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How to Stand Out in the Ivy League During Your Freshman Year

May 20, 2024

This spring, many students felt the relief and exuberance that comes with an acceptance letter from one’s dream school. Many students attending Ivy League and other top universities are valedictorians and leaders in their high school communities; they excelled throughout their high school careers and graduated with the accolades to prove it. Yet, these students are often in for a rude awakening when they arrive on campus. Though they were exceptional at their high schools, they are a dime a dozen in the Ivy League. This realization can cause many students to feel imposter syndrome and wonder how they can stand out and make an impression on their professors and peers in such a competitive environment.

The more that students prepare themselves for this adjustment, the better. Standing out in college is a different endeavor than standing out in high school—it requires time, intentionality, and a willingness to be uncomfortable and challenge yourself. Most importantly, it takes practice, and if students seek to hone this skill from their first semester on campus, they will set themselves up for success for the next four years.

For students preparing for their first semester in college, here are five strategies to navigate the transition into the Ivy League with confidence, purpose, and distinction:

1. Make your voice heard in the classroom

At Ivy League and many other top schools, faculty-to-student ratios and class sizes tend to be small, allowing greater opportunity for you to establish yourself in the classroom and engage with your professors directly. Many students are weighed down by self-doubt and the desire to avoid making mistakes in their first semester, and as such, they are reluctant to raise their hands or offer their input. But one of the best ways to establish connections with professors is to use your voice in the classroom—college is about learning and growing, so don’t be afraid to get a question wrong or develop your ideas through conversation. Doing so will allow you to connect with others in class, build your intellectual skill set, and demonstrate your curiosity and earnest desire to learn.

2. Engage in activities outside of the classroom

Beyond academics, the Ivy League is known for vibrant opportunities to learn and connect with others outside of the classroom. Whether you’re interested in student government, the performing arts, guest lectures, community service, or intramural athletics, there’s an opportunity to explore your passions. Join clubs and organizations that align with your interests and values, and consider taking on leadership roles to showcase your initiative and organizational skills. Engaging in extracurricular activities will not only enrich your college experience but also afford you the opportunity to get to know people outside of your major or residence hall.

3. Cultivate your network

One of the most valuable assets you’ll gain during your time in the Ivy League is your network of peers, professors, and mentors. Take the time to connect with your classmates and professors, attend faculty office hours, and engage in meaningful discussions. One of the best ways to build your network is to simply put yourself out there—a student’s college years are the prime opportunity to connect with even the most distinguished scholars in their field, as they not only likely have connections through their institution, but professors (even at other universities) are more likely to respond to students who reach out for their advice. If one knowledgeable person doesn’t respond or have the bandwidth to advise you on a particular project or query, move on to the next person on your list!

4. Pursue Research, Internship, and Study Abroad Opportunities

The Ivy League offers unparalleled access to research, internship, and study abroad opportunities that can complement your academic studies and expand your horizons. For instance, Harvard offers a multitude of distinguished research positions for undergraduates, ranging from thesis research to research assistantships. The University of Pennsylvania sent students to 48 countries through their study abroad offerings in the 2022-2023 academic year. Meanwhile, Princeton offers more than 400 programs in 140 countries through which students may study abroad. Whether conducting groundbreaking research in your field of study or gaining real-world experience through internships, the plethora of opportunities available to you at an Ivy League university will not only enhance your resume but also deepen your understanding of your chosen field and prepare you for future success.

5. Carve out your niche

Finally, just as high school is a time to hone your passions and demonstrate them in action in your community, college is a more rigorous opportunity to identify and make a name for yourself within a niche industry or discipline. The best way to begin doing so is to have conversations with professors, graduate students, and older students in your field. Ask them questions like: Where do you see the field expanding or moving in the next five years? What are the most significant recent developments in this profession/field? What subjects do you think have been largely unexplored? What advice would you give to emerging scholars in this discipline? While pursuing a subject of true interest to you is indeed important, it is also important to consider how you will contribute uniquely to your subject of interest, and thereby maximize your odds of success in the job market.

Finally, keep in mind that you can (and should) begin practicing these skills in high school. The more you engage in these activities, the more natural they will be when you are on campus at a top university.

Originally posted on Forbes.

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