Advice on the Ivies – Part I

The world of elite schools seems impenetrable to those who don’t grow up around it. Worse, it can seem like the kids who go to places like Harvard are anointed with some kind of special golden blessing from God, and they are different from other mortals.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I went to Andover, and then I attended Harvard. In my experience, only about 5% of the kids at Harvard are what you’d call “scary-super-smart.” The rest are just smart, like all the hundreds and thousands of smart people you’ll meet over the course of your lifetime. What people who get into elite schools have in common, besides smarts and hard work, is being well-positioned. It’s hard to have AP classes on your high school transcript, if your high school doesn’t even offer AP classes…get it?

So, your task in junior high and high school is to work hard, get good grades, and also do what you can to get yourself well-positioned. 

At any rate, here is my advice for students who aren’t as familiar with the world of the Ivy Leagues:

1. Of course, get really good grades, but don’t freak out if it’s not 100% straight A’s. Still, it needs to be as close to that as possible.

2. Try to be ‘well-rounded” – academics, sports, and something else (like music or community service)

3. If possible, have one or more unique niche skills and interests


5. Take advantage of unique opportunities in Junior High and High School to give yourself a leg up

In this first post, I’ll talk about points 1 through 3: Get Good Grades, Be Well-Rounded, and Have a Special Niche.

Ok, so first: Get really good grades. That’s pretty self-explanatory, right? And of course, you want to take AP courses in the subjects you’re good at, and you want to have strong extra-curriculars to put on your resume. But it’s not quite that simple.

Places like Harvard get a ton of well-rounded (yet cookie cutter) kids with straight A’s who play the violin.** Your best bet is to make as good grades as you can, while also fostering whatever it is about you that makes you unique. The best position to be in, when applying to Harvard and company, is to be a great student, but also have at least one niche area where you’re truly exemplary.

What’s special about you could be something about your academics, athletics, or other interests. Like you’re a math genius, or a published poet, or a state champion in a sport.  Or you have an interest or talent that’s unusual. Let’s say you’re a boy who founded his own pastry company. Or, at 16, you’re a talented musician who specializes in playing 1920’s blues. Or you’re great at playing an obscure instrument, like Viola da Gamba.

Also, bear in mind that the elite colleges want to have a class that’s “diverse,” and so you may fit some demographic categories that give you an edge. (I put “diverse” in quotes because the vast majority of admissions are from economically comfortable backgrounds, so it ain’t all that diverse.)

These schools want students from all 50 states. If you live in states like Tennessee or Kentucky, you have a slight edge, because fewer kids apply from those states. If you live in states like New York or California, it’s a bit harder.

If you’re from a lower-income household, congratulations! Harvard gives a FULL RIDE to any kid whose family makes $65,000 or under. Some other Ivy League schools have similar programs. Plus, they actively *want* non-rich kids. So go ahead and apply. School application fees can be expensive, and they can add up. If you’re really strapped for cash, contact the school and find out what they can do about waiving application fees.

Also, the schools have other “soft” categories they’re trying to fill for each entering class, like,

– The quirky genius

– The prodigy we get to brag about it

– The jock who will help our football team be slightly less bad

– The person who actually has a soul (great community service or volunteer work, etc.)

So, to review: you should be an all-around great student, and then on top of that, have several things that make you special to them, and at least one talent where you truly stand out from the pack. Which leads us to Part II.


** When places like Harvard say, “We don’t just want more kids with perfect SAT’s who play the violin,” they mean, “We don’t want our schools to be 35% Asian.” All of these schools have their own problems, and this unacknowledged Asian quota is one of them.

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