How To Get Into Ivy League Schools
For many students, the goal of college admissions is to gain entrance into the Ivy League – a group of eight universities that are seen as the most prestigious in the United States.
This article will cover the following:
While there are a number of other schools alongside the Ivy League (like Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Caltech, etc.) that fill the topmost parts of college ranking systems, the Ivy League carries a level of prestige, name recognition, and history of excellence that many applicants crave.
What is the Ivy League?
With the exception of Cornell University (founded in 1865), the Ivy League schools were all founded in the colonial period (18th century) and account for 7 of the 9 Colonial Colleges formed before the American Revolution (alongside the College of William and Mary and Rutgers University). Because of this, each Ivy League school boasts a long institutional history.
Sometimes called “The Ancient Eight,” the Ivy League originated as an NCAA Division I athletic conference group in the 1950s. Since then, the focus has shifted away from sports and now encompasses a general sense of academic excellence, intense admissions selectivity (with some acceptance rates below 5%), large financial endowments, world-class faculty, and considerable social capital afforded to its student body.
With a strong alumni network, many see the Ivy League as a necessary stepping stone to successful careers.
Eight schools comprise the Ivy League:
What Types of Students Get Into Ivy League Schools?
Students applying to the Ivy League have perfect or near-perfect scores, are involved in a number of high school extracurricular activities, make positive impacts in their communities, and demonstrate a deep intellectual curiosity.
Additionally, Ivy League schools are looking for leaders. They don’t want someone whose application looks exactly like hundreds of others; rather, they want to find the singular attributes that make you the strongest candidate in your field, region, etc.
Because of this, it’s absolutely essential that Ivy League applicants lean into what makes their voice and experiences unique.
If you’re early in your high school career, you can make sure to build a profile that deals in singularity, rather than be another application added to a homogenous pile.
A lot of high school students are uncomfortable with harnessing their own voice and creating an angular profile, but that’s what you should be leaning into, rather than avoiding.
The best way that Ivy League schools can measure the chance of success for their students is looking at the past successes of applicants, so you need to make sure you’re maximizing your profile, making sure it’s optimized for the Common Application, that you’re pursuing unique leadership opportunities and chances to deepen your learning beyond the classroom, participating in intense academic competitions, and pushing yourself to maximize your potential.
This is where the advice of an independent admissions counselor is invaluable. Ultimately, schools like Harvard, Princeton, etc., want their students to take advantage of campus resources and then go out into the world and change it.
This reflects well on the university. Therefore, they look for leaders who will accomplish great things on campus and beyond, which will build the university’s reputation and prestige.
Princeton’s Dean of Admissions Karen Richardson wrote this about the Class of 2024:
"These students are artists, scientists, athletes, musicians, caregivers, debaters and much more. Most importantly, through their applications, they showed a real desire to engage with others in the types of critical yet respectful discussions that make Princeton a dynamic place."
Intense Competition – Ivy League Admissions Statistics
Because of the Ivy League’s level of prestige and high-esteemed academics, competition for its coveted few freshman class spots is fierce.
Hundreds of thousands of students apply each year to the Ivy League from around the world – for the Class of 2024, over 300,000 students applied across all eight Ivy League schools.
See more detail in the table below:
Sources: 2024 Statistics
For the 2020-2021 admissions cycle (students applying for the Class of 2025), these numbers skyrocketed, mostly due to the fact that the Ivy League schools all went test-optional.
This meant that students were still allowed to submit standardized test scores but were not required to do so. This opened up the doors to a large pool of applicants who previously would not have applied, making the competition even stiffer for Ivy League colleges.
While the trend towards eliminating standardized testing barriers continues to gain momentum across the country – especially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced access to testing facilities for many students – and many of the Ivy League schools have decided to go test-optional again for the Class of 2026 (including Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania), test scores remain an important component of a competitive Ivy League application.
Ivy League GPA Requirements
Many students wonder what GPA is needed to get into the Ivy League schools. As you can see from the table below, while there is some variance, all the average GPAs are very, very high – indicating that the applicant has a strong academic profile.
As mentioned, academic profile isn’t the only metric by which a student is evaluated; however, it’s a very important one for top schools like the Ivy League.
Essentially, having a strong GPA, high test scores, and the most difficult course load rigor at your high school gives you a seat at the table to be evaluated by the admissions committee – and that’s when your extracurricular activities, research, community work, etc. start to play a part.
Schools want to make sure you have the quantitative background before they evaluate your qualitative background.
Ivy League Testing Averages
Here are the testing ranges for the Ivy League. You’ll want to make sure that if you’re submitting test scores that they are competitive for the school. Generally, we recommend an applicant needs scores that fall into the top 25% or higher admit range for the colleges to which they apply.
How To Get Admissions To Ivy League Schools
For any Ivy League school, the competition is going to be fierce, and you’ll have to have a list of strong qualifications for the admissions committee to evaluate.
Generally, these are the benchmarks you should achieve for a competitive Ivy League application:
Top 5% of high school class (top 1-2% for the more selective Ivies)
Most challenging course load of AP/IV courses
SAT/ACT scores in the 99th percentile
Glowing letters of recommendation indicating that student is best out of applicants from past several years from their high school
Intense love of learning, as evidenced by academic research outside the classroom with a college professor leading to publication in a peer-reviewed journal
Potential to be a leader in the academic field in the future
Each of these schools employs a slightly different rubric to evaluate applicants; for example, Harvard rates on a 1-6 scale, Penn on a 1-9 scale, Yale on a 1-4 scale, etc.
