Ivy League Admissions Tips

In the past, students with Ivy League aspirations were often rewarded for their stellar grades and impressive test scores. But today, admissions committees also scrutinize an applicant’s extracurricular activities, community service, internships and personal essay. The children of alumni and celebrities, for example, often receive a special boost in their admission chances at top universities. Developing a strong “spike” — a specialized interest that you devote significant time to — can help set you apart.

Academic Achievement

Ivy League colleges are highly selective, so strong academic performance is a must. Admissions committees are looking for students who have excelled in rigorous courses and taken the most advanced classes available at their schools, including international baccalaureate (IB) and advanced placement (AP) courses. A high GPA and excellent standardized test scores are essential. But, they are only the foundation of a solid application. Ivy League universities are seeking students who will transform their big dreams into life-changing realities, so they look for applicants who show depth in their involvement and a commitment to making a difference in the world.

Applicants should also seek out opportunities to showcase their passions, strengths and values through extracurricular activities. They should choose one or two areas of leadership and focus on the depth of their participation rather than the breadth. Similarly, students should be thoughtful about who they ask for letters of recommendation and find someone who will be able to write a compelling essay that captures their unique personality, aspirations and character.

Extracurricular Activities

When it comes to extracurricular activities, colleges want students to dig deep into a subject and make it their own. They also like to see students take leadership roles, and they prefer that the activities be independent.

Tier 1 activities tend to involve a student’s passion or talents, such as sports and academic pursuits. For example, a student who earns a spot on a nationally-ranked team or wins a major music competition could classify their participation in these endeavors as Tier 1. Student jobs that have the potential to help their college applications also qualify as Tier 1 activities, such as editing for the school newspaper and taking on the tasks of spell-checking, fact-checking, and writing for the publication. Tier 2 extracurricular activities include leadership roles, such as president or chair of a club or organization, such as the Model UN, debate team, or Science Olympiad. These are impressive undertakings to have on a college application.

Letters Of Recommendation

Often a key aspect of the college application, letters of recommendation play a significant role in Ivy League admissions. Students should begin identifying potential letter writers as early as their junior year to give them plenty of time to write strong letters. Ideally, letters of recommendation should focus on the whole applicant. Ivy League admissions committees want to see well rounded students, and letters of recommendation are an excellent way for them to get a sense of a student outside the classroom.

When choosing your recommenders, look for teachers who know you well and can speak to your character and academic abilities in depth. It’s also a good idea to ask for recommendations from people who have worked closely with you, such as coaches and club advisors. If a school’s application allows, students should ask their letter writers to waive their right to view the letters before they are submitted to the admissions office. This shows a high level of trust and gives the letters more weight.

Personal Statement

The personal statement is an important part of any application and may be a required component for some schools. It’s a chance to discuss significant obstacles you’ve faced and how you’ve worked through them. Talk about your goals and how the school you are applying to fits into your future career plans. Admissions tutors can get a sense of your academic merit from your transcript, test scores and activities list, but the personal essay is where they get an insight into the person behind those things. Don’t churn out a laundry list of accomplishments — instead, focus on deeper introspection, passions and aspirations.

As with the Common Application and supplemental essays, make sure your personal statement is well-written, clear and free of grammatical errors. Allow yourself plenty of time to write the essay and proofread it several times before submitting it. If possible, have others read your personal statement, including professors, The Writing Center staff and OPCD career counselors.


Ivy League admissions are notoriously competitive, and students must have impressive high school GPAs and test scores. Beyond that, though, schools look for world-changers who will bring success and recognition to their college communities. To stand out, applicants should take the most challenging courses available and strive for a perfect (weighted) GPA. They should also pursue extracurricular activities that genuinely interest them. Internships are another great option for demonstrating leadership and real-world experience.