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We know how you feel -- everywhere you go, some moron is trying to take your money for some gimmick that will SUPPOSEDLY get you into the Ivy League. You know the truth. There is no sure fire way, and the real advice is easy and free....get good grades, work hard, and be yourself. But if you believe that, why are you here? You are here because that advice is devoid of information and is deceptively wrong. It advises you to work blindly, and present yourself as naively and uninformedly as possible. The truth is, "getting good grades, working hard, and being yourself" is good life advice, but is not a strategy for getting into any Ivy League school.
To understand why information (about how to present your application) isn't a bottle of snake oil sold by fools (which is how I felt when I applied to college), you have to understand how admissions works at Ivy League schools.
Ivy League schools receive tens of thousands of applications, that you already know. But the "1 out of 10" or "1 out of 20" admittance ratios that are so often publicized and quoted would lead you to believe that darts are thrown at a board in admissions, and that your application has a 5-10% chance of being hit and winning. Those arbitrary numbers are in admissions' interests -- everyone thinks they have a fair shot, so more people apply.
What you probably don't realize is that the admissions committee is usually made up of recent and inexpensive undergraduates. These students have attended the school for some 4 years and know the culture and the model of other students. They have a well formed idea of what constitutes a student of their school, and are looking for those same features in prospective students' applications. In other words, if your application does not demonstrate those features, it will never make it to the dart board. To save time and money, it will be trashed immediately. Of course, not so dramatically, but with the same effect.
The properly presented people who actually make it to the random dartboard are essentially admitted students. They are those students who fit the Harvard or MIT (for example) student profile, and may be lucky enough to attend. There are still a limited number of spaces, so darts are needed, but chances are much higher (like 1 out of 2, or 2 out of 3) for initial acceptance. Those students who are not chosen by the darts become waitlisted. If accepted students do not attend, then the school will turn back to the dartboard, which only has waitlisted students, and choose from there.
Do you see what I am getting at? The dartboard contains accepted and waitlisted students only. Waitlisted students were only those unlucky enough to be chosen by darts. Everyone else has been outright rejected. Remember, humans not computers run admissions. It's not a lottery or computer program where every tenth application gets accepted -- humans are there to decide who doesn't belong.
Now, I've referred to "your application" instead of "you" because EVERY student has millions of facets to their personality and activities with which to present, but it is up to you to present the right one. Otherwise you will quickly seem to "not fit the mold", and your application will be trashed. And rightfully so -- you didn't really take the time to find out what the school was looking for, and didn't care enough to present it.
For instance, if you want to be a Cornell student, it is up to you to find out "what makes" a Cornell student, by calling Cornell students that you know, visiting the campus, talking to present Cornell students, asking them what features or activities they all have in common, what makes a student "stand out" to admissions, and then present it on your application.
In practice, such options are not available to everyone, so I've asked current students at each school to collect is the truly golden points to know about each school's application, the admitted students, and the mold they fit. These aren't things like "oh, get good test scores...", but are tips about how to craft the tone of your essay to show admissions that you are a person that fits their mold. I mean, every Ivy League school gets enough applications with perfect test scores to be unable to tell applicants apart. And yet, you'll find students in every class as different as night and day. Your essay and activities list is your chance to show to show admissions that you do have the features they are looking for -- otherwise you will look just the same as every other rejected student.
Our How to get into the Ivy League from the students who did chapters:
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