How I accidentally got into the Ivy League

Warning: VERY long post

I’ve spent a lot of time on College Confidential over the past few months, and I’ve seen a lot of people (sometimes HS freshmen or younger) asking if they’re ticking the right boxes for admittance to a prestigious school. I don’t think that’s the right way to approach college applications or life in general, so I’m posting this in hopes that it can shed some light on a holistic admittance process.

Before September of senior year, I had never even thought about applying to college. For some context, I live in the middle of nowhere and attend a non-competitive public school. For us, applying to college is something that happens at the end of October when the seniors are told to pick a day to go down to the counseling office to fill out their singular application. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who’s gone to college OOS in the US. If getting into college is a rat race, it’s a race we don’t know exists.

The lack of rigor offered at my school can be frustrating. We don’t have any honors classes, and APs except AP Euro are reserved for juniors and seniors. I went in and begged to be allowed to take AP classes in freshman year, a request I was denied. I wasn’t thinking about applying to colleges; I was just desperate to learn stuff. At the time, I thought I wanted to study something STEM related, so I snooped around online and discovered The Junior Academy, an online community of high school students where we compete in STEM challenges. I applied, was accepted, loved competing. I joined debate and later became really good at it, and I started regularly riding my bike to the nearest public library two towns away from where I lived. These were things I did because it was fun for me, not because I wanted to impress anyone or check any boxes.

Then junior year came. My school offers a few APs, but none of them are foreign language. I’ve always loved languages, and for years had been studying several by myself. I decided to spend a year on exchange abroad, and the country that Rotary randomly assigned to me ended up being France. Before I left, I didn’t know how my grades would translate back to the US; my counselor told me we would figure it out once I got back. So I went, had a great time, studied grammar to my heart’s content, and returned. If I had known about the college application process then, I probably wouldn’t have done it, as I now know that junior year grades are perhaps the most important. But I loved languages and wanted to follow that passion, and if that took me halfway across the world for a year, so be it.

So, senior year back home. If my school did anything to encourage juniors to start thinking about college, I wasn’t there for it. My school recorded my grades from France as pass/fail. I wanted to finally be able to take advanced classes, but I had to make up a lot of required classes, so I was only able to fit one AP (I chose calc) into my schedule. I wasn’t happy with that, though, and since I wasn’t willing to be content with what I saw as a less in-depth education than what my school could offer, I decided to self-study for the AP US gov and AP US history tests. During my time in France, I had realized just how much I loved discussion politics with all my friends from different countries and decided I wanted to study international relations.

It was about this time that I decided to start researching colleges. I had no idea how to go about this, and all I knew was that I didn’t want to stay in Utah. I googled ‘best colleges for international relations’ and started to read through websites like Niche and Prepscholar. One day, as a joke, I read through PrepScholar’s “what you need for Harvard” article. The Ivy League was something that I barely knew existed; I hadn’t considered the thought that regular mortals such as myself were even allowed to apply. So imagine my surprise when I read the words (paraphrased) “as this is a very competitive school, you’ll need to have mostly As and a SAT score of above 1510 to have a chance.” I was kind of surprised, having always unconsciously assumed that a less-than-pristine GPA or ACT would automatically disqualify an applicant. And there I was, a senior who had only taken one AP.

For my stats, I had gotten an A- or two freshman year, so my GPA wasn’t quite perfect. When I took the ACT sophomore year, I didn’t bother studying at all, assuming I’d take it ‘for real’ if I needed to once I got back from France. When I got my score of 34 a few weeks later, I divided it by 36 to find it was a 94%, assumed I had gotten an ‘A’, and forgot about it. The 6 I got on the essay made me a bit disappointed in myself, but I didn’t know it could affect anything externally. Until I started looking at the stats for top colleges, I had no idea my stats were anything unusual. Good grades were always easy for me to get, as I tend to go above and beyond when it comes to learning things I’m interested in. When my friends took the ACT their junior years, we didn’t discuss scores.

With the newfound knowledge that I had decent stats, I started seriously thinking about where to apply. I decided to aim high in hopes that at least one OOS school would accept me. I had never heard of SAT subject tests, so I signed up for those. I wrote a bunch of essays, the vast majority of which nobody ever read but me. This whole thing was a shot in the dark for me, as my only resource ended up being College Confidential. When I told my parents what schools I was applying to, they were confused; they didn’t know I had good grades. When I told my counselor I wanted to apply to Harvard (spoiler alert, I didn’t get into Harvard) she had no idea what to tell me. Around December, I had a mini crisis where I was convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere (see my panicked thread where I posted all my stats) because there were so many things I saw wrong with my profile. No GPA junior year, a 6 on the ACT essay, recommendations from teachers I hadn’t seen in a year, no major awards, etc. In my worry, I applied to way more colleges than I should have. When decisions started coming in, I was ecstatic at every acceptance I got because I legitimately thought I would only be getting rejections.

