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How to Get Into Ivy League Schools

JUN 11, 2021

Have you always dreamed of going to an Ivy League school but don't quite have the grades? Surprise! You don’t have to be the perfect applicant.

Getting into the elusive Ivy League is a mystery to most high school students. They have no idea how to break into this exclusive community of elite students and world-renowned scholars. Even the schools are notoriously secretive about their admission practices. Most believe the coveted acceptance letter is only for those with perfect test scores, excellent grades, dozens of extracurriculars, thousands of hours of volunteer work, a stand-out essay, and lots of luck.

Luckily, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Ivy League admissions so there is a bit of wiggle room and 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 (like 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.

What we’ll be covering

  • What are the Ivy League Schools?
  • Ivy League Schools are not looking for perfection
  • Take a Holistic Approach with your Ivy League Application
  • Academic Performance
  • Test Scores
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Personal Essay
  • Extracurriculars
  • Networking
  • Apply Early to boost your chances of getting into an Ivy League School
  • Find an Ivy League School that Fits YOU

What are the Ivy League Schools?

Considered the most prestigious colleges in the United States, the eight Ivy League schools include:

  1. Brown University (est. 1764)
  2. Columbia University (est. 1754)
  3. Cornell University (est. 1865)
  4. Dartmouth College (est. 1769)
  5. Harvard University (est. 1636)
  6. University of Pennsylvania (est. 1740)
  7. Princeton University (est. 1746)
  8. Yale University (est. 1701)

While the term “Ivy League” wasn’t actually coined until 1954 when the NCAA athletic conference for Division I was formed, seven of the eight schools existed prior to George Washington’s presidency.

Due to their academics, social prestige, and ultra-selective admissions process, "Ivy League schools are considered the most sought-after institutions of higher learning in the country and around the world.” - U.S. News & World Report

Ivy League Schools are not looking for perfection.

While exceptional credentials don’t necessarily hurt candidates, it might come as a surprise that Ivy League universities are not looking for perfect students or even someone who looks perfect on paper. They’re also not looking for well-rounded students. The application pile is filled with students who participate in everything but don’t shine at anything.

If it’s not perfection, what are they looking for?

Ivy League schools are looking for people who stick out from the crowd, experts in their area of interest. They're searching for students who have transformed their big dreams into even bigger realities. Ivy League colleges want world-changers who are making positive marks on society with the resources available to them.

We look for students with intellectual curiosity, who have pursued and achieved academic excellence. We also look for students with strong personal and extracurricular accomplishments.

- Princeton University Admissions

World-changers drive change. They know what they want and go for it. They also know success doesn't happen overnight. Ivy League universities want to see growth, even if it means failing before succeeding.

Ivy Leagues are also looking for world-changers who can positively contribute to their university community. They’re looking for humble leaders who will bring accomplishment and recognition to the school, and those who are willing to share their knowledge to help fellow students accomplish their goals.

Download our free eBook to help you stand out and crush your college applications!

What does it take to become a world-changer?

This is the most exciting (and easy) part of the puzzle. Being a positive world-changer starts with discovering what you love, learning everything you can about it, and giving it all you’ve got.

This doesn't mean dabbling in a hobby. It means taking that hobby, talent, or expertise to the next level and using it to change the world. If you think you have to pursue a specific path because it’s what an Ivy League wants to see, you’ve missed the point altogether, and your chances of getting in are exponentially lower. For example, maybe you were forced to take piano lessons as a child. You may have mastered the technique, but you lack the passion. When you pursue a path only because you believe it will get you in, you're doing it for the wrong reasons. There will be students who are just as talented as you and more passionate about this path. Their applications will shine because they are doing what they love.

It’s so much easier to pursue something you already love. If you’re doing what you’re designed to do, your passion will shine throughout your Ivy League application.

Hint: Do what you love first. The rest will follow.

Let passion drive your profession

- Oprah Winfrey

Haven’t found your passion yet?

What excites you? What drives you to keep wondering, exploring, and learning? Start there. Then, dive deep. When you discover your passion, spending time in it is not an obligation. You’re not doing it for someone else, to make your parents happy, for the grade, or because you think it will get you into the perfect college. You’re doing it for you and because YOU love it. Ivy Leagues are not looking for students who participate in dozens of extracurriculars or receive a bunch of awards. They’re looking for students who display leadership, dedication, and genuine interest in their chosen extracurricular.

