Take care of your GPA from freshman year
This is a no-brainer but should be said anyway. Some students like to slack-off after middle school – it’s a new environment, you may not have a solid group of friends, you’re still getting use to everything. But a poor freshman year GPA can kill you.
You may think that one or two C’s can be made up later by plenty of AP and Honors classes, but colleges pay attention to your FULL TRANSCRIPT. A few C’s in relatively easy courses like American History or World Geography will make Harvard think that you can’t handle even basic academic material. It doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 50. Your high school GPA matters – all four years.
Update: More important than your final GPA is whether you showed progress over time – it’s much better to have a great Junior Year GPA than a great Freshman Year GPA and then lackluster performance over the next few years. Ivy League schools love diligence, commitment, and hard work – and that is most clearly displayed in your grades
Prepare for and take the SAT early
In an earlier post on SAT for college admissions, I discuss the “minimum” score necessary for Ivy League admissions.
My general advice is that you should shoot for a perfect score (why not??) but be happy with a “good score” (anything above 2100). Don’t take the SAT or ACT too many times – anything more than 2x without huge 100+ strides each time just makes you look desperate and incapable.
You should also start taking it early – take the Duke University TIP in middle school, take the PSAT in freshman or sophomore year at least once. Don’t worry, it won’t go on your permanent record and Harvard won’t be mad that you got a 1800 as a freshman high school student.
It’s a great chance for early practice that is risk-free. Why wouldn’t you??
Update: I’ve seen top candidates these days not only take the SAT and maybe a few SAT II subject tests early, but also the ACT! While you don’t need to go to these lengths, it shows you the caliber of competition in elite college admissions these days
Get involved in clubs early
Notice the theme here – an early start is great for Ivy League admissions. By joining different clubs your freshman year, you demonstrate to Harvard that you are committed to specific interests/passions.
Ideally, you’d stay involved in those same clubs over at least a few years. However, if you find that the Spanish Club is really not where you’d prefer spending Wednesday afternoon, that’s ok too – just make sure you’re not going home to watch reruns of the Simpsons.
Update: It’s more important to show a CORE STRENGTH than to be part of the Math, Debate, French, Acting, and Creative Writing clubs. Not only will you get zero sleep and hate your life, but spreading yourself too thin is frowned upon by Harvard and other Ivy League admissions committees. Find one, or at most two, areas that you love, and really focus your efforts there – get a leadership position; find national competitions and help your school participate in them; and so forth
Diversify within reason
I typically say it’s more about your admissions stories than it is about diversification. After all,
college admissions offices want diversified student bodies but don’t need everyone to be completely well-rounded.
However, you won’t get into Harvard as a one-trick pony. Diversification does help to an extent. Play at least one sport, involve yourself consistently in at least one nonprofit activity.
Build a core passion
Related to my point above, it’s really about your one or two passions. Admissions offices want to have a clear picture of WHO YOU ARE – and that comes loudest in your commitments, your hobbies, and how you spend your time.
By having a unified theme – for instance, a passion for social welfare issues or a love of music (as expressed through your participation in the String Orchestra and involvement in music-related nonprofit charities and the like) is a great way to build a CLEAR IDENTITY that, if strong enough, is your best shot at getting into Harvard.
I discuss this in detail in my guide to Ivy League admissions. Basically, demonstrated interest matters a lot – particularly in tough times like today when there are 20,000 applications for every Ivy League school’s freshman class.
By visiting campus, you show a clear interest in that school. Plus, you’ll meet people along the way that will help you understand whether you’re a better fit for Harvard or Stanford, Penn or Brown. More on how to pick the right college here.
Update: A few things you should do on a campus visit – sit in on a few classes; talk to and have a meal with the students; check out the dorms and residence halls. Make sure that you sit in on an information session – and make sure you SIGN YOUR NAME. Admissions offices keep track of these names and emails, and it’s another data point that can sway things in your favor due to that “demonstrated interest”
Prepare for interviews
IMPORTANT – don’t forget to start doing this early. If you’re a strong candidate, this isn’t something that you wait until the last minute to get ready for.
The best way to prepare for alumni interviews is to practice interviews with family and older people – not your brother or your best friend. Have them ask you questions about your accomplishments, your life story, your reasons for wanting to attend Harvard.
Update: I can’t emphasize how often I’ve seen and heard strong candidates put themselves out of the running by performing poorly in admissions interviews. This is often because the candidate has ZERO experience in an actual interview – so practice, practice, PRACTICE. In a future post, I will discuss typical questions and what a good response would be like.
More on college admissions interviews here.
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