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In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com admissions expert Chloe discusses how the Ivy League college application process differs from others. For more guidance on applying to Ivy Leagues and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Classic architecture at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Photographer: Joshua Jen | Source: Unsplash

Everyone knows that admission to the Ivy League is extremely competitive. Each school receives tens of thousands of applications per year, and these numbers are only continuing to grow. Aside from its selectivity, however, there are several other aspects that set the Ivy League college application process apart.

Strong Academics as a Prerequisite

At many colleges and universities, academics are the most important factor in the admissions process. A moderately selective school will be impressed with high test scores and straight A’s, and these may be enough to earn you admission. The Ivy League and other top schools, however, look for more.

Harvard is known for rejecting about three-quarters of applicants with a perfect 1600 on the SAT. This is just one example of how academic accomplishment is not enough to gain admission to the Ivy League. Though you don’t need a flawless GPA and standardized test score to get into one of these schools, students who have them are certainly not guaranteed admission.

Of course, the stronger your grades, the more likely you will be accepted. Each school wants to see that you have the ability to thrive in a rigorous academic environment. Beyond that, though, Ivy League admissions officers look for what unique and exciting attributes you will bring to their community.

You can demonstrate your unique qualities through your essays, activities, interviews, and supplementary materials. In many ways, these are the most important parts of your college applications. Ivy League Admissions Officers will use these materials to determine whether or not you stand out.

Additionally, schools may offer applicants the chance to submit supplements such as artistic portfolios, academic papers, and extra letters of recommendation. If you have an unusual talent for music composition or a great relationship with your baseball coach, these are great opportunities to show that off.

A Community of Diverse Interests

From a business perspective, colleges and universities typically look for students with a wide variety of interests to join their respective communities. This is especially true for elite institutions: they want their students to excel in every quarter, both academic and extracurricular.

For this reason, developing a “spike,” or a specialized interest, can be useful when applying to selective colleges. Focusing your attention on one particular subject or activity allows you to accomplish more in that field. Bringing that expertise to the table will help you stand out in the application process.

Having multiple areas of interest will not necessarily hurt your chances, however: what’s important is that you truly care about what you do. Cramming every possible AP class and extracurricular activity onto your resume just to impress Admissions Officers will likely fall short when it comes to the Ivy League.

The Importance of Demonstrated Interest

All Admissions Officers want to see that you care about their school. For one thing, they hope to maximize their yield (the percentage of admitted students that enroll) as well as their retention rate (the percentage of students who remain enrolled after a certain period of time). Colleges and universities also hope that their students contribute to their school community.

However, demonstrated interest matters more for certain schools. Prestigious universities like those in the Ivy League are typically more confident that students will accept their admission offers. Thus, demonstrating interest (visiting the campus, attending a college fair, opting in to an interview, engaging with virtual materials, etc.) matters less when applying to selective schools.

Of course, you should still learn as much as you can about the institutions to which you apply for your own purposes. It’s also important that your knowledge of each school comes through in your supplemental writing.

The processes associated with demonstrated interest can be expensive and, therefore, less accessible to some students. Visiting schools, for example, requires a notable investment of both time and money. The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted prospective students’ ability to engage with their potential schools. In light of this, colleges and universities are giving less and less weight to demonstrated interest as time goes on.

Restrictive Early Action

Restrictive Early Action, also called single-choice early action, is a program that is only available at several universities, including a few Ivy League schools. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Boston College all offer students the chance to apply early to their first-choice private college or university. This application is non-binding, although the student may typically only apply to additional public institutions in the early round.

Restrictive Early Action has both pros and cons. Although candidates have the opportunity to receive their decision earlier, REA, because it is non-binding, does not significantly increase their chances of admission in the same way that Early Decision does. Additionally, the strongest applicants in the pool will often choose to submit their applications in the REA round, so the competition is especially tough.

No Guarantees

When it comes down to it, all admissions decisions are out of your control. Although you may have everything going for you as an Ivy League applicant, acceptance is never guaranteed. Some decisions are contingent on what the school is looking for that year in particular. For instance, you may be an extraordinary pianist, but your dream school needs more oboeists for their orchestra.

It’s also important to keep in mind that although the Ivy League offers an excellent education, there are many other wonderful schools that can provide rigorous classes, diverse extracurricular activities, and valuable resources.

This article on the application process for Ivy League schools was written by Chloe Webster, Princeton ’25. If you want to get help with your college applications from Chloe or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expertsregister with CollegeAdvisor.com today.