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Harvard Bound: What It Takes to Get Into an Elite College

Jarell Cheong
9 min read
Harvard Bound: What It Takes to Get Into an Elite College

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I believe that anyone can get into an elite college. That any student, no matter their grades or extracurriculars, can forge a path into the red-brick halls of Harvard and other top universities.

I know this is controversial. I know that an air of uncertainty and impossibility surrounds the topic of college admissions. I know that the precipitous nosedive of acceptance rates year-by-year only reinforces this atmosphere.

But I believe it anyway.

Granted, my claim can't possibly be true. There are more applicants than there are places, so some candidates must be rejected. But for those on the college warpath in coming years, there is an optimal way forward. This post will show you that way.

When I applied, I adopted a first principles approach, studying the "What We Look For" pages of several elite colleges. I took pen to paper and listed all the qualities these colleges cared about. My goal was to understand how colleges assessed their applicants.

These are the qualities I identified:

  • Intellectual Curiosity — Do you love learning for its own sake?
  • Deep Interests — Do you pursue your passions with ambition?
  • Personal Character — Do you make a good friend?
  • Ability to Contribute — Do you add any value to the college?

By making these qualities the centerpiece of my college application, I managed to get into Harvard, Yale, and other institutions of prestige. In this post, I'll explain why they matter from the college's perspective. Then, I share crucial next steps.

And so if you have a dream school and want to make the cut, read on to know exactly how, all from first principles.

Intellectual Curiosity

There are two types of students: those that learn for tests and those that learn for fun. Elite colleges want the latter.

Colleges are, above all, academic institutions. They expect students to survive freshman year, excel at a major, and graduate in a timely manner. Your high school course load may be tough, but college-level work is orders of magnitude harder.

Colleges recognize that only the intellectually curious have what it takes to adapt.

But nurturing intellectual curiosity is simple. To appreciate knowledge is human, and we are all intellectually curious at heart. All you have to do is embrace this inquisitive spirit to the fullest.

Start by taking the toughest classes available to you. After all, these should be the most fun, right? And learn to sincerely enjoy the material. This way, spending time on it becomes your default action, leading to good grades on tests.

Speaking of grades, having a high GPA is paramount. Yale considers academic strength first in evaluating any candidate, so perfect grades get you past the first hurdle.

But this is insufficient. Stanford wants to see your commitment towards expanding your intellectual horizons beyond the classroom. This "Intellectual Vitality" is so significant that Stanford asks for an entire supplemental essay on it.

So take advantage of the Internet to learn about anything and everything. Form opinions about the material you study. Engage in discourse about these opinions with not only your friends and schoolmates, but also your alumni interviewers and in your essays.

Yale President Kingman Brewster once wrote, "I am inclined to believe that the person who gives every ounce to do something superbly has an advantage over the person whose capacities may be great but who seems to have no desire to stretch them to their limit." When it comes to academic ability, curiosity beats talent in the long run.

In short, don't study for test results alone. Let your flawless GPA be a natural consequence of your dedication towards scholarship and your genuine desire to discover the unknown.

Deep Interests

To get admitted, you need to stand out. Overachieving in every aspect and being well-rounded is not how you do it. Instead, you'll just end up looking like the rest.

But have a deep interest, and colleges will know that you have initiative, resilience, and grit — all typical features of an elite college admit.

Moreover, admitting candidates with deep interests is the main way colleges turn a profit. Colleges want their graduates to donate to their endowment fund. The thing is, only the successful graduates tend to do this.

Therefore, in the admissions process, colleges have to play a game of "predict the future superstar." They believe that past success is the best predictor of future success and hence gravitate towards applicants with significant accomplishments.

So commit to some pursuits you genuinely enjoy and research the benchmarks that would make you world-class at them. Then, strive to achieve this benchmark before you apply.

MIT summarizes this elegantly. "In a nutshell, you should be invested in the things that really mean something to you (we're not particularly picky as to what). Explore! Choose quality over quantity — you don't have to do a million things to get into college. Put your heart into a few things that you truly care about and that will be enough."

For any of your endeavors, find aspects that you can learn, practice, and master. Going deep into an interest means taking the effort, often over multiple years, to improve yourself, all while demonstrating this growth in measurable ways.

The roads you can travel are limitless. Win an Olympic or Olympiad gold medal, perform at Carnegie Hall, or have a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers. Publish a paper in a reputed journal, cycle in the Tour de France, or, like me, represent your country in three different sports.

The more extraordinary and niche your undertakings, the better. And the earlier you realize the need to deepen your interests, the earlier you can cut out the shallow activities that don't matter and make meaningful progress in the ones that do.

Personal Character

With the number of phenomenal applicants on the rise, colleges examine personal character as the next filter to whittle down their applicant pool.

Colleges care about one important thing: their reputation. Students can either better or worsen this reputation, and to select for the former, colleges look for candidates that have cared for something larger than themselves in the past as indicators that they will do the same in the future.

