Acing Your Application to the Ivies

So, you want to get into an Ivy League school?

If you've got high SAT scores and top grades, that's a necessary step in the right direction—but it's not enough. The competition is fierce; the rejection rate at the Ivies exceeds 85%. Your application needs to stand out among the 20–35,000 thousand applications each top-ranked college receives.

Here are 5 insider tips to make a compelling impression on your application:

  1. Don't feel limited by the constraints of the Common Application. Colleges look for in-depth information about you, but often have too little to go on because of the limitations imposed by the Common Application. Compounding the difficulty, questions that had been there for years have just been eliminated; only one short main essay and very few short answer questions were retained. If you want to be known by the college of your dreams, take advantage of college supplemental essay questions to add a short extra essay or include a note about a special circumstance, explaining what makes you the unique individual you are.

    One student I worked with had received a high-level national award for a community service project he'd initiated. He took the time to submit a supplemental award sheet to describe the project that led to this honor as well as other awards he had won. Ultimately he was admitted to his first choice school.

    An additional note can also help address a college's potential concern about you as an applicant. For example, another one of my students was suspended for a relatively minor infraction. Recognizing that the colleges he was applying to would likely have imagined the offense to be much more serious than it was, he took the time to explain the circumstances and his peripheral involvement in the incident—and was accepted to his first-choice college as well.
  2. Choose a smart essay topic. Don't pick a clichéd subject, such as your last minute game-saving goal or how you had no trouble adapting to living in Spain during your year-abroad program. Instead, focus on you—your academic strengths and accomplishments—and be sure to back these up with specific examples. For instance, another student wrote about the joy in translating a difficult Latin passage from the Aeneid, and was accepted to her top school.

    Ultimately, your main essay is your chance to prove that you are serious about scholarship. So if you study many hours a day to master a particular subject or do substantive work/projects outside of school, say so on your application; otherwise, no one will know.
  3. Highlight your demonstrated leadership skills. Are you the head of your synagogue youth group? Did you develop a special project related to your bar/bat mitzvah? Have you been a counselor or song leader at summer camp? Are you a Hebrew tutor in religious school? Be sure to mention these and other accomplishments on a detailed activity list.
  4. Send audio or visual demonstration of your special talents. If you're an outstanding musician, send a CD to the music department and make a point to visit with a professor in the department when you tour the campus. If you're a talented painter, submit a portfolio either to the admissions office or to the art department. Note: Even if you have great YouTube videos or any other social media demonstrations of your accomplishments, do not submit links unless the school specifically asks for them and furnishes required specifications upfront. Because most schools are inundated with applications and have limited staff, they will not take the time to watch your video.
  5. Explain why you are applying specifically to their school. Often colleges reject strong applicants because they don't think the student is sufficiently interested in or committed to their school. Use your essays to persuade them that you want to be on their campus. For example, one excellent engineering student I worked with took the time to explain why she specifically liked Princeton's engineering program, noting that it incorporated six different academic departments (including Operations Research and Financial Engineering) and focused on both practice and theory.

Now she's enjoying it first-hand.

Dr. Michele Hernandez is president of Hernandez College Consulting LLC, co-president of Application Boot Camp, LLC and author of four books including Don't Worry, You'll Get In: 100 Winning Tips for Stress Free College Admissions.