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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
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Do I Have To Do Something Extraordinary to Get Into an Ivy League School?

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What comes to mind when you picture an Ivy League college student? Many of us might envision someone who was among the best of the best in high school and who has achieved something huge and important, like becoming a national champion in an extracurricular or starting a business that’s won international accolades. Admission to an Ivy League school is a highly coveted prize, and sometimes, it seems like you’ll have to do something truly extraordinary to be successful in the competitive Ivy League admission pool.


If you have achieved something exceptionally noteworthy in high school, whether it’s founding a nonprofit, being a famous athlete, or making a major scientific discovery, congratulations! If you are like most students and haven’t, however, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck when it comes to getting admitted to an Ivy League college.


Most students at top schools like the Ivies aren’t world-class athletes, mathematical prodigies, or professionals at the top of their fields. They’re fairly ordinary young people who have made especially good use of the opportunities and resources they’ve been given. Most of all, they fit what these colleges are looking for in terms of their drive to succeed, future potential, and ability to add something special to that campus community.


Are you worried about applying to the Ivies without any specific, amazing accomplishments on your record? Read on for our advice on what counts as extraordinary on the Ivy League scale, what the Ivies are looking for in applicants, and how to make your application stand out with or without one blockbuster qualification.


Want to learn more about Elite College Admissions? Check out one of our popular recorded live streams on this topic.


Admissions and the Ivy League: A Refresher

While you’ll need to apply individually to each Ivy League college you’re considering, the eight Ivies share many common admissions policies and procedures. They also have a lot in common with other competitive colleges when it comes to admissions, so the general advice about applying to college that we provide here on the CollegeVine blog will usually hold true when you’re applying to the Ivy League.


All of the Ivies accept the Common Application along with their individual school-specific supplement. They also require a transcript, a supplement from your high school, multiple recommendations, and standardized test scores. Individual Ivies, or certain programs or majors at each Ivy, may have additional requirements, such as specific SAT Subject Tests, a portfolio, or an additional essay.


Checking to see that you’ve completed the basic application requirements for Ivy League schools is fairly straightforward — while each school has some unique application components, these are all listed on their websites and other admissions materials. You can also find more information about applying to each of the Ivies in our Ultimate Guides to Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale.


Where the process gets more complicated is in how these applications are evaluated. With so many applicants showing high levels of academic and extracurricular performance, it’s impossible for these colleges to accept all qualified applicants. (Take a look at our post Why Are Acceptance Rates So Low? for more on this phenomenon.) Being a high academic and extracurricular performer is necessary, but not sufficient.


Instead, each Ivy League school relies upon a holistic evaluation of your application to determine whether you’ll be a good fit for that particular college. This allows admissions officers to get a more nuanced picture of your strengths, your potential, and what you’ll bring to campus if you’re admitted.


There’s no magic bullet for the Ivy League admissions process. With such a competitive applicant pool, no single accomplishment, activity, or quality can guarantee that you’ll be accepted, and there’s always an element of chance involved in who makes the cut.


However, we can say that in order to give yourself the best chance of success, it’s essential that you stand out. You’ll need to use your application to highlight your unique qualities and make yourself a memorable candidate. Having a truly remarkable accomplishment on your record can help a great deal in this regard, but as we’ll go over below, it’s not the only way.


What counts as extraordinary for the Ivy League admissions process?

When thinking about your notable achievements as they pertain to Ivy League admissions, you always have to keep in mind the exceptional strength of the applicant pools at the Ivies. These schools attract huge numbers of highly qualified applicants, resulting in acceptance rates that can be shockingly low.


Some distinctions are impressive in many ways but won’t make you stand out in the Ivy League applicant pool. Getting a perfect score on the SAT or ACT, for example, certainly reflects well upon you; however, many of your fellow applicants to the Ivies will also have extremely high test scores, as we’ve gone over in our post Will a Perfect Score on the SAT/ACT Get Me Into a Good College? Being valedictorian or class president also isn’t unusual for Ivy applicants.


Ivy League colleges, with their prestigious reputations and exceptional resources, draw in some of the the best and most impressive applicants from around the world. Among these applicants are those who have had access to the very best opportunities and support, and so have accomplished things that others may not have even considered pursuing.


As a result of these factors, there’s a high bar for what kinds of achievements stand out in the world of the Ivies. You’ll always find students there whose accomplishments are truly incredible on a national or international scale in various areas, from athletics and extracurriculars, to music and the arts, to writing, the sciences, and other academic fields.


As a student at an Ivy, it can be surreal to realize that you’re living and learning next to national extracurricular champions, Olympic athletes, entrepreneurs, researchers, and luminaries of every stripe. At the same time, encountering remarkable people with an amazing range of experiences and accomplishments is one of the great benefits of attending these elite schools.

That’s a high standard. Do I have to meet it to get admitted to an Ivy?

The short answer is no, you don’t have to be a world-class achiever to get into an Ivy League school. An extraordinary accomplishment can certainly make you a stronger candidate, but it isn’t necessary, and there are many other important factors that come into play when these schools are making admissions decisions.


According to the most recent available data, as compiled in our post The Demographics of the Ivy League, a total of over 58,000 undergraduate students currently attend the Ivies. That’s a lot of students, and most of them didn’t come into the application process with achievements that are dramatically noteworthy. Ivy students and alumni will reassure you that, while students at the Ivies are talented and dedicated, they’re also pretty normal people.


Getting admitted to one or more Ivy League schools depends upon a lot more than whether you’ve done a singularly impressive thing. It depends upon your overall performance — the whole range of what you’ve achieved in high school, not just one shining moment or the lack thereof. Most of all, it depends upon whether each Ivy thinks that you’ll do well there and take full advantage of what that college has to offer.


As we’ve discussed before on this blog in the post Tackling Holistic Admissions: A Breakdown of What Colleges Consider, most top schools have a “holistic” admissions philosophy, which takes many different factors into consideration. No one line item will guarantee your admission; it’s the overall picture that the college cares about.


While an impressive singular accomplishment shows off your skill level, and can also indicate that you’ve devoted time and hard work to achieving a goal, the Ivies care about your overall educational history as well. Having a consistent record of strong performance and dedication to your overall growth, both inside and outside the classroom, is extremely important.


The majority of your day-to-day college experience, whether at an Ivy or at any other school, won’t be spent pursuing individual goals, but rather attending classes, completing assignments, and, in general, being a student. In order to succeed, you’ll need to put forth sustained effort over time, and your application should show that you can do so.


The other factors that the Ivies take into account are many and varied, and admissions officers will glean the information they need from the various parts of your application. In particular, your recommendations and your essay(s) will help these colleges to better see your outstanding personal qualities, such as creativity, dedication, leadership, and intellectual curiosity, which a single great accomplishment might or might not reveal.


As you can see, the Ivies value other qualities in addition to extraordinary achievements when assessing applicants. They also recognize that not everyone has the same opportunities when they’re in high school, and that practical constraints related to your socioeconomic status, geographic location, local school system, and other factors may have kept you from achieving your theoretical potential.


Remarkable achievements are great to have, but what you’ve accomplished in the context of your resources and circumstances in high school is also very important. Overcoming obstacles to make the best of a less-than-ideal background can be a very compelling narrative, and demonstrating how you’ve done this can make you a more memorable candidate for admission.


Ultimately, elite colleges like the Ivies are interested in your potential. They want to know not only what you bring to the campus in terms of abilities and achievements, but also how you’ll blossom once you get there, and what impact you’ll eventually have on the world.


Is it necessary to be special or above average in some way to get into an Ivy League school? Absolutely. You’ll need to show that you stand out within an extremely competitive applicant pool in order for these schools to pick you, and a thoroughly average high school record and college application won’t be enough.


However, it’s not necessary to do something that’s truly groundbreaking and a world-class achievement in order to get that coveted Ivy League acceptance. Not only doesn’t everyone have the opportunity to pursue achievements on this scale, there are also many other features that are equally important to the Ivies’ holistic admissions mentality.


For More Information

Are you a high school student with Ivy League aspirations? Along with our Ultimate Guides to each Ivy League school, which you’ll find earlier in this post, check out the posts below for CollegeVine’s advice on what makes a successful Ivy applicant, how to deal with the competitive Ivy application processes, and why you shouldn’t write off non-Ivy schools even while pursuing your Ivy League goals.



Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.