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How to Apply to the Ivy Leagues (and Other US Colleges)

APR 02, 2017

Welcome! Let me guess, you want to study in the US and you’re interested in the Ivy League but also open to other US colleges, right?

Unfortunately, figuring out where you want to apply is just as difficult as actually applying!

Thankfully, you have me, your trusty US guide, who will help you navigate the confusing world of US colleges.

But more importantly, I'll show you how to get into an Ivy League!

Let’s get going. There’s a lot to cover.

Choosing a US College


Unsure of where to apply? I don’t blame you. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US and each one has its own unique flair. Luckily, there are ways to categorise these universities in order to help organise them.

The four major types of US universities are:

  1. Ivy League Universities
  2. Private Research Universities
  3. Liberal Arts Colleges
  4. State (Public) Universities

As you read this section, keep in mind that these are broad categorisations. You might find that some universities fall into two categories, while others may not fit into any!

It’s also very important not to limit yourself to one type of university. If you find that you love a few public universities, a couple Ivy Leagues, and a liberal arts college, there’s no harm in applying to all of them (as long as you can afford the application fees).

Applying to universities can be daunting, but Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company. We assist you to find your best-fit university, create a personalised roadmap, ace your standardised tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extracurriculars, and more. Find out more about our Admissions Support program.

Ivy League Universities


Ever heard of Harvard?

How about Columbia?


These universities (along with five others) make up the Ivy League. And let’s be honest, you probably want to apply to at least one!

These universities are the creme de la creme of US universities.

Their academics are top notch. Their sports are Division 1. Their postgraduate opportunities are unrivalled. Simply having an Ivy League degree can open doors for you around the world for the rest of your life.

However, these universities are also some of the hardest to get into. Their admissions rates are incredibly low and their expectations are ridiculously high.

But getting is possible if you understand what admissions officers are looking for and you work really hard.

The Ivy League Advantage:

The Ivy League’s value is in its ability to open doors.

A degree from one of these prestigious universities can be a one-way ticket to a great job at a top global firm!

Some of the biggest corporations around the world are so impressed by the Ivy League brand that, in some cases, they don’t even wait for students to finish their degrees before recruiting them.

Basically, investment banks, big technology companies and consulting firms send around representatives to all the Ivies to talk to students and encourage them to apply to their summer internship programs.

For example, at University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League college known for its strong focus on financial services careers, around 25 seniors are hired by Goldman Sachs each year.

These companies know the Ivy Leagues are home to some of the best talent, and so they go straight to the source.

You get to fast-track your career without ever having to leave campus for an introductory interview. Win-win.

Crimson students are 4x more likely to gain admission to an Ivy League university through our Admissions Support program. Learn how Crimson can help you to get into the most competitive colleges in the world.

Private Research Universities

Stanford Min

Are you looking for great universities with small classes and heaps of resources?

You’ll love private universities.

They're small and usually offer a more selective range of majors than other universities. And they count among them some of the best, including Stanford University (no, it's not an Ivy), Massachussets Institute of Technology, and The University of Chicago.

However, you won’t have problem getting into the classes you want, you’ll actually get attention from your professors and you may get more financial aid than you would at, let’s say, a public university.

Sounds pretty awesome!

Crimson students are 3x more likely to gain admission to Stanford and MIT through our Admissions Support program. Learn how Crimson can help you to get into the most competitive colleges in the world.

Liberal Arts Universities

Wellesley College

Ever wonder if there’s a way to study many different subjects in college?

Luckily for you, there is! Say hello to liberal arts colleges!

Instead of specialising in a specific subject, liberal arts colleges encourage you to explore as many different subjects as you can.

Confused yet? Think of it this way:

At other universities you may major in astronomy but at a liberal arts college your major would be called “natural science”.

You would still take plenty of courses related to astronomy, but you would also take a majority of other classes that expand your breadth and knowledge of the natural sciences, as well as other humanities subjects in general.

Since these programs tend to focus more on class discussions, critical thinking and writing papers, you will be more prepared for graduate school. Plus, it tends to be much easier to get a research position as an undergraduate at these colleges due to the low number of postgraduate students.

The top three liberal arts colleges in the US are: Williams College, Amherst College, and Wellesley College.

To find out how you would go when applying to colleges such as these, use our US College Admissions Calculator.

State (Public) Universities

University Of Michigan 3

Last but not least, the biggest of the US colleges: public universities!

Have you ever seen a movie about US colleges? If so, the life you envision is just on the other side of public universities.

I’m talking large classes, world-class athletics, top-of-the-line facilities, and heaps of parties.

Many public universities are part of a “state system”, such as the University of California (UC) system and the State University System of New York (SUNY). These systems have colleges all over the state, and while they operate independently from one another, they share certain policies and upper management. However, each university has its own campus, acceptance rate, and majors, etc.

If you are self-motivated, aren’t afraid of navigating large bureaucracies, and thrive best in large groups, public universities are for you.