Think of the personality filter as follows: having a good personality is a boost, having a mediocre one puts your application under more scrutiny, and having a bad one means that your application gets thrown into the reject pile, no matter how excellent your other achievements are.

Harvard wants to know if you have "maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure." This is a long list, and long lists are daunting.

To de-complicate things, Harvard suggests that you ask yourself this question. "Would other students want to room with you, share a meal, be in a seminar together, be teammates, or collaborate in a closely-knit extracurricular group?"

Again, it's worthwhile to start your own ventures, this time in the form of community service projects to signal your morals. And here's the big secret for finding community service projects: they should revolve around one of your already established deep interests.

Have outreach activities to promote your interest to a larger or underprivileged audience, or support such activities with a skill you have mastered from an interest. If you're a dancer, teach beginners in your community. If you're a programmer, design a website for a charity.

This way, your motivations are solid. Who wouldn't want to share their interest with others? Who doesn't find it amazing that they can use their skill-set to help in a meaningful cause?

Contrast this with activities that involve traveling abroad to "help" people from the most rural parts of the world. This stinks of superficiality. Admissions officers know that you're no Mother Teresa and are just wasting money.

Colleges also care deeply about what adults who know you well say about your personal character, making teacher recommendations crucial to your application. Yale puts it best. "Your counselor can provide the sort of textured comments about you that would help your application come to life."

So be a virtuous role-model. Start your own activities to better those around you and quantify your progress.

Ability to Contribute

Elite colleges have some of the best facilities in the world at their disposal. They prefer to admit students who can capitalize on these facilities.

Princeton wants to "understand your potential to take advantage of the resources at Princeton and the kind of contribution you would make to the Princeton community." Yale wants to know "Who is likely to make the most of Yale's resources?" and "Who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community?" Notice that they're saying the same thing.

Formulate a direct way of contributing to give colleges a reason to admit you that's better than "this candidate is awesome in general." It's often the difference maker when colleges have to choose between two equally qualified students in the final rounds of review.

The concept of fit also relates to this ability to contribute. You'll "fit" in the college if you're involved in an activity that benefits the college.

But also understand that colleges prioritize the selection of a diverse class. As Stanford says, "Each year we aim to enroll a class of diverse backgrounds and experiences, talents, academic interests, and ways of viewing the world."

Why? Because colleges aim to attract top talent, and the best way to do so is to imply that other diverse top talents will be attending. No one wants to go to a school filled only with bookworms, including the bookworms themselves — the library wouldn't have enough space.

As such, while contribution is essential, recognize that not all are of equal value. A college may have space for 5 football players, 5 computer scientists, and 5 poets. But when 200 football players, 100 computer scientists, and 20 poets apply, it's obvious which group you want to be in.

No matter how popular your interests are, go all in if you're truly passionate about them. But when making a choice between two equally attractive activities, choose the more obscure one.

Uniqueness in Context

According to Harvard, "There is no such thing as a typical Harvard student." Stanford agrees, stating that "Just as no two Stanford students are the same, each applicant to Stanford is unique."

This means that the extent to which you possess the four qualities elaborated on above will be considered in your own unique context. Princeton, for instance, only expects you to "Show us that you have taken advantage of what your high school has to offer, how you have achieved and contributed in your own particular context."

So while colleges expect you to have amazing attributes, they acknowledge that unique disadvantages may prevent you from realizing your full potential. At the same time, they know this doesn't mean that you will thrive any less than more privileged students.

For those with a particularly challenging background, expectations are a lot lower, which weighs things in your favor. But this doesn't mean that you get to let up. Consider how you can still display stellar traits with the finances and time you have.

Instead of paying for expensive flights overseas to participate in academic competitions, read deeply at your school library and explore interesting new concepts to grow your intellectual curiosity.

Instead of hiring personal coaches to compete at the very highest levels of a sport, find a deep interest that doesn't cost a bomb. Publish works that reach a large number of people on a free platform, or do some independent research with a professor who's willing to help.

Instead of starting groundbreaking charities, being a good friend to someone in need is more than enough to show personal character. And instead of investing in costly endeavors like golf, show how you can contribute to college by making the most out of your opportunities in high school.

Despite any disadvantages you may have, Harvard poses the following question. "If you have not had much time in high school for extracurricular pursuits due to familial, work, or other obligations, what do you hope to explore at Harvard with your additional free time?"

So reflect deeply about what you plan to do with the amazing resources at college. It's a once-of-a-lifetime experience, and knowing how you'll enjoy it makes you seem all the more desirable to colleges.

Final Thoughts

Here's what I recommend: take an hour or two to map out your college application. Now that you know how to build your application from first principles, decide what activities you want to do, what you aim to achieve, and how you plan to show these achievements to the colleges you apply to.

If done right, applying to college does more than get you into your dream school. As an avenue to reflect on who you are, it reconnects you with your values and enlightens you on the way forward.

I can't deny that getting into elite colleges is