The Singapore Student's Guide To The Ivy League


No doubt the thought has crossed your mind at least once. Perhaps it's because you’ve heard stories about your seniors who have pulled it off. Or maybe it's because of that one cousin you always hear about at family reunions. The one that your mom is always comparing you to.

You hear the stories and start to day dream, envisioning yourself passing through the venerable archways, wandering the stacks of ancient books in the enchanting libraries, or sitting in the shade of the ivy-covered ivory towers. Soon you dare to wonder: could I also be admitted to an Ivy League university?

The dream is enticing, but often seems unattainable. The stories we hear about the students who made it often fill us with doubt. You might catch yourself worrying: “how can I ever stack up?”

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is, anyone can make it into an Ivy League university. In fact, these schools pride themselves on admitting students from all different walks of life. Places in these select universities are not reserved only for five-time chemistry champions or international sports stars (though these accomplishments don’t hurt!) or offspring of royalty/political elites (though they often get in).

The bad news is, it won’t be easy. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that for all of these universities, admissions rates are low and competition is fierce. However, there’s no reason that you can’t be one of the lucky few receiving an offer of admission! It will just take a bit of elbow-grease and a can-do attitude.

Think you have what it takes? Read on to find out how to turn those dreams into realities.

Part One: Why Attend an Ivy? 

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of how to put together an Ivy League worthy college application, we first have to answer an important question: why do you want to attend an Ivy League school? 

The answer might seem obvious at first. We all know the Ivy League is a byword for success and excellence. Who wouldn’t want to go?

Wanting to attend a school because it has a prestigious sounding name and news of your admission there will turn that one condescending aunt green with envy might seem like good reasons to you, but when it comes time to make a decision on your application, universities want to know that they are admitting students who care deeply about the school and have thought hard about their motivations for applying there.
Better then to ask “which Ivy league school would you like to attend and why?” as opposed to “why attend an Ivy league school?”

The first step to any good application has to be research - look into the schools that interest you and find out about the campus lifestyle and culture, the courses that are available, the financial support offered to you, the location and, of course, your career paths after graduation, among many other elements.

At the end of the day, the most important step you can take to improve your chances of admission to a top school is to make sure before you even apply that you have done your homework and you have a compelling reason to want to attend your chosen university, whether it be Harvard or Penn, Dartmouth or Brown.

For a fun way to learn more about student life in the Ivies, check out Crimson’s Day in the Life Youtube series:

Part Two: Getting the Grades

Now that you’ve picked the right Ivy League school to suit your interests and personality, it’s time to get down to work on putting together your winning application.  

And as any school teacher or parent will tell you, the most important part of your application is your grades.

While it may be true that universities in the US don’t stress grades as much as their counterparts at home in Singapore or in other places like the UK or Australia, they certainly aren’t interested in admitting academic slouches either!

Coming from Singapore, where academic standards are already high, admissions officers are going to expect a lot from any Singaporean applicant. Historically, Singaporean students need to aim for at least 3 A’s at A levels or 40+ on IB to be strong contenders for Ivy League admission. 

Beyond this, it is also important to pair your high academic achievements with superlative performance on your standardised test of choice.

As you may know, students applying to US universities are required to submit either an SAT or an ACT score as part of their application. The average SAT score for Ivy league admission is 1535 out of 1600, and the average ACT score is 33 out of 36, meaning if you want to be an above average Ivy League applicant, you need to shoot for as close to a perfect score on these tests as possible.

At this point, you might be sweating a bit. Maybe you didn’t heed your parents well-meaning advice, and didn’t hit the books quite as hard as you ought to have.

You might now be asking: “Are my Ivy League dreams dead?”

If you haven’t quite reached the aforementioned pinnacles of academic achievement, fear not. Even such lofty universities as Harvard have been known to admit applicants with SATs in the 1400s and exam results that included a B or even a C.

Ultimately, US universities (including the Ivies!) are not just interested in grades, but also the person behind the grades. If your academics are a bit under par, you still stand a chance of admission if you wow the admissions committee with a high quality application.

Part Three: Showing the Real You

The job of an admissions officer is much more than just finding the “best” applicants and admitting them to the university. If you ranked students solely according to grades and SAT scores and automatically admit the top 100 odd students, you wouldn’t get a very desirable cohort. This type of admissions scheme tends to favour intensely academic students: the type that spends 24/7 in the library and may not do much else.

While it may be desirable to admit some students of this type, admissions officers also want to admit students that will make the university campus a fun and intellectually stimulating place by interacting with the community, participating in established clubs, and initiating new projects and organisations. 

In short, they want to admit real people with dreams, failures, passions, and interests. 

They want to admit people like you. 

In order to find out more about who you are as a person and how you will impact the campus, universities ask for a list of your extracurricular activities and accomplishments as part of each application. They ask for a list of the awards and honors you have won. They will also ask you to talk about yourself as a person in various essays and short answer questions. 

The biggest mistake students make in approaching these sections of their applications is that they try to be what they think universities want them to be. This most often manifests in applicants who do their best to be “well-rounded”.

We all know someone laying claim to the title of most “well-rounded”. They collect activities like trophies: captain of the football team, head boy/girl, president of the drama club, debate captain… the list goes on and on.

For some students, their interests and the capacity to achieve really are this broad. And to those students, we say bravo! Keep on being the best that you can be!

However, too many students seek to emulate this model and add superficial participation in a broad number of activities as a way to tick all the necessary boxes that they think admissions officers are looking for.

After reading thousands of applications, admissions officers can see a student like this coming from a mile off… and will likely reject them. (For example, that last-minute service trip to Cambodia in your final summer before senior year and many other one-off activities relatively close to the application deadline.)

Applicants like this strike admissions officers as...not authentic. If you really want to impress an Ivy League admissions committee, the best course of action is to take the time to identify one or two core areas of interest - extracurricular activities that ignite your passion - and pursue these to the highest level that you possibly can. Find out what makes you, you! 

These core passions will form the backbone of your application, and will give it a theme that will make it easy for them to identify with you as a person, and remember you when it comes time to make admissions decisions. It doesn’t matter what kind of interest this is! Whether you collect insects, write a blog, or organise food donation drives, as long as you show passion, leadership, creativity, and initiative any Ivy League school will see the value of having you on campus, adding diversity and contributing to their class.

For more information on how other students are making an impact on campus, take a look at Crimson’s extracurriculars youtube channel:

Final Thoughts

There’s no denying that the universities that make up the Ivy league rank among the best in the world. They earned that reputation through years of academic excellence.

Though admission to any of these schools is by no means easy, if you make good use of the advice provided in this guide, you will be in a good position to earn a place.

The last piece of advice we will leave you with is to get going! Start now to explore your interests and lay the groundwork for academic success to come. The earlier you begin to plan for your future, the better your chance of making your dream of becoming an Ivy League student a reality.

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