on the application and getting prepared for college admission. Whereas, they should focus on education and life.

Quite often the applicants provide the idea in their applications that they are going to enjoy the exclusive club of the Ivy League. But ideally, they should convey the message of using the resources of the Ivy League for something greater good after the University. Wesleyan University President Michael Roth said “One of my predecessors used to say to students, ‘If these turn out to be the best four years of your life, we’ve failed you.’” As quoted in The Atlantic.

Sometimes, it is also bad luck with Ivy League applications. Jonathan Cole, Professor, and Former Provost at Columbia University stated “which person in the admissions committee reads your application; what their biases are, their presuppositions; whether they’ve had a bad egg-salad sandwich that day or read too many applications. These are all things that enter our decision-making process as human beings.”

Related Posts:

85 Top US Colleges that Offer Maximum Financial Aid to International Students for Undergraduate Studies

Where do International Students & Parents Go Wrong with Summer School (Pre-College) Programs

What do Top Colleges Look for in Applications from International Students

How Jindal Global Summer School Can Help High School Students with College Admissions

Tips for Getting Admitted to the Ivy League Colleges by Two Harvard Alumni

I am going to share a few excerpts from the tips and advice given by Jessica Yeager and Allen Cheng on other websites. Jessica graduated from Harvard and MIT. She had acceptance from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and Columbia. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.

  • Engage and Demonstrate Interest: As an applicant for an Ivy League College, you need to show genuine interest and engage with them. Doing deep research, interacting with the Professors (and Admission Officers) over the phone or Skype, and visiting the campus (if possible) will help. Later you need to share this information in your supplemental essays. Don’t act aloof.
  • Deep Research and Self-Reflection: You should take the time to think about the kind of college experience you wish to have so that you can reach your personal and career goals. Doing this self-discovery and self-introspection will help you to narrow down the list of your targeted schools. Making sure you’re a good fit for the Ivy League is important. But, you also need to make sure that the Ivy League is also a good fit for you.
  • Start Early and Don’t Start Late: Doing research and writing personal statements & supplemental essays are time-consuming. Writing a compelling story in your essay will take months. This cannot happen overnight. Jessica received only one rejection (from Princeton). At Princeton, Jessica didn’t get her essay right. She had sent four short answers just the weekend before the deadline. Submitting applications just before the deadline will more likely include half-baked and sloppy essays.

The graphs below will give you a clear benefit of applying early (sources – Ivy League Universities & Business Insider)

how to get into the top colleges in the US

Early Acceptance Rates - Class of 2021

Don’t Go Overboard and Focus on Few Interests: There is no point in joining 15 clubs, playing 5 sports, volunteering at a local community center for a few hours a week, and taking 10 AP courses. Instead, you should focus on a few interests that you really care about. So, don’t overload yourself and get burnt out.

Make Impact and Demonstrate Potential: All Ivy League Colleges want the next Obama, next Gates, next Musk, or next Zuckerberg. They want future leaders and visionaries with game-changing abilities and a knack for value creation. Instances like creating a non-profit, starting a popular blog, starting a club, writing a book, organizing events for fundraising, teaching underprivileged children (of your lower class) in your locality, building an app (and getting it on App Store or Google Play) during your high school – these will really help your applications.

Stand Out Clearly: You won’t go long by presenting yourself as a mediocre and generic applicant. Your essays should help to reflect something extraordinary about you. You need to show some uniqueness that you will bring to the College campus and to your peers. One of the great ways is to include specific and quantitative about your accomplishments. Underselling is a definite no while applying to the Ivy League Colleges as per Jessica.

Tips for Getting into Ivy League and Top Colleges in the USA

Allen emphasized having a big spike apart from being well-rounded. You need to think about your uniqueness and show it off as a spike. It could be winning national and international level competitions for a subject (e.g. Olympiad, Science Bowl) or through Poetry and participating in debates. You can be passionate about a cause (say Cancer Awareness or Environment Protection). It could be a very interesting and unique hobby. But, don’t sound silly.

Nothing is Optional: If the application has stated an essay or test as optional, go for it and do well. It would be a very bad idea to skip the optional essay. The admission committee will consider everything you submit in your application kit. In fact, they might get to know something new and unique about you.

Practice: Be it Standardized Tests, English Proficiency Exams, or Interviews – do the practice. It would be great to practice a few times why you want to attend a specific school.

Related Posts:

Financial Aid & Scholarships for Undergraduate International Students to Study in US

Most Generous Scholarships for International Students to Study Abroad (US, UK, Europe)

7 Things Parents & Applicants Struggle with while working on US College Applications & Admission

Top 10 Summer Programs for High School Students in India

Top Summer Schools for the Indian High School Students in the US


I believe you have found this post useful. If so, please share it with your circles. It will be a great stat for doing something good for others. In case of any feedback or queries, please contact us or write to us at

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: