Top Five Things Ivy Admissions Officers Look for When Reading College Applications

With the academic year coming to a close, high school seniors head to graduation with a spring in their step and sporting swag from colleges and universities across the country. Juniors starting their summer breaks have many things on their minds, but perhaps first and foremost should be the impending college application process.

Never fear, members of the Class of 2019! A year from now, you, too, will have that spring in your step but first, the hard work of putting together applications that highlight both your accomplishments and your potential, as well as what makes YOU the unique person YOU are.

As you start the process of applying to college, keep in mind the top five things Ivy (and really all school’s) admissions officers look for when reading applications.


  1. The Fundamentals

You won’t get past “go” in the admissions review process without an academic record that shows a record of top achievement in your school’s most rigorous course load. Take the toughest courses you can, dedicate time to your studies, and aim for excellence in all you undertake. Rigor of course load and GPA are critical. The fundamentals also include testing – SAT, ACT, subject tests, IBs, and APs. Start early. You can take subject tests in areas that map to your high school curriculum as early as 9thgrade, so if honors biology is your 9thgrade science elective, prep alongside your coursework and take the subject test in May or June. As a sophomore, take diagnostic exams in both the SAT and the ACT to figure out which test is best to show your skills. Then, use the summer for focused test prep and be well-prepared to take either the SAT or ACT at least 1-2 times during your junior year.

A note about APs… Although not required for admission – and not offered in some high schools – you can self-study and take AP exams. These are no-risk exams as scores are submitted by YOU, the student, only IF you want to. In addition to including appropriate APs to your schedule when offered by your school, look for those that you can do on your own (many available online) and link to your academic interests – Human Geography, Psychology, and Statistics, for instance. If these match up with your interests and strengths, pursue these as independent studies.

  1. Curiosity

Grades and courses matter, but top colleges want more than just students who work hard and get good grades. You need to demonstrate that you willingly go above and beyond what’s required of you in your classes because you have a love of learning and curiosity.  Admissions officers will be looking for your academic niche: an interesting field or two; supported by courses, independent research, projects, or endeavors that you’ve dug into because you are curious. Experiment, tinker, create, explore, build… see where your curiosity takes you.

  1. Impact

Nothing is more inspiring to an admissions officer than students who have positively impacted their communities, especially when that impact flows from their academic niche. A passion for robotics leads one student into establishing a mentoring program for elementary school children. Another student made his high school the first carbon neutral high school in the country then designed a curriculum on how to replicate it that was adopted by several other schools. A high school student took a senior level college course on Impressionism at Boston University, wrote a paper on Paul Gauguin that she presented at the MFA in Boston, self-studied 19thcentury art, and interned at a local art gallery.

What’s your big-bang activity? How will you apply your skills, knowledge and passion to make an impact on your school, community, and even beyond?

  1. A Clear Voice

Admissions officers reading your essays look for authenticity and want to know who you are, what you care about, why you do the things you do, and your goals and aspirations. A tall order for a 650-word essay, but it can be done.

For starters, write about something you know. Don’t just recount the details of something you’ve done or experienced, but reflect on how you’ve grown and been shaped by it. Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, so write about what you are genuinely interested in. Evolutionary anthropology, Middle Eastern studies, political feminism, machine learning, artificial intelligence – don’t be shy about the topics and questions that have captured your imagination. Show – don’t tell – the reader what makes you unique and distinctive. Find a creative angle or hook for your essay and let the rest flow from there. Be honest and authentic about what matters to you and why.

  1. Character

In seeking to build a first-year class, top colleges know that character counts. How will you be as a roommate, teammate, classmate, lab partner, campus leader or friend? Will faculty be excited to teach a student like you? How will you make the campus community better? Are you a bridge builder? Do you use your voice to advocate for issues and causes you care about? Are you eager to debate and discuss? Your curiosity, sense of humor, ability to empathize, openness to new perspectives and ideas, willingness to stretch and challenge yourself, and the passion with which you dive into your pursuits all suggest the kind of student you’d be in a college community.

Now… GO!

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