So by now you've figured out that Ivy League schools are admitting some infinitesimally small percentage of students who apply each year. These students are truly the needle in the haystack of college-bound applicants. Who are they? And what exactly have they done to get in the front door of the hallowed halls of this nation's most selective colleges?
First, a definition-There are 8 Ivy League Schools (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale). It is not their selectivity or prestige as institutions that initially welcomed this group together as the "Ivy" League. It was football. That's right, the Ivy League was an early athletic conference that has, in fact, evolved into a collection of this country's most selective colleges and universities.
There are schools that are as difficult (or almost as difficult) to get into the Ivy League schools, but we can not neatly amass them into one plant-like athletic conference the way we can with the Ivies. This "Ivy-esque" group includes schools like (but not limited to) Duke, Stanford, Georgetown, MIT, Rice, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, Williams, Swarthmore, Middlebury and Amherst, just to name a few. In some cases, some of the schools who are not part of the original athletic conference, admit fewer students than those who were in the founding group.
In this country, however, there is a fixation on attending the eight institutions in the Ivy League, but that's much easier said than done. Consider these stats: Brown University received almost 29,000 applications for about 2,600 spots for an rate of 9.2%. Cornell University received over 40,000 applications for just over 6,000 offers of admission. Dartmouth admitted 10% of their 22,500 applicants, included in that 10% are 39.4% who are valedictorians of their high school classes. Harvard sent out 2,029 offers of admission. That's 5.8 percent of the 35,023 who applied. Princeton said it had offered admission to 7.3 percent of almost 26,500 applicants, and Columbia accepted 6.89 percent of the more than 33,500 students who applied. The University of Pennsylvania admitted 3,785 students, for an admit rate of 12.1 percent while Yale's acceptance rate was 6.7%.
So, who are they admitting? Who are not they admitting, and what does it mean for your chances of getting in? It goes without saying that EVERY applicant must meet certain academic standards. While schools may be a little more flexible about those standards for certain populations of applicants, they are not taking students that are terribly far off from their rates and standards. They are not taking an athlete who will be a success on the field but who has very limited ability to succeed in the classroom. These schools have the luxury of choosing students who can do both. So, beyond academic success, schools will look hard at students who help them fulfill certain institutional priorities. These priorities often include:
-alumni children (though it's harder than ever to get these spots)
-first generation college students
-students with other special talents (oboe player, dancer, entrepreneur, etc.)
Consider the information Brown University lists on their website. Brown received applications from all 50 states, with California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Texas as the most common. They also had applicants from 145 foreign countries (the most ever). The majority of all applicants intends to study social sciences (29%), life or medical sciences (27%), or physical sciences (25%), with biology, engineering, international relations, economics, biochemistry, and molecular biology as the most popular intended concentrations. Realize that if you are a member of one of these pools, you are competing against even more people than say, if you were an applied mathematics major from Iowa or North Dakota.
This year's applicant pool is the University's most ethnically diverse, with 38 percent of applications submitted by students of color (African American, Latino, Native American or Asian).
These students are all important to the institution, and the college admissions office will consider more than just grades and test scores when admitting a class. A child from a war-torn African country with lower standardized test scores may be selected over other candidates because of the diverse perspective he brings to campus. A talented ice hockey goalie keeps alumni engaged and involved, helps rally student spirit which in turn makes students happy and all of these help the overall institutional success.
Harvard's mid-50th percentile for SAT scores is 1410-1590 (Critical Reading and Math) out of a possible 1600. While 25% of managed freshmen have scores below and above this average, there are also loads of applicants with scores within this range who are not admitted. The majority of these students are probably perfectly capable of doing the work at Harvard, but there simply is not enough space to admit every qualified applicant.
For every 100 spots, Harvard admits only six prospective freshmen. Let's say that at initial review, 80 or 85 percent of applicants have standardized test scores and coursework rigorous enough to keep them in the running, yet 74 of them will get letters condemning them admission. First, Harvard will look at the "buckets" that need students in them. Has the swim team filled all of its spots? Does the Department of Celtic Languages and Literature still have spaces to fill? But when it comes to the more common majors, biology, international relations and the like, who does Harvard (et al) decide to take when they have a pool of applicants who are all academically qualified? Harvard then looks beyond grades and scores to see what else these students have to offer, and it's here you realize the incredible talent and uniqueness of the students with what you are competing for spots. These students have often been actively politically on the national level. They have made a scientific discovery. They have started a business, played music professionally or started an international non-profit. They are Native Americans mentoring their fellow tribe members to go to college. They are the national or international presidents of youth groups (these are all true).
For students who fall within the statistical averages of the Ivy League, but who still does not gain acceptance, you did not get denied because of something you did wrong or because of something you were missing. Instead, there was someone else who helped fill an institutional priority or who has done something so unique and so extraordinary that they were almost unrivaled.
Consider these students who did not receive a place at any of the Ivy League schools to which they applied. "J" is from a good suburban school district. She has taken numerous AP classes including 4 her senior year in high school. She has received 5's on all of her AP exams. She is ranked first in her class and has test scores well within the averages at the Ivy's. She is a two sport varsity athlete with substantive volunteer work and leadership. She got denied or waitlisted at every Ivy to which she applied.
"C" is also from a good suburban high school. He has taken the most rigorous classes that his school has to offer and has earned A's in all of them. His standardized test scores are very strong. He is a varsity athlete and has started his own non-profit which has collected used sporting goods equipment for kids who can not afford their own. He is involved in many clubs and holds several leadership positions. He applied to 3 Ivy League schools and did not receive an offer of admission from any of them.
Realize that the odds of getting into any of this country's most selective colleges are quite remote. Try it, you do not have a lot to lose, but be realistic. And the good news about the Ivies being so selective is that it makes that next tier of schools better. There are so many bright, capable, intellectually curious students who will not be ivy bound that they enrich other institutions.