The University Network

How Top Students Can Get Into Increasingly Competitive Schools

What do you need to do to separate yourself from the pack and get into the school of your dreams, especially if you’re aiming for Harvard, Princeton and other Ivy League schools? As acceptance rates drop to all-time lows in the single digits, the top universities are demanding much more from today’s highest-achieving students. 

In the past, the Ivy Leagues had a rubric called an Academic Index that was used to rank students according to their academic profile on the basis of their GPA, SAT or ACT, SAT Subject Tests and AP exam scores. High scores on the SAT (1550+) or ACT (35+), SAT Subject Tests and AP exams would correlate to a higher Academic Index, which would be one of the factors for admission. In addition, the student’s extracurricular standing based on leadership, community service involvement, athletics, music and other soft factors, such as recommendation letters and interviews, would get assigned a graded score (1-5, for example).

But over the course of the past few years, the bar has been raised significantly and the standards for admission have evolved tremendously. The Academic Index is no longer relevant, and in its place is a rubric that requires much higher standards to demonstrate academic proficiency. Nowadays, there are virtually tens of thousands of students who have a 4.0 GPA and strong SAT or ACT scores to make those academic stats the norm, and students now have to do much more on top of that to get in.

Parents and students who think that a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT (or 36 ACT) score are enough to get into a top university are in for a huge surprise. While those stats sound great at a dinner table conversation with friends and family, they are no longer considered impressive in the eyes of the admissions committee – those stats are considered very average. In fact, there were 12,000 students who applied to Stanford last year with a perfect 4.0 GPA.

In today’s digital era, the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT (or 36 ACT) score student 10-15 years ago means accomplishing much more today and requires much higher standards to be considered truly competitive and cream of the crop. Given extremely low acceptance rates of 4-5 percent and a rising population with millions applying to college every year, along with the improvement in the quality of education and resources, you can imagine why that may be the case. Some students I’ve worked with have been preparing as early as fifth grade so that they are way ahead of the curve by the time they enter high school when all the marbles are on the table.

The same goes for extracurricular activities. Back then, involvement in school activities and being well-rounded were enough to merit a strong extracurricular score. But now, the standards are much higher and you need stronger ingredients to get in. It’s not unusual to see high school students with anywhere from 10-15 different extracurriculars — 15! How on earth do you do 15 activities, you might ask? — on their application to demonstrate the degree of their involvement.

So, how can high-achieving students develop a strong academic and extracurricular profile that helps them compete against the country’s best and brightest for a spot in one of the top universities?

Regional and national competitions

For a math and science student, it may mean qualifying for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), or entering into the prestigious Intel Science and Engineering Fair, for example. For a student in the humanities, it may mean placing a spot at the Telluride Association Summer Program, or competing in the National Speech and Debate Competition, for instance. The national competitions are what separate the boys from the men, or girls from the women — not merely grades and test scores.

This leads to two key questions. 

First, are students and parents aware or knowledgeable of these outside academic competitions or extracurricular activities that would increase a student’s chances at acceptance?

Second, how do you begin to prepare for these competitions or gain a leadership position in these extracurricular activities to increase your odds of success?

I’ve had parents and students who come to me in their senior year with a 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT (or 36 ACT) score and maybe 2-3 awards, and they think the student is going to Harvard. Those students were in for some tough luck because it was too late to compete in these national competitions. At that point, it was a matter of padding their extracurricular activities, which they could still accomplish, as well as writing strong personal statements and application.

Students who mistakenly believe that merely strong test scores and grades are enough to get accepted to the top universities are in for a rude awakening. In the college admissions world, if you really want the best shot at getting in, all the stars have to align. And that means taking full advantage of the academic and extracurricular opportunities out there. 

College admissions is broken in that regard because unlike the SAT (or ACT) and AP courses, these regional and national academic and extracurricular opportunities aren’t requirements in a standard school curriculum. And so fortune favors those who take the initiative to engage in their school communities and compete in regional and national competitions like the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition.

Even then, in the college admissions world, there are certainly high impact activities and low impact activities. A seasoned admissions consultant like myself understands the difference between the opportunity set of activities, and sets expectations and priorities straight for my students so that they know exactly the path to pursue and the activities to tackle to make them competitive in the eyes of the admissions officers.

Preparing early on for these regional and national academic competitions while effectively maximizing your resources in terms of time and effort to achieve these awards and recognition milestones plays a tremendous role in getting into the top universities.

Essays and personal statements

Finally, assuming a high-achieving student has fulfilled the academic and extracurricular profile milestones, it still does not mean that an acceptance letter is set in stone. In fact, a strong student can still get turned down by the top universities if the personal statement and application is subpar. Keep in mind that admissions in America is holistic – and the essay is really where the soft factor shines. 

It’s like a job interview — you can have a candidate with a picture-perfect resume, but if the interview goes poorly or the candidate doesn’t possess the requisite skills, he or she won’t land the job. Except when it comes to college admissions, the equivalent of the job interview are the essays and personal statements. And so in a way, college admissions has evolved into a borderline essay-writing contest.

A strong personal statement can get a weak student in, and a weak application can keep a strong student out of the running. I can’t emphasize the importance of writing a stellar personal statement — very few people know how to write this well — to showcase the applicant’s personality and the lessons gained from the student’s personal experiences.

Crafting together a compelling application and putting together all the moving parts into a perfect, coherent 12 pages of paper that is submitted electronically through the Common Application portal is the final step to getting that acceptance letter. There are plenty of students who have a picture-perfect academic and extracurricular profile, but still fail to understand how to craft the application — personal statements, in particular — and end up rejected by the Ivy Leagues every year.


Getting into a top university is difficult enough, and they’re crapshoots for anyone given the incredibly low acceptance rates. But if you really want to maximize your chances of getting in, you need to do everything right to get that acceptance letter. And that means a stellar academic and extracurricular profile and of course, a powerful application to seal the deal.

Eric Eng is the founder of IvyCollegeAdmit. As a consultant who has consistently placed students into the top universities every year, he understands both the level of competition and the academic and extracurricular profile that is required to gain a spot at these coveted universities.