Can I Get Into an Ivy? 4 Key Ways to Know if You Qualify for Top Schools

Can I get into an Ivy? 4 key ways to know if you qualify for top schools

Every year, thousands of high schoolers ask themselves: Can I get into an Ivy?

The answer? Probably not.

That’s just statistics.  Most people— even most highly qualified people— will not get into an Ivy League School. In 2016, more than 240,000 students applied to Ivy Leagues. Yet, only about 23,000 were accepted across the eight schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Brown, UPenn, and Dartmouth).

That’s about a 10% chance you’d make it to any Ivy.

And these acceptance rates vary from school to school. Harvard, the most selective of the Ivies, had a 5.4% overall acceptance rate in 2016, and in the most recent admissions cycle, Harvard received a record 39,494 applications, so this percentage will most likely decrease again. Cornell, with the highest rate among Ivies, accepted 14.1% of applicants.

So, what does all this mean? Can I get into an Ivy? Based on the numbers alone, chances are slim. But let’s take a look at how to maximize your shot!



Your transcript is one of the most important pieces of your application, but it’s not as simple as getting A’s. So, can I get into an Ivy without straight A’s? Yes. Contrary to common belief, not all Ivy Leaguers earned straight A’s in high school. A handful of B’s in your first two years does not eliminate you as a candidate. Even the dreaded C— early on— can be overlooked.


If you stumbled early on but improved your GPA even as you took more challenging courses, you may be okay. Upward trends and improvement are always good qualities to display on a transcript. But if your questionable grades continued or even increased throughout your high school years, then the Ivies will certainly notice.


Ivy admissions officers view your transcript within the context of your high school. Did you take the most challenging courses available to you each year, increasing the intellectual stretch as you progressed? Great. Did you go beyond the limitations of your high school, petitioning for access to advanced classes or taking courses outside of your school? Even better! Did you slide through high school only doing the bare minimum? Not so good.


Val or Sal? That’s fantastic, but sadly valedictorians are rejected by Ivy League schools every year. Ranking in the top 10% of your class is essentially essential, but not enough by itself. As many high schools veer away from using class rank, colleges look for other ways to get a sense of your relative academic performance. And this all being said, your grades, GPA, transcript, and test scores are only one piece of the application. Once you meet an Ivy’s academic threshold, you need to set yourself apart in other ways.



The days when college admission depended upon who you knew are largely over. Legacy status— if a parent attended the university of your dreams— is noted on applications and can add a slight boost to your case, but does not have the effect it once may have. One senior Ivy League admissions officer explained to me, “We expect the children of alumni to have had advantages throughout their lives, so we look for higher scores across the board from them.  The acceptance numbers are higher for legacies in part because they apply in larger numbers than the general population, and in part because they are often high achievers.”


Relationships that matter more than legacy status: teachers and guidance counselors.  The people who write your letters of recommendation for college should know you well and have absolutely glowing praise for your record, your potential, and your personal qualities. If you’ve never met your guidance counselor and your teachers aren’t fans, your chances will nosedive.



This critical aspect of the application should be hard to put in a box. You need to be an interesting person! If you have a passion and have acted on it in exceptional, noteworthy ways that have had impact beyond your own bubble, that will excite an Ivy admissions team.  If you bring a unique perspective or have an incredible life story and you share it effectively in your essays it definitely increases your chances!

Related topic: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid on the Personal Statement for College


You don’t need to be an Oscar winner, Nobel Laureate, or TriWizard Champion (although these things would be awesome). You don’t have to have been in every club at your high school or be President/Captain/Director of half of them.  But you do have to be able to show that you were engaged and motivated in your activities, that you made a difference in things that mattered to you, and that you did it in a way that is different from your peers.


Ivy League schools take a holistic view of admissions. There is no single factor that guarantees admission, and no single weakness that guarantees rejection. Did you notice that I left standardized tests off of the Academic list? Not only are test scores an obvious and readily accessible metric, but not even a perfect score guarantees an acceptance letter (though it doesn’t hurt)! At the same time, a score below the median doesn’t necessarily erase your chances if you are also a valedictorian or Olympian.

So, can I get into an Ivy? Should you go for your dream school?

If you meet these high standards in at least a couple of the categories, then go for it! Do you fall short across the board? Then it’s probably equivalent to buying a lottery ticket: some people feel it’s worth the expense despite the long odds.


About the Author

I am an internationally produced playwright and novelist with 26 years of experience in Ivy League admissions. I earned my MFA from the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop and was a Senior Fellow in playwriting at Dartmouth College, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude.

I received a grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays, a project in cooperation with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. My debut fantasy novel LightLand, published by Scholastic/Orchard Books, earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

I live with my husband and children in a Connecticut farmhouse.