Passions can change.

Don’t worry if you eventually decide to pursue other passions. Ivy Leagues understand you’re still figuring it all out. They want to see that you chose a path, spent time in the pursuit, encountered and overcame obstacles, and found success in the end. If you can show diligence and perseverance even when it gets tough, they know you’re capable of impacting the world, no matter what you choose in the end.

It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together.

- Unknown

Still unsure where to begin?

Here are just a few world-changing extracurricular options.

Extracurricular Ideas for Ivy League Schools
Extracurricular Examples
Science- Participate in original research at a local college - Compete in the Science Bowl or the Science Olympiad
Arts- Find a national level art competition and rank well - Win speech/debate competitions
Writing- Publish a book - Start a writing club and critique each other’s work
Tech- Create and sell a successful app - Start and successfully run a coding business for young people in your community
Athlete- Be the captain of your sports team - Compete at a national level
Business- Start a club or non-profit and raise awareness using social media or Kickstarter - Raise awareness for an important cause and help people in a quantifiable way
Hobbies- Start a YouTube channel and gain a large following - Mentor others in your hobby

Choose something you love and pursue it like crazy! Your passion and drive will be evident throughout your application. If you’re still unsure of where to start, Crimson provides students with a database of extracurricular opportunities offered by students and mentors worldwide.

Take a Holistic Approach with your Ivy League Application

It does take more than a deep passion for an extracurricular to get into an Ivy League school. Selection committees review thousands of student applications with high SAT scores, perfect GPAs, and countless AP courses. You have to stand out from the rest of them. Take a holistic approach and show them you’re not one-dimensional by highlighting your strengths throughout your Ivy League application. Use your grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, and essay to complement your present and future career goals.

For example, Ivy League admissions committees look at the courses you took in high school to see if you chose classes that challenged, inspired, and encouraged you to learn more. They may even favor a B in a challenging course over an A in an easy one. They love to see that you chose leadership positions and that your professors enjoyed your intelligent and unique insight in their classes. Strong test scores still play a critical role in your acceptance but so does your essay and your extracurriculars. The selection committee wants to see you come alive on paper.

When you take a holistic approach to your college application, you’re showing you’re a relatable person who’s driven, has experienced and overcame challenges, and is ready to make a positive imprint on the world.

Instead of only looking at test scores and grades, the highly selective American universities deploy a holistic admissions process. Each admissions committee is trying to get as full a portrait as possible of the applicant including his activities outside the classroom

- Jacques Steinberg, former senior editor at The New York Times and author of “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.”

Let’s Break it Down

The critical components of your Ivy League application are academic performance, test scores, letters of recommendation, your essay, and extracurriculars.

Academic Performance

Grades Still Matter

Ivy League schools assume you will take AP courses and have outstanding grades. It’s practically a prerequisite to applying. Unless you’ve experienced an extreme illness or a life-changing experience, Ivy League schools expect stellar grades.

Choose Coursework Wisely

When you take a holistic approach to your application, it’s still important to choose courses that challenge you academically and personally. But, keep in mind that if your strengths are math and science, you may not be an exceptional English scholar. It’s better to take AP, IB, and Honors courses that showcase and define your passions than struggle through one that lowers your GPA and doesn’t help your overall objective. While grades are important, they don’t tell everything about you. Don’t focus so much on grades that you neglect the other pieces of the puzzle.

Test Scores

SAT and ACT scores matter, but not as much as you think. Students who get accepted into Ivy League schools have very high test scores but most are far from perfect. Only 300-500 students who take the SAT score 1600. Many universities are also going test-optional, meaning you may choose not to submit test scores. While skipping the tests may seem enticing, remember this means the rest of your application needs to shine.

Check out our blogs on What’s a good SAT Score and What’s a good ACT Score to learn more about what scores you should be aiming for and how you can achieve them!

Average GPA, SAT and ACT Scores for Ivy League Schools

For help getting a great SAT or ACT score, Crimson offers Online Tutoring programs with the world’s best teachers and tutors. We offer one-on-one test preparation with expert tutors, many of whom scored a perfect 1600 (SAT), 36 (ACT), and 800 (SAT II) on their own college admissions standardized tests.

Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters help build your holistic application by allowing people in your life to give their personal and professional opinions about your academic performance, character, and drive. If you want to receive favorable and convincing recommendations, establish strong relationships with teachers, key staff, and leaders of your extracurricular activities. Build a compelling application with strong letters of recommendation from outside parties and an exceptional essay driven by your unique extracurricular passion.

Personal Essay

The personal essay is just that - personal. A well-written essay can capture the authenticity of an applicant better than any other part of the Ivy League college application. Through a personal essay, students can communicate personal motivations, share more about their passions, showcase leadership qualities, and build trust. A personal essay also helps an Ivy League university determine if you’re a good fit for their campus community. They want to know that you not only care about your goals, but you’re capable of furthering the university’s mission as well.

Download our free eBook on how to write the perfect personal statement and read 14 successful essays by Crimson students who got into the Ivy League, Duke, USC, NYU, UCLA, and more!


If you want to get into the Ivy League, strong extracurriculars are critical. As mentioned earlier, Ivy Leagues are not looking for well-rounded applicants who have participated in dozens of extracurriculars. They discourage dabbling in many activities and prefer you dig deep into a subject, dedicate significant time to it, and ideally use this experience to propel you into a world-changing career.

Remember, it’s ok if your extracurriculars change later. Show them you’re capable of achieving big things now because what you accomplish now is a good indicator of what you will do in the future.


Never underestimate the power of knowing the “right” people. Ivy Leagues are known to be networking powerhouses. If you know students, professors, alumni, or anyone associated with your dream Ivy League school, don’t hesitate to reach out. They can offer valuable advice and resources that can help you get into an Ivy League school.

Crimson students have access to world-class tutors, mentors, and strategists who have attended the world’s most prestigious universities. These invaluable assets know what it takes to get into an Ivy League school and want to help students successfully negotiate the Ivies.

Learn how Crimson can help you get into the Ivy League.

Apply Early to Boost your Chances of Getting into an Ivy League School

Comparing acceptance rates is the simplest way to figure out which Ivy League is the easiest to get into; however, these rates aren’t always what they seem.

Overall Ivy League Acceptance Rates for Class of 2024 & 2025
IviesClass of 2024 Acceptance RateClass of 2025 Acceptance Rate
U Penn8.07%5.68%

While it’s debatable which Ivy Leagues is the easiest Ivy to get into, according to these numbers, Cornell, Dartmouth, and U Penn are by far the easiest Ivy League schools to get into with the highest acceptance rate for the class of 2025.

Early Decision and Action Acceptance Rates for Ivy League Schools

But what happens when you take a look at the early decision/early action (ED/EA) acceptance rates?

Early Action & Early Decision Acceptance Rates – Fall 2021
IviesApplied '25Admitted '25Acceptance Rate '25Applied '24Admitted '24Acceptance Rate '24
Brown ED5,54088515.97%4,56280017.5%
Columbia ED6,43565010.10%4,31865015.05%
Cornell EDNot releasedNot releasedNot released6,6151,57622.6%
Dartmouth ED2,66456621.25%2,06952626.4%
Harvard SCEA10,0867477.41%6,42489513.9%
UPenn ED7,9621,19415%6,4531,26919.7%
Princeton SCEACancelledCancelledN/A~5000791~15.8%
Yale SCEA7,93983710.54%5,77779613.8%

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 an Ivy (these stats are often skewed due to recruited athletes), showing interest in specific universities early on will definitely help you.

Ivy League schools 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.

If you are certain you want to go to an Ivy League, apply early but keep in mind that early decision applications are binding. If you get in, you have to go.

Our holistic approach provides support across all areas of the US and UK university application process. We assist you to find your best-fit university, create a personalized roadmap, ace your standardized tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extracurriculars, and more.

Don’t squeeze into their mold

While the Ivy Leagues all share similar entrance objectives, their cultures and learning styles are not the same. Many applicants fail to get into certain Ivy League schools because they try to fit the university’s mold instead of finding one that fits their values and goals. Do your research. Which college excites you? Does it offer programs and classes that will challenge you and help you grow? What’s the campus like? Do you prefer a college in a large city or a suburb? Communicate your answers throughout your application, and your passion for your dream school (or schools) will shine. 

