What’s Your Story Anyway? 

What it takes, beyond grades, to gain admittance into the Nation’s Ivy League and Top Tier Universities 

When it comes to college applications for students who are vying for select spots at coveted Ivy League and top-tier universities, one of the biggest problems I find among my clients is that they don’t have a story. What I mean by that is there’s something curious lacking in their application that demonstrates intellectual depth.  Yes, these students have to be at the top of their class, have high GPAs, and the magic number of AP courses, but there’s another element that’s often overlooked-their academic story. 


What a lot of students don’t understand about the college application process is that they need to treat it as if they’re applying for a job. Investigation and research are crucial. While you can bet nearly every school will ask for a personal statement and a supplemental essay; the supplemental essay is paramount, and it’s always asking the same thing across the board: what do you want to study and why/how do you want to explore this?  The problem is many students don’t have a well-crafted academic story, nor enough research about the university to answer this question well. 


How do I advise a student to begin then? I tackle this problem with my clients by having them think in terms of creating a flow chart. At the top of this flow chart, a student must know which college within the university they’re applying to (the College of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, or Business.)  For example, if my client is applying ED to Cornell, they will need to know which specific college they’re applying to: College of Arts and Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture, Art and Planning, College of Engineering, or the College of Human Ecology. 


Once a student has identified their college it’s important to then research the college’s majors within that school and select one they’re interested in. (This doesn’t mean a student is married to this major, but it’s the foundation from which we’ll begin to build a relevant story of depth.)  Students should then be able to answer the following questions: what research is happening within this major, what are the upper-level course offerings, and what recent publications have professors in this department published? 


And this is where it gets fun. This is where I like to ask my clients questions and gather as much information as I can about them to help them build a unique, investigative, intellectually curious story that aligns with the programs at the institutions they’re applying to.  This process doesn’t happen overnight. The two cases I’ll elaborate on each took about 1 year to: identify direction based on interest and current engagement, find a locally relevant topic / issue, develop a research question, conduct research / write: a research paper and an advocacy related article related to local topic / issue. 


Case in point, one of my former clients (interested in studying data science) enjoyed tutoring and genuinely helping her peers, but didn’t have much else going on in terms of depth and breadth in her academic story. 


After some brainstorming sessions though, we had a plan; her interest in education and data science could be bridged to develop a uniquely interesting, and current problem to solve: investigating the efficacy of summer school programs during COVID-19.  She determined there was no easy way to identify if students were more successful the following school year as a result of distant summer learning. And furthermore, was there a statistical difference in the performance of virtual versus nonvirtual summer learning? 


She did her research and obtained public data from the state on each school in her district to create a dashboard so educators could then see, a year later, how these students were faring. This client then wrote an article to her local paper about her research and lastly presented her findings to her district’s school board. The school board was quite impressed with the depth of her research and she was offered an internship as a result. This is a well-built academic (and socially relevant) story that will set her apart on an application because it illustrates her ability to effect positive change in her community and further demonstrates her academic aptitude beyond what a test can show. Her commitment to her research paid off; she was accepted into an Ivy League school. 


Another great example of an intellectually curious story: I consulted with a sophomore who again didn’t have much depth in her application. Her community involvement was volunteering at a local homeless shelter and she was interested in studying finance. Again we brainstormed and eventually formulated a few big questions: What’s the purpose of a homeless shelter? Why do they exist? What exactly is this public policy?  From this, the client then identified a problem: homelessness is often a result of a lack of financial literacy. She then set out to create a financial literacy club in her school to educate her peers. 


But she didn’t stop here. We soon determined there was a big debate in her town over the building of low- income housing; she then had another big question to tackle: how does low-income housing affect the economic vitality of a community? We then connected this student with a local mentor to help guide her research and she put together her findings and wrote an advocacy piece to her paper on the need for low-income housing, and finally presented her research at a town council meeting. (Her presentation was filmed so she could highlight this in her application.) 


The moral of these stories? It takes time to develop a well-researched and executed curious story, many times an entire school year.  Elite and Ivy League college admissions are competitive; grades alone and a few leadership roles in high school clubs don’t guarantee entry into the nation’s premier universities. Academic stories of depth, however, set students apart.