How Ivy League Admissions Work

Ivy League Applicants

Ivy League colleges like Princeton look for intelligent, yet well-rounded students.
Ivy League colleges like Princeton look for intelligent, yet well-rounded students.
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Dave Berry, writing for College Confidential, compares Ivy League admissions to an elite piano competition. With such a talented pool of competitors, judges must look beyond technical the perfectionists to find the true musicians, the rare individuals who embody the music and give it life [source: Berry]. Successful Ivy League applicants must possess a similar quality -- an intangible, unique spark -- that separates them from the near-perfect crowd.

To identify this spark, the Ivy League admissions process is designed to be "holistic," considering the whole student rather than just his or her test scores and GPAs. When you move away from numbers, you move from highly objective to highly subjective criteria. Harvard Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons calls his school's subjective criteria, "intellectual imagination, strength of character, and... ability to exercise good judgment" [source: Fitzsimmons]. The Cornell Admissions Web site says it looks for students with "intellectual potential, strength of character and love of learning."

Since every applicant brings a unique set of accomplishments to the table -- artistic abilities, volunteer work, leadership experience -- Ivy League admissions committees are given the difficult task of comparing apples to oranges. The Harvard Dean of Admissions says that it's not uncommon for a single application to receive five full readings before a decision is made and that committees have been known to debate the merits of an individual applicant for over an hour to arrive at even a preliminary decision [source: Fitzsimmons].

The standard description of a successful Ivy League applicant is "well-rounded," an individual who has proven excellence and unusual achievement across a range of academic subjects and extracurricular pursuits. The Harvard dean says that a well-rounded application shows dedication and is an excellent predictor of future success. That said, the Harvard Web site acknowledges that some successful applicants are also "well-lopsided," showing remarkable talent in a single, focused discipline.

While there are no foolproof "tricks" for getting into an Ivy League school, there are plenty of books and admissions insiders offering advice about getting your application to the top of the pile. We'll look at some of those strategies on the next page.