This has been a very long post, so I’ll end it with some reflections and then my decisions. Being ‘good enough’ for an ivy was purely an accident for me. With no hooks (besides maybe being half URM), the only reason I got into any schools is because I demonstrated real passion. Nothing I ever did was meant to impress admissions officers, I’m just a nerd who wanted to learn stuff. When the time came, I worked really hard on my essays to paint a coherent picture of who I am, but before then, I just lived my life. To any future applicants reading this, don’t worry if taking 9 APs instead of 10 will cost you admittance. Just know yourself well enough to follow your passions.

I’m still waiting for all the financial aid information to come in before I make my choice, but here’s the TL;DR version:

ACT: 34C (36E/31M/35R/32S/6Essay)
SAT II: 790 French, 720 US History
GPA UW: 3.967
Rank: 50/350, my school really shouldn’t rank since we don’t weigh GPA.
APs: APEuro (4).
Major awards- nothing fancy: some debate awards, B2 DELF certification, semi-finalist for NSLI-Y *Cancelled due to corona :frowning:

Self-taught linguistics/languages 9-12
Policy Captain for debate 10, 12
Foreign exchange
Chess club founder/president 9-12
Outside reading
Junior Academy
Family responsibilities
French tutoring
A few different volunteering activities
Paid work during summers

Family income: ~80k
Race: mixed white/black
Gender: female
State: UT

Weaknesses: no GPA junior year, low essay score, no class rigor, low class rank
Strengths: luck, passion, and some killer essays :slight_smile:

Utah State University
University of Portland
Boston University



No accident about it. You clearly are a self starter. You didn’t let limited course offerings at your HS hold you back. You found ways to learn and grown. You focused on doing what you loved.

Congrats on your success!

PS - You had a good balanced list too incase the reaches didn’t pan out.

Awesome results! I like your advice about living your life and then writing great coherent essays. Those acceptances are especially impressive given you had to do all the college research yourself. Congratulations! Please update when you make your decision and best of luck!

Congrats! I was a Rotary exchange student too. Great experience!
With so many good choices, where are you going to college?

BRAVO… So proud of you and your parents.

I don’t think it was an “accident” that you got in at all. You showed an open, curious, and authentic spirit and followed through accordingly. That clearly resonated with admissions. Also, you did a wonderful job balancing your list from likely schools to high reaches. Congratulations on having some excellent choices!

Congratulations and well done! Your initiative and self advocacy are both impressive and inspiring.

You’ve got the spark! That’s a great thing.

No accident at all. You certainly had the package for serious consideration at the top schools. Geographic likely in your favor and, yes, you had a hook. You are not “half URM”. You are URM.

Congratulations on the results. How did the financial aid and merit packages compare? Which school did you choose and why? I’d love to know.

I don’t think it was an accident either, you’re a great applicant, good luck!

Thanks for all the kind comments, everyone!

Unfortunately, it’s been a bit of a struggle convincing my parents to give me their tax information so I could apply for financial aid, so the majority of my financial aid applications are incomplete. I got my FAFSA and CSS profile uploaded a while ago, I’m just missing things like W-2s and schedule Ks. I’ve managed to find a lot more documents to upload over the past few days, so hopefully I’ll get all of that figured out soon.

I still don’t know where I want to commit! I’ll have to follow the money, as I’ll most likely be paying for everything myself without help from parents. Ideally, I’d choose between Columbia and Tufts. I know I love Boston and Tufts’ campus is beautiful, and while I’ve never been to NYC, I think I’d love it there, too. But I think I have the ability to thrive no matter where I end up, and having so many great options makes things easier.

Maybe there’s no such thing as ‘half URM,’ but I feel weird calling myself a URM. Out of everyone in my family, I look the most like my white mother. Straight hair, light skin, etc. If you saw me and my sister together, you wouldn’t assume we were the same race, let alone related! Genetics is funny like that :slight_smile:

Fantastic work! I have worked in high schools for the last 24 years and I can see why the colleges love you!

One thought… 25 or so years ago I opted to attend an expensive Ivy school and my family would admit, the “NAME” had something to do with it. I was lucky and had parents and grandparents helping me pay for it (not to mention my total costs 25 years ago is less than a state school today.). Pay careful attention to costs and your gut feeling. If my hunch is right, you are going to get some really attractive financial offers, but they might not come from the big name schools. Often they have so many applicants they don’t need to wave big $ in front of students’ eyes as they can just say “take it or leave it” and move on to the next one,.

I’m sure you are thinking of this already if you are paying for school yourself, but carefully consider the debt you will be holding when you finish undergrad. Given your history of self-starting you will likely do great things wherever you land.

Those ‘big name schools’ might work out cheaper than some of the others given they are need blind and the parents income is around $80k per annum.
Columbia has terrific financial aid for instance.

It is very important that your parents provide all the financial information required. Please impress that upon them.

Check things like housing. I know when we toured Tufts two years ago it was guaranteed for three years. Things may have changed but it might be something to consider.

Congratulations and good luck.

True. Hard to predict and the big name schools may in the end present the best deal

Columbia, I imagine with all the required financial documents, will be generous with financial aid. Swarthmore and Rice are also need blind.

Congrats on many great choices!

Keep us posted!