If you’re a college hopeful dreaming Ivy, surely you’re aware actualizing those dreams will be grueling. Recent statistics show that applications for Ivy League schools are at an all-time high, while acceptance rates for those schools have dipped to historic lows. At Harvard, for example, only 1,942 of the 56,937 students who applied for the Class of 2027 were accepted — that’s an acceptance rate of 3.4 percent. Recognizing the disheartening nature of these numbers, Princeton decided not to publish admissions statistics at all this year, noting that the stats might “discourage some prospective students from applying.” And they wouldn’t want that. They’d never want that.
“With average admit rates at top schools plunging into the low single digits, competition has never been more fierce,” says Christopher Hathaway, Founder of Advantage Ivy Tutoring (AIT). “We call them dream schools for a reason.” But since its inception in 2019, AIT clients have outperformed the median acceptance rate to Top 10 schools by 11x, so it seems AIT has a champion strategy.
In brief overview, Advantage Ivy Tutoring offers a process-based approach to college admissions, one that begins as early as a student’s eighth-grade summer, when the firm helps new clients devise strategic plans that span academics, extracurriculars, service, and work experience. AIT’s objective is to help students maximize their potential by optimizing the intersection of their interests and talents. “This intentional approach to early high school is what positions students for success once application season rolls around,” says Margaret M. Kelly, Partner at AIT. “It’s a time for our clients to generate the raw material that we later use to shape an applicant profile that shines.”
The insight Advantage Ivy Tutoring provides its clients comes from their empirical understanding of the Ivy League mentality — each of AIT’s core team members graduated from an Ivy League institution and/or a Top 5 graduate program. “In general, Ivy+ schools are looking for strong indicators that the prospective student is capable of excelling academically while making meaningful community contributions both on campus and beyond it,” Hathaway explains. “Schools hope to graduate professionals who will do one of two things: become high-earners and donate money to help their alma mater improve its educational offerings, or do something remarkable that honors the school and inspires other talented individuals to apply.”
When it comes to application assistance, the firm offers a range of services that include school list curation, application planning, and interview preparation.
Is there a formula for success?
Online DIY guides to standout applications — there are many — generally list test scores, transcripts, and extracurricular activities among the top factors that determine success. When it comes to earning access to top 20 schools, however, things are more complicated.
“There’s no straightforward equation to unlocking those ivy gates,” Hathaway counsels. “Most applicants would prefer a firm equation, such as: 4.7 weighted GPA + 1570 SAT + two varsity sports + one service-oriented organization leadership position = four years at Harvard. But the reality is that students must accomplish the demanding, twin objectives of being well-rounded while also specializing in an area colleges value — the arts, athletics, engineering, etc.”
“Applicant evaluation at elite schools is an eccentric, holistic process that’s impossible to quantify, and only promises to become more complex in the future,” adds Kelly. “The trick is for applicants to believe they deserve admission, and then to present their most confident, authentic, goal-directed, polished selves.”
How important is the application essay?
For those eager to matriculate at an Ivy League school, providing a standout college admissions essay is essential. While many applicants dread the labor-intensive process, AIT views it as an opportunity to deepen self-awareness and heighten personal growth. “The college admissions essay should be at once introspective and aspirational,” Hathaway says. “It challenges and empowers candidates to take stock of all they have accomplished and to set goals for the future.” But to do it right requires tenacity.
“By taking the time to write essays that showcase your authentic self,” Kelly says, “you invite admissions officers to connect with you on a personal level, one that offers them insight into your character, aptitude, and resilience.” AIT believes an applicant’s essay should present a compelling narrative, one that shows how their lived experiences have shaped and prepared them for inclusion in a particular school community. “Aim for depth over breadth,” Kelly adds, addressing college hopefuls. “The goal is to examine under the microscope select milestones in your life, and then to weave your observations into a revelatory narrative flush with visceral detail.”
Hathaway notes that highly selective schools create barriers to entry in the form of supplemental essays. “Admissions officers have to read a lot of essays,” he says, “most of which are uninspired or poorly written. If your essay achieves the opposite, it will be a breath of fresh air for decision makers.” Being poised to offer such a breath could be the deciding factor in your application.
What type of community involvement is meaningful?
A rote or routine commitment to community service is no longer going to make the grade. In the past decade, applicants noted the service record of successful applicants before them, and took the initiative to bolster their resumes. State school systems looking to teach values and give their students a leg up in the rat race did the same, including community service hours among their requirements for high school graduation. As a result, the bar for what colleges deem meaningful community engagement has risen higher and higher.
“Schools don’t want to see superficial engagement with organizations that mean little to a volunteer outside of filler on a resume,” Hathaway explains. “They’re looking for genuine engagement that can be quantified and qualified persuasively by candidates.” Kelly adds, “A student’s past service record will be relied on as a predictor of future community involvement, so we encourage all of our clients to get involved and stay involved as early as possible in an authentic and determined way.”
To this end, AIT recommends finding service opportunities related to established interests, or that can be connected to them by degrees of separation. Hathaway puts this in anecdotal terms: “Since we’re aiming for the stars, let’s talk about them — an applicant’s profile should read like a constellation. It’s not the individual stars, but the synthesized image of them that has order and dimension, and which communicates something larger than itself. This complete picture is what sticks in memory, and gains critical traction in a decision maker’s mind.”
As was the case in 2023, a vanishingly small percentage of applicants to highly selective schools will be accepted in the upcoming admissions cycle. The applicant pool is defined by excellence, and while some will persevere independently, it doesn’t hurt to have an experienced guide in your corner, one who can help you to showcase the complex combination of aptitude, engagement, personality, and resilience that college admissions boards crave.