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MAR 18, 2020 • 11 min read
Have you always dreamed of going to an Ivy League university but don't quite have the grades?
If so, this blog is for you.
Luckily, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Ivy League admissions so there is a bit of wiggle room and there are multiple ways you can make your application stand out, even if some aspects of it are average (or below average).
At the end of the day it’s about finding your best fit college. If that’s not an Ivy League, there are heaps of fantastic universities around the world that can still make you very happy.
While it’s important to reach for the sky and dream big, it’s just as important to set realistic goals for yourself.
Who knows, you may end up at a great public university (such as the University of California, Berkeley) and love it.
Just keep in mind that the earlier you start preparing, the better chance you will have of getting into your dream Ivy.
Acceptance rates are the simplest way to figure out which Ivy Leagues are the easiest to get into; however, these rates aren’t always what they seem.
Stanford: 4.65% (not technically an Ivy, I know)
According to these numbers, Cornell, Dartmouth and Penn are by far the easiest Ivy Leagues to get into.
But what happens when you take a look at the early decision/early action (ED/EA) acceptance rates?
Brown: 18.5% ED
Columbia: 19.2% ED
Cornell: 29.5% ED
Dartmouth: 29.4% ED
Harvard: 18.4% EA
Penn: 24.9% ED
Princeton: 18.3% EA
Stanford: 9.5% (2016) EA
Yale: 14.4% EA
All of a sudden, these universities seem much more attainable. While there is no proof that applying early will tremendously increase your chances of getting into a Ivy (these stats are often skewed due to recruited athletes), showing interest in specific unis early on will definitely help you.
As silly as it may seem, Ivy Leagues want to feel special and one of the only ways to make them feel special is to apply early.
Think of it as flirting. You don’t want to make them wait too long, otherwise they may lose interest in you. Sad, but true.
If you are certain you want to go to an Ivy League, apply early but keep in mind that early decision applications are binding so if you get in, you have to go.
Everyone’s definition of average grades is different.
Some are really upset if they get a B, some are ecstatic if they get a C+ ; however, if your grades and test scores aren’t in the top 5% or above, you’ll need to figure out a way to make the academic portion of your application shine.
Luckily, there is something you can do to make up for your average grades:
Universities love to see your grades improve over your high school career and they want to see students who take more difficult classes year after year and really push themselves.
If you got a C- in algebra freshman year and earned a B+ in AP calculus senior year, you are on the right track.
Take difficult classes in subjects you're passionate about (because you'll be more motivated to put in the hard yards), work really hard to do well in subjects that you aren’t so good at, and most importantly, do better every year.
If you have low grades because of a learning disability or other extenuating circumstance, don’t worry!
Ivy Leagues care about students' stories tremendously and will take into account any difficulties you may have had in school, so don’t be discouraged if your grades are not where you would like them to be.
As long as you are pushing yourself, you have a chance of being considered.
A great way to talk about your difficulties on your application is to have your teachers write about them in their letters of recommendation. This will let admissions officers read about your hardships from the perspective of someone who has seen overcome your struggles and achieve great things (hopefully). You can also list any disabilities you may have directly on your application.
Brown: 4.08/ SAT: 1500, ACT: 32
Columbia: 4.16/ SAT: 1530, ACT: 34
Cornell: 4.04/ SAT: 1480, ACT: 32
Dartmouth: 4.06/ SAT: 1500, ACT: 32
Harvard: 4.1/ SAT: 1540, ACT: 34
Penn: 3.93/ SAT: 1510, ACT: 32
Princeton: 3.9/ SAT: 1520, ACT: 33
Stanford: 4.18/ SAT: 1520, ACT: 33
Yale: 4.19/ SAT: 1540, ACT: 33
Don’t be disheartened by these numbers. They are averages, which means that universities take students with lower scores and students with higher scores. If your grades aren’t strong, challenge yourself in school and strengthen other parts of your application.
Go out on a limb and show these universities that you are not afraid of failing.
Take that AP class. Find an awesome online course in economics. Attend a fairytale writing summer camp.
You've got this.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
There's a way you can be considered by an Ivy League as an otherwise average student: extracurricular activities.
As I mentioned above, the worse your grades are, the better you have to be in non-academic pursuits.
So find a passion outside of the classroom and become obsessed with it.
Ivy League universities want to produce world leaders, thinkers and doers, and the only way they can do that is by accepting students who have great potential.
Therefore, you have to live and breathe your passion, especially if the rest of your application isn’t up to par.
Do you love science? Enroll in international competitions, shadow a doctor, work in a lab, teach elementary school kids the basics of chemistry around the USA in the summer. Do as much as you can as often as you can and prove to the admissions officers why are going to be the best scientist ever.
