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Ivy League Admissions - Preparing a Successful Application

The Ivy League comprises eight of America’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Studying at any one guarantees world-class tuition and resources, as well as access to a rich campus life with vibrant extracurricular opportunities. Yet with acceptance rates hovering in the low single digits, prospective students must convince admissions officers that they deserve a coveted place in an ever more competitive application pool.


Key to a successful application is understanding the holistic approach taken by top US universities. Whilst impressive results from national exams and standardised tests are a necessity, they are only one facet of an application. Ivy League admissions officers want to believe in you as a scholar and as a person; the application is your chance to achieve this.


Naturally, a rigorous academic background is a necessary component of any application. Domestic students should aim for at least a 3.9 unweighted GPA with 8 or more AP courses across a variety of disciplines. Students sitting A-Levels will need A*s and IB students will need 7s across their subjects. Additionally, all students ought to aim in the region of 1450 on the SAT or 33 on the ACT. When it comes to the SAT/ACT standardised tests, a higher score is always better, although more institutions are going test-optional, meaning that you should choose to include a score if it stands out.


Beyond these requirements, you should demonstrate your academic passion. University is ultimately a time for advanced study and so you must convince admissions officers that you are dedicated to pursuing knowledge and expanding your mind. This can take the form of learning beyond the classroom, such as self-guided research projects, attending conferences on topics which captivate your interest or growing your familiarity with a subject through a targeted internship.


Extracurriculars are another essential element of an Ivy League application. The Common Application provides space to write about up to ten activities. It is not necessary to fill each one, but aim for at least six strong examples of your personal development in the four years leading up to your application. The number and nature of these activities may vary. If you dedicate considerable time to one or two, for example a demanding musical programme or team sport, then you may not have as many others to convincingly write about.


To use the extracurricular section of the application to your benefit, you should bear in mind the emphasis on a candidate as a whole person. This means showing your leadership, zest and achievement through these activities. Identify any impressive features of your activities such as major prizes won or moments where you have taken the initiative to become a student leader. Additionally, a significant involvement over a length of time will help to illustrate your genuine passion for what you pursue.


These features of a successful application- strength of character, leadership, meaningful service to others- are difficult to pin down but form the core of the ‘whole person’ holistic approach to education. Admissions officers seek students who do far more than mechanically obtain grades without growing themselves in an intellectual and personal manner. Consequently, you must not neglect the personal essay component of your application.


Unlike a UCAS personal statement which explains your interest in a subject and your academic qualifications, the Common Application essay is a chance to reflect on who you are as a person. This is a first person, insightful piece which will delve into a particular aspect of your life. It may be daunting to write but any theme, angle or perspective can serve as the basis for a compelling essay. Indeed, successful Ivy League applicants have touched on every topic from a formative moment in time to a piece of music which moves them.


Frequent mistakes include crafting an essay which is too broad in its scope or sounds insincere. Whilst you want to show off some of your best qualities, an essay must above all give a glimpse into your individual character, meaning that you should not list every trait an admissions officer may want to hear. Rather, ensure that your essay is indeed personal, focused and authentic. A rare topic does not guarantee an effective one, but a piece which captures a memorable aspect of yourself will leave an impression with your readers.


Moreover, take advantage of the university-specific supplemental essays in order to provide further evidence of your personality and show that you will be a good fit for the university. Not every institution uses these essays, which are normally fairly short responses to specific prompts. A common question simply asks why you wish to attend that university. Whilst this seems straight-forward, remember that the Ivy League is extremely competitive and many applicants apply to multiple institutions. Thus, you want to demonstrate why that particular Ivy appeals to you. Identify particular academic programmes that reflect your interest or unique aspects of a major at that institution. Make sure that you comb through the university and departmental websites which provide a wealth of specific information, such as study abroad opportunities or thematic specialisations. Alongside outlining how you will appreciate what the university can offer you, consider what you can contribute to campus life. Organisations or clubs form a central part of the exciting life at American institutions, so admissions officers seek candidates who will develop their mission and campus culture.


Additionally, you can discuss these aspects of campus life and your contribution in your admissions interview. In general, a positive interview will add another string in the bow of your application but will not alone carry a candidate to success. The interviewers will not have your full application to reference, and so you should consider whether there is anything in particular that you wish to highlight to them, but be prepared to discuss why you will be an asset to the university and to ask for further insights into campus life. In particular, the interview is another chance to express your commitment to the university and to let your personality shine through.


Finally, allow other people to express their belief in you as a scholar and as a person. Recommendation letters are a required component which should highlight your commitment to learning and your character. Ensure that the teachers, mentors or other community leaders who pen these letters have the time to write about you as an individual and know you well enough to write a genuinely supportive letter. Warm endorsements complement your application and demonstrate that you will be an energetic addition to whichever institution you attend.


Fionnuala Murphy is an Ivy League alumna and Witherow Brooke tutor who graduated Dartmouth College in 2021 with High Honors in History. She is currently undertaking a Master of Philosophy in Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College, Dublin, as well as designing educational materials for school groups across Ireland.

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