Despite these variances, the fact remains that a student applying to the Ivy League needs to have an exemplary academic profile (GPA, test scores, course load rigor) combined with truly exceptional activities that demonstrate a depth of knowledge, impact, and intellectual spark.
Many students feel they need to complete a laundry list of activities to be competitive; however, this is not the case for the Ivy League. Rather than present yourself as a well-rounded student, it’s absolutely essential that you present an angular profile with considerable depth in only a few areas.
In the case of the Ivy League, they’re not interested in the Renaissance student – the person who is pretty good at everything. They want the student who is profoundly successful in a few areas.
Remember the point from earlier – colleges are trying to evaluate if you have the potential to be a real leader in the world, and they have the best chance of seeing that if you have shown examples of prowess in a few select areas, rather than be a jack-of-all-trades and spread yourself too thin.
Just like you want your professors to be experts in their fields, colleges are interested in students who come to them who have already built considerably angular profiles in specific areas. This is especially important for the Ivy League.
Therefore, when you’re building your extracurricular profile and pursuing opportunities like publishing, research, etc., that demonstrate deep intellectual spark, you want to be focusing your attention on a few specific areas to build that angular approach.
Some examples of activities a student should pursue to be competitive for the Ivy League beyond the academic and extracurricular profiles:
Published author (including self-publishing your own book)
Intel STS Finalist (top 40 in-country)
Soloist at Carnegie Hall
US Math Olympiad Qualifier (USAMO)
Awards at the national level
Patent-pending (without parental involvement)
Significant commitment at a high level to activities
Student Body President
Captain of varsity sports team
Nationally ranked debater
How To Write Your Ivy League Admissions Essay
Each Ivy League college has their own supplement that students must complete for their application.
This supplement includes several questions about one’s background, desired major, interest in certain clubs/activities, a chance to upload a resumé (not for every school), and a set of supplemental essays for students to complete.
Many schools will change their essay prompts each year; however, the main points of how to approach the supplemental essays remain.
You need to focus on:
Demonstrating that you know the school exceptionally well
Tie in specifics on how that school’s program is the right fit for you
Align your interests with some of the resources the school has to offer
Indicate how your personal values align with that school’s ethos
Show that you are the perfect candidate for that school’s program
Choreograph how you would make the most of your time on campus
Strong essays come from harnessing your unique voice and using concrete specifics to show how you are a perfect candidate for that school. A bad answer to these supplemental essays is one that is overly general – as if it was cut and pasted from essays used for other schools.
These essays need to be unique and specific to each college. Do not generalize, do not use clichés, and do not be vague in any way – make each word count. This is how you show the admissions committee that you’re a true intellectual and leader.
You also don’t want your essays to read like a resumé – you should use your qualifications to underline deeper connections for the school and provide connection points for why you’re an excellent candidate.
Princeton discusses this in nice detail:
"Instead of worrying about meeting a specific set of criteria, try to create an application that will help us see your achievements — inside the classroom and out — in their true context, so we can understand your potential to take advantage of the resources at Princeton and the kind of contribution you would make to the Princeton community.
Show us what kind of student you are. Show us that you have taken advantage of what your high school has to offer, how you have achieved and contributed in your own particular context.
We look for students who make a difference in their schools and communities, so tell us about your leadership activities, interests, special skills, and other extracurricular involvements. Tell us if you’ve had a job or a responsibility in your home. Most Princeton students were academic standouts in high school.
Most of them also invested their energy and talents in significant ways outside the classroom. We want to know what you care about, what commitments you have made and what you’ve done to act on those commitments."
Again, each school is different for what they’re looking for in the supplemental essays. For Princeton, you want to harness the contrarian voice of someone who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo and who is driven by a sense of social justice.
For Penn, you want to underline your passion for community service. Brown wants to see how you would maximize the opportunities from the Open Curriculum.
Essentially, each of these schools has specific things they’re looking for from an applicant to evaluate if they would be the best type of student for their incoming freshman class.
Things to think about as you approach each Ivy League supplemental essay:
How will I be a leader on campus?
How will I contribute to campus academically? By conducting undergraduate research? By contributing to the intellectual discourse on campus?
How will I contribute to the social life on campus? By founding a club? By becoming active in a student group?
How will I maximize the opportunities and resources this school will provide me?
This is where working with an admissions consultant can be so helpful – they have knowledge of the best approach for each school supplement and can provide you key insights into how to refine your essays to maximize points in this process.
Do I Need an Ivy League Education to Succeed in Life?
No, but it certainly helps. Your success in life is significantly impacted by your drive, ambition, self-motivation, tenacity, and work ethic – the factors that surround you do not alone guarantee success if you don’t bring your best and most activated self to the table.
The school you choose to attend will provide you with ample tools and resources for you to be successful, but you absolutely must learn how to use those tools. Combined with a strong work ethic, grit, and determination, you will be successful.
Don’t think just because you get into Princeton that you have it all made – you will absolutely need to do the work as well!
That said, the Ivy League schools do offer a plethora of world-class resources that will open a number of doors for you that you might not be able to access elsewhere. These schools boast some of the best alumni networks, which can be instrumental in your post-college career opportunities.
You’ll have access to some of the best professors in the world and incredible research opportunities where you can truly shine. You’ll meet students from all over the world and connect with others who will help bring out your best self. These resources should not be discounted.
While you don’t need to go to an Ivy League school to be successful, attending one does open a number of doors you’d struggle to access elsewhere.
Ivy League 2024 Statistics: