I was reading the "...ordinary people?" forum, and it was really interesting...You want to know how to get into Harvard? I go there, and I think I'm fairly ordinary as far as social skills etc. go; lemme see:
1. THEY WANT YOU TO HAVE A LIFE. Do leadership. But if you're going to have a ton of activities, DO A TON OF ACTIVITIES THAT YOU LOVE. Most of my things were music-related. "Depth, not breadth", IS the key. All-State Band. Jazz Band. Accompanist for 6 years. Band band (haha). Rock and jazz substitute around town. Choir. Jazz choir. Everything else you can think of. Yeah, I did FBLA and stuff--and yeah, I went to state and nationals--but those were also things I loved. I wrote a nutrition book and then used it for FCCLA because it was convenient, lol. I explained that to the admissions people.
2. Don't be afraid to promote yourself, but do NOT be arrogant. I read hope2getrice's posts...pretty sure he was hunting for approval, and for his own sake I hope he got into Columbia. On that note, PLEASE don't think that (a) you are worthless or (b) your life is over if you don't get into some of these schools. When they say they "sculpt" their classes, they mean it (Harvard for sure). I didn't get into Princeton, and I'm not bitter about it. (actually, I don't think I would have fit so well there). Read the part about the interview for more information on "sculpting" a class. (I think I may write a book on this whole subject...hmm...;D)
3. The Essay. The OHGODI'MGOINGTODIE thing you have to write? Nah.
It's not so bad, really. Just write about (a) what you know and (b) how something has affected your outlook on life, especially as it relates to going to "a great university, specifically _________". I wrote about an awful soloist-accompanying experience and how I had to rely on my carefully-acquired skills to keep the piece together, and how I could utilize a similar process (if you can call it that) later in life, especially in college and my early career.
Feel free to have a teacher or someone look over it, but ONLY ALLOW THEM TO MAKE MINIMAL CHANGES...admissions officers can tell immediately whether or not a student wrote their own essay.
This should be obvious by now, but DO NOT EVER (!!!) Google an essay and copy it, even if you paraphrase it. If you run out of time or can't think of a decent essay to write, do SOMETHING--explain why you couldn't write an essay. If your family had a crisis going on, describe it and how it has affected you. I don't know--draw a picture of something important to you and tell why. Creativity is always good--my essay was incredibly glib and serious at the same time. Your essay=you. NOT you=your essay. Show them who you are, not who you think you should be. You shouldn't have to change yourself to fit in at your school.
4. Grades and stuff. I don't know...I got 1510 SAT as a sophomore and then decided that I was sick of it (my mom had me take it as "practice") so I never took it again. 34 ACT. 4.0 GPA, valedictorian. I can't say anything, I guess...haha...but honestly, there WERE APs available at my 2nd school, and I didn't take them because I was lazy and didn't want to. (It was senior year...end of the year...and I'd already gotten in to the schools I was going to be admitted to, so I didn't really need to, I guess). MOVING ON...
5. The interview.
Be respectful and show a genuine interest in the SCHOOL, not just the name. If you're lucky, you will have something in common (music in my case) with your interviewer; even if you don't, you can still ask about their experience at the school. They have seen hundreds, possibly thousands, of kids with the same scores and the same activities and the same everything--what makes you unique? Why do you want to go to that specific school? Why do you want an EDUCATION? (really think about this one--it's very important). If you won't fit at that school, don't try to fit their "agenda"--you won't be happy, even if it *is* Harvard or Yale or another Ivy. I didn't go to Boston College because, as wonderful as it is, I didn't fit their mold, and I refused to change myself to fit it. College is a time of discovering yourself (really), as cliché as that sounds, and you can't grow in an environment that pressures you to be otherwise. Many interviewers will advise one of those colleges not to admit you for that reason. It is not necessarily a poor reflection on you.
THE KEY TO GETTING INTO HARVARD (OR ANY IVY) IS THIS:
MAKE THE ABSOLUTE (!!!) MOST OF YOUR HIGH SCHOOL YEARS. TAKE EVERYTHING YOU CAN FROM--AND GIVE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE BACK TO--YOUR HIGH SCHOOL(S). TAKE THE BEST COURSES. DO THE THINGS YOU LOVE.
Be happy and enjoy life. There are far too many brilliant people in the world who are socially awkward and miserable because they base their entire existence on scores. I'm not saying you shouldn't do your very best--150% of your best WILL be expected at any of the Ivies--but don't kill yourself with work, please.
I hope I've covered everything. Good luck all, and hope to see some of you on campus!