The majority of your application is static. Grades. Test scores. Classes. Extracurricular activities. Addresses. Phone numbers. The works.
The only time admissions officers get to see your personality is when they read your essay.
If the rest of your application is subpar, your essay could be your saving grace.
What's your story?
Give the admissions officers a glimpse into your life.
1. Find a creative point of view and run with it.
2. Be authentic (don’t try to be funny if you are not funny!).
3. Be emotive with your writing. The more you make the admissions officers feel something, the better.
4. Give the admissions officers a reason to fight for you.
The more you open up, the better your essay will be, but this doesn't mean you have to write a sob story. Contrary to popular belief, writing about the worst thing that has ever happened in your life will not guarantee you a spot at an Ivy League, or any other university for that matter.
As long as you write with passion (and correct spelling and grammar), your essay will be great.
Don’t be afraid to take risks! They will most likely pay off.
Perhaps the Ivy League isn’t for you.
There's no point in being unrealistic. Even some of the best students don't get in.
You may have worked really hard, got good grades, participated in activities you were passionate about, and have an amazing idea for your essay; yet, you are not confident you're going to achieve the Ivy League dream.
Don't worry, there are many other excellent universities. They may not be Ivy Leagues, but they are guaranteed to challenge you just as much, if not more.
1. University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) – Berkeley, California:
As the best public university in the US, UC Berkeley sure does give you a lot of bang for your buck! The university boasts a prestigious list of faculty members in almost every major (most notably computer science and engineering), and that's enough to rival any Ivy. Not to mention, the campus is right next door to Silicon Valley. Say hello to a whole bunch of awesome potential employers. I'm looking at you, Google, Facebook and Apple!
Acceptance Rate: 17.5%
Average GPA: 3.87
Average SAT: 1440
Average ACT: 32
Number of Undergraduate Students: 27,496
Tuition: In-state: $13,509 USD, out-of-state: $40,191 USD
US News and World Report Ranking: #1 public university, #20 national university
2. Johns Hopkins University (Hopkins) – Baltimore, Maryland:
While Hopkins’ undergraduate degrees may not be widely recognised, many are second to none, including its pre-med, international relations and economics programs. The university has incredible research opportunities and state-of-the-art facilities that allow its students to thrive. If you want to become a doctor, Hopkins may be your best bet.
Acceptance Rate: 11.4%
Average GPA: 3.90
Average SAT: 1510
Average ACT: 33
Number of Undergraduate Students: 6,524
Tuition: $50,410 USD
US News and World Report Ranking: #10 national university
3. Carnegie Mellon (CMU) – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:
CMU is known for two, almost completely opposite, majors: computer science (CS) and fine arts. Both departments require a lot of hands-on work and both of them will push you to your limits. Luckily, your hard work will pay off because of the uni’s strong alumni network in Silicon Valley and on Broadway. While these may seem like a strange combo of skills for a university to excel in, it works for CMU and it could work for you, too (not that you have to double major in CS and fine arts)!
Acceptance Rate: 13.7%
Average GPA: 3.76
Average SAT: 1490
Average ACT: 32
Number of Undergraduate Students: 6,454
Tuition: $52,040 USD
US News and World Report Ranking: #24 national university
4. Babson College – Babson Park, Massachusetts:
If you are interested in entrepreneurship, Babson is by far the best university for you. Their entrepreneurship program is unrivalled and has been ranked the #1 in the country for the past 20 years by Princeton Review. Throughout your college career at Babson you will learn everything there is to know about start-ups. I can pretty much guarantee that by the time you graduate you will have started your own company (or three).
Acceptance Rate: 23.6%
Average GPA: 3.79
Average SAT: 1370
Average ACT: 30
Number of Undergraduate Students: 2,141
Tuition: $48,288 USD
US News and World Report Ranking: Unranked
5. Williams College – Williamstown, Massachusetts:
Looking for an excellent liberal arts program, lots of snow, and Oxford-style tutorials? If so, then you’ll love Williams. Due to the small class sizes and the two-on-one tutorials, you are expected to participate often and really immerse yourself in the material. Your professors will be there for you all the time to help you do your best, which is more than can be said for many Ivy professors. With the mountains as the backdrop to your academic years, you are bound to fall in love with Williams.
Acceptance Rate: 16.8%
Average GPA: 4.04
Average SAT: 1490
Average ACT: 32
Number of Undergraduate Students: 2,153
Tuition: $51,790 USD
US News and World Report Ranking: #1 liberal arts college
Yes, they've got the name on their side, but the Ivy Leagues are not the only universities worth going to.
However, if you are an average student and you are deadset on attending an Ivy League, the sooner you start strengthening your candidacy, the better chance you will have.
Be realistic but don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars, while also applying to a few 'backup schools'... just in case.