Find an Ivy League School that Fits YOU

To get you started on your research, here are some of the unique qualities, values, and attributes of each of the eight Ivy League schools below.

Brown University

brown university

Brown Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

Brown is a major research and educational university known for its student-centered learning. Students who thrive at Brown navigate their intellectual journeys, have an intense curiosity, and want to make a difference in the world. Brown is the only major research university in the nation where undergraduates can develop a personalized course of study. Their admission process is holistic and contextual. Self-directed applicants thrive in this environment because they can take advantage of Brown’s signature Open Curriculum and sample a wide range of courses before choosing an academic concentration.

Key Advice

To be a competitive applicant, you should spend your high school years challenging yourself both inside and outside the classroom. Successful applicants need to have a track record of being self-driven. You will stand out if you can prove you’re already responsible for your intellectual and creative development.

To learn more about Brown’s mission and unique qualities, check out their profile here.

Our strongest applicants have taken full advantage of what is available to them in their own schools, and many motivated students find outside learning opportunities (e.g., local college courses, independent study) to supplement their high school curriculum, especially when they have exhausted available courses.

- Brown Admissions

Columbia University

columbia university

Columbia Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

Undergraduates at Columbia University start with a common foundation of curriculum that includes literature, philosophy, science, art, history and music, and caps classes. Each class is only 22 students, so students experience close interaction with faculty. STEM programs like engineering and computer science are popular at Columbia. Located near Manhattan, New York, much of Columbia’s student body is passionate about political involvement, activiely taking part in political engagements throughout the city. Considered “the quintessential great urban university,” Columbia is also one of the most diverse Ivy League schools, boasting students from all 50 states and over 100 foreign countries.

Key Advice

Columbia takes a holistic approach to its admissions process. They take the time to get to know applicants and select those who they think will take advantage of Columbia’s community and offer a meaningful contribution to the community. Columbia offers generous financial aid programs to qualified students.

Find out more about Columbia’s mission and community.

At the core of our wide range of academic inquiry is the commitment to attract and engage the best minds in pursuit of greater human understanding, pioneering new discoveries, and service to society.

- Columbia Admissions

Cornell University

cornell university

Cornell Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

Cornell’s mission is to discover, preserve and spread knowledge. They do this by producing unique and creative work and reaching beyond the university and into the world. If you're passionate about finding ways to enhance the lives of those around you and around the world, Cornell might be your school. They heavily promote outreach and public service in the New York area and beyond. Cornell also boasts world-class interdisciplinary research centers in nanotechnology, biotechnology, supercomputing, and genomics.

Key Advice

At Cornell, cost shouldn’t hinder success. They offer several financial aid options to students. Their admissions process is highly individualized. This means they evaluate the person as a whole. The student body is a diverse mix of talented, open-minded, and empathetic individuals. Study Cornell’s culture and university philosophy to determine if you’re a good match.

Learn more about Cornell here.

If you want to be a Cornellian, you want to be challenged. You want to define your own journey. You want to engage with and help others. You want to effect change in the world and in yourself.

- Cornell Admissions

Dartmouth College

dartmouth college

Dartmouth Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

Dartmouth is one of the oldest and most respected colleges in the United States. Dartmouth's teacher-scholars are leaders in their fields and committed to teaching. Senior professors even teach first-year students. Dartmouth professors rank among the most respected teachers in American higher education. Their highly flexible quarter-system works well for students interested in exploring all the university’s educational offerings.

Key Advice

Dartmouth strongly believes applicants should showcase all elements of their application. If you have a stand-out talent or passion, be sure to intertwine it throughout your application.

Read more about Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth has practiced holistic admissions review for 100 years, and that ancient ideal of the whole person continues to guide our application review during these unprecedented days.

- Dartmouth Admissions

Harvard University

how to get into ivy league schools

Harvard Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

With access to world-renowned research opportunities, thought-provoking courses, and faculty mentors, Harvard provides individualized instruction for both those driven towards a passion and those still discovering their path. Harvard College has a House System that links learning and living and serves as a foundation for the undergraduate experience. Each House holds 350-500 people and has a dining hall, common rooms, and facilities for academic, recreation, and cultural activities.

