How to prepare for the competitive world of Ivy League admissions
November 17, 2022 8:10am
Preparing to apply to Ivy League and other top schools is a daunting process for students and parents alike. The admissions process is becoming increasingly selective — Harvard and Columbia universities admitted record-low percentages of applicants (both less than 4%) into the class of 2026.
The reputation, rigor and extensive networks offered at these highly selective schools make them all the more desirable, and therefore all the more competitive.
This means that students face greater pressure early in their middle and high school careers to set themselves on the trajectory for admission to top universities.
However, most parents don’t know how to help their students prepare for the competitive Ivy League admissions process, which starts as early as freshman year. Learning disruptions caused by the pandemic have also presented additional challenges for students and further complicated the college admissions process. Studies show that even in the best cases — at schools which were equipped during the onset of the pandemic for online learning — students lost “the equivalent of 7 to 10 weeks of math instruction,” according to Thomas Kane of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard. That accounts for almost one-third of a typical school year.
In light of these challenges, how can parents help their child prepare a competitive application? What steps should students and parents take to ensure that pupils will submit competitive applications?
The answers to these questions vary widely, based on the type of school in which your student is enrolled and the accompanying resources available to them.
Private schools typically bake into the cost of tuition a variety of extracurriculars and activities outside of the classroom, such as tutoring, opportunities for research, service projects and internships, and employ a team of college counselors to guide students through the application process. However, depending on the particular region and school, students at public or charter schools may have to do research and seek out those resources independently.
In either case, there are myriad organizations and activities to choose from, and without proper direction, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Students should think strategically about what they want to get involved in and how they can tailor their involvement to meaningfully convey who they are to Ivy League schools when it comes time to apply.
Preparing for Ivy League admissions begins with building a strong academic profile and standardized test scores. Elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford want to ensure that students are equipped to handle the demanding academic workloads, so it’s imperative for students to take the most challenging courses offered, whether AP, IB or Honors and to earn top grades in every class.
While all of the Ivy League schools have maintained test-optional policies instituted during the pandemic, the most competitive applicants tend to be those who submit SAT or ACT scores within or above the median range of accepted students published by each school.
Practice is key to scoring well on these tests, so parents should encourage their students to take mock tests and potentially seek outside tutoring beginning their sophomore year, when most high school curricula have covered the topics that appear on the tests.
While academics are important, they are not everything; the applicant pool for Ivy League schools is brimming with academically gifted students, so elite colleges want to see students’ demonstrable interests and passions, too, through committed and sustained engagement in related activities, rather than shallow involvement in a variety of subject areas and activities. It’s essential that students demonstrate their unique passions and interests to distinguish themselves from other applicants. Depth is more important than breadth.
In order to discover the guiding passion that will provide a succinct and compelling picture of themselves, students should spend the early stages of high school exploring their interests by joining clubs and activities offered through their school or through independent organizations, and think critically about which subjects and disciplines they find compelling. Parents can help students by encouraging them to engage meaningfully with a variety of clubs and activities to expand their horizons early on. Once students have identified their area of interest, parents should encourage their students to focus their engagement in their preferred activities, pursuing quality over quantity. This will ensure that when it comes time to write the personal statement and compile the activities list, students will have a clear and demonstrable passion that will tell a unique story in their application.
Finally, each of the Ivy League schools has a distinct character, different academic offerings, and unique campus character, so while all are competitive and rigorous, not all are a good fit for every student. Parents should help their children to think critically about their academic goals, their desired location and preferred campus community as they craft a college list. This will push students to research the schools on their list and examine the specific reasons that they would like to attend their top schools, yielding essential information that they can incorporate into their supplemental essays and discuss in their admissions interviews.
With the right plan, applying to Ivy League schools doesn’t have to be overwhelming for students or their parents. Starting early and implementing a clear strategy will empower parents to help their students navigate this competitive process with self-assuredness, clarity and purpose.
Originally published on The New York Post on November 17, 2022