Crimson students are 2x more likely to gain admission to New York University, UC Berkeley and UCLA through our Admissions Support program. Learn how Crimson can help you to get into the most competitive colleges in the world.

How to Apply


Alright, now that you’ve dipped your toes into the different types of US universities, let’s take a look at how to actually apply.

There are at least four ways you can apply to colleges in the US:

  1. The Common Application
  2. The Shared Systems Application
  3. The Individual College Application
  4. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success Application

While these applications are all different, they do have some similarities. Each one will ask you for the following:

Basic Information: Think exam scores, grades, courses, letters of recommendation, parental information, and extracurricular activities.

Specific College Requirements: Regardless of how you apply, each college will have its own specific requirements. Some may ask you to write ten- to 20-word mini “essays”. Some may ask you to write two 500-word essays, and some may even ask you to send in a video! Aside from supplementary essays, each school also has its own academic requirements and deadlines so be sure to check each school you are applying to to make sure you meet their basic requirements and deadlines.

The Common Application

The common application is an online platform that enables you to apply to up to 20 universities at once by filling out one basic form and writing one 650-word essay.

Sounds easy enough, right?

However, you will also need to fill out supplementary information and write additional essays for almost every university you apply to.

So what’s the point?

The common app prevents you from having to fill out your name, grades, courses, etc. multiple times.

Not all universities use the common application but chances are at least one of the colleges you are applying to does, including all the Ivies.

Shared Systems

Some colleges, like California State (CalState) and University of California (UC), operate in the same “network”. They use their own application that allows you to apply to all of their sister schools in one hit.

This is great, except for the fact that if you are applying to a shared system college and a college on the common app you will need to fill out your basic information for each application.

Not that big of a deal, just a bit annoying.

Individual College Applications

Although relatively rare nowadays, a few colleges are not on any other application so you’ll need to fill out one for each of these.

Again, this is only frustrating because it means that if you want to apply to a university that’s not on a larger application, you’ll need to fill out another entirely separate application.

The Coalition For Access, Affordability and Success Application

And finally, the newest kid on the block, the coalition app!

This application is by far the most exclusive of all of the applications... but not for its students – for its member schools.

Here’s why.

In order to be a member of the coalition app a college must meet two out of three requirements (either access, affordability, or success) and no college can be under a certain threshold of “success", as defined by the Coalition website.

The application was created to make it easier for underprivileged kids to apply and to limit the technical difficulties you may experience with the common app.

Although most of the universities on the coalition app are also on the common app (including all eight Ivies), you will not be discriminated against based on the way you choose to apply to a college.

There are two major differences between the coalition app and all other apps.

The Locker: Starting in 9th grade, you can access your locker and start adding examples of your best work throughout high school including: short essays, descriptions of your extracurricular activities, and more. The locker will also feature multiple resources for you to help you think about applying to college and how to do so. You can also create a account and share your performance videos and art portfolios!

Interactions: You may opt to share some (or all) of your locker/portfolio at any time with either colleges or community leaders. Once your share your locker, people can go in and comment on your process as well as give you advice as to how to improve. Hopefully, this open communication will help you stay on track and improve throughout your high school years.

However, the essay prompts are relatively similar and, like all other applications, each school will have its own supplementary materials.

Applying to universities can be daunting, but Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company specialising in helping students gain entry to some of the world’s most competitive universities. We help you ace your standardised tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extracurriculars, and more. Find out more about our Admissions Support program.

Ivy League Tips

The nuts and bolts of the application process don’t differ between Ivy Leagues and other types of universities.

Yet, there are some key differences that the Ivy League schools look for within your application that other universities may not.

The Ivy League schools (as well as other top universities such as Duke and Stanford) tend to focus on your academic journey and not just your grades,

Yes, your grades are important, but these colleges also want to know what it took for you to get those grades. How much did you push yourself? What challenges did you overcome? How did you improve over time?

Failing your maths class in your first year of high school doesn’t actually matter! What matters is that you worked hard and made sure you never failed a maths class again.

Like most universities, Ivy Leagues also want to see your passion. However, unlike other colleges, the Ivies place a heavy emphasis on how deeply you pursue your passion.

Again, the more you are willing to challenge yourself and seize every opportunity, the more you are likely to make a difference to their university, and go on to achieve great things once you graduate.

Aside from challenging yourself academically and delving deep into your passion, it’s also really important to believe in yourself.

Sounds cheesy, I know. But If you believe you have what it takes to go to an Ivy League and you put in the work, it can actually happen!

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to keep in mind when applying to Ivy League universities (or any other US university) is to start preparing early.

The sooner you create your list of potential universities, the more time you’ll have to craft your application and earn the exam results you need to get in.

Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars when it comes to applying to colleges. If you don’t send your dream college an application, they’ll never have the chance to admit you!

Just remember, anything is possible with a lot of preparation and a lot of hard work.

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