Key Advice

Students passionate about exploring the unfamiliar, asking difficult questions, and furthering their passions fit well in Harvard’s community.

Learn more about Harvard University.

As a research university and nonprofit institution, Harvard is focused on creating educational opportunities for people from many lived experiences.

- Harvard Admissions

University of Pennsylvania

university of pennsylvania

U Penn Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

The University of Pennsylvania, located near the heart of Philadelphia, is steeped in American history. Students are encouraged to engage in activities beyond the classroom, exploring the cultural, social, and political life within the city and beyond. Award-winning scholars teach classes and encourage students to pursue their passions, address challenging problems, and become world-changers.

Key Advice

The University of Pennsylvania wants to learn all about you. They want to know your strengths, challenges, interests, and how you plan on impacting the world. When you give them a complete picture, it helps them determine if the Penn community is a place you can actively contribute and grow.

Learn more about the University of Pennsylvania’s mission and community here.

Discover a new world or shape one.

- University of Pennsylvania Admissions

Princeton University

university of princeton

Princeton Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

Princeton dedicates itself to undergraduate education. They boast a hefty financial aid program and ensure all accepted students, regardless of financial ability, can attend and graduate with little or no debt. Princeton seeks out talented individuals with a broad spectrum of cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Collaboration is encouraged, and Princeton expects students to do original, creative research. Princeton believes experiences can be as essential as education. They encourage getting involved outside the classroom, leading lives of service, and pursuing personal interests, activities, and friendships.

Key Advice

Princeton wants to know more than your test scores and grades. They want to hear your story and learn about you. Tell them how you will use the opportunities at Princeton to contribute to their community and how Princeton will help you change the world. Don’t forget to write in a way that reflects your voice.

Learn more about Princeton.

Princeton University has a longstanding commitment to service, reflected in Princeton’s informal motto — Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity — and exemplified by the extraordinary contributions that Princetonians make to society.

- Christopher L. Eisgruber, President of Princeton University, Class of 1983

Yale University

yale university

Yale Admissions Statistics
QS World University Ranking 2021Undergraduate EnrollmentTuitionGeneral Admissions RateCrimson Student Admissions Rate

Yale is a research university and liberal arts college that accepts students they believe will make the most of their resources and someone who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community. They look for students who have the desire and ability to stretch their limits.

Key Advice

Pursue what you love and tell them about that. Be yourself. Ask the teachers who know you best to recommend you. Apply and relax.

Read more about Yale’s mission and unique qualities.

I am inclined to believe that the person who gives every ounce to do something superbly has an advantage over the person whose capacities may be great but who seems to have no desire to stretch them to their limit

- Former President Kingman Brewster on Yale's selection process

A few quick tips

It takes more than high test scores and exceptional grades to get accepted. Ivy League schools are looking for students passionate about their work, driven, and already demonstrating success in a specific area. If their passions and extracurriculars line up with the school’s mission, research, classes, and volunteer opportunities, the chances of acceptance are significantly higher. Remember, the Ivy League is not looking for well-rounded students. They want students who will change the world. 

Want to learn more about how to get into the Ivy League? Crimson’s free “Breaking down the Ivy League” eBook guides you through the holistic application process so you can stand out from the rest!

Next Steps

Ready to start your application to the Ivy Leagues? Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company specializing in helping students gain entry to some of the world’s most competitive universities. Find out more about our Admissions Support program.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ivy League Schools

Do Ivy League schools give athletic scholarships?

No, Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships. But, they do offer generous financial aid packages. Many top colleges and universities do offer athletic scholarships. See how Crimson helps athletes get into the colleges of their dreams.

Is Stanford an Ivy League school?

No, Stanford University is not an Ivy League school. It’s often mistaken for an Ivy League because of its selectivity and prestige. Nicknamed “Harvard of the West”, Stanford attracts some of the most brilliant and promising students in the world.   

When is Ivy Day?

Ivy Day is the day Ivy League schools announce their admissions decisions for regular first-year applicants. Typically held in late March, Ivy Day 2021 was April 6, 2021. The date was pushed back due to the high number of applicants for the 2021-2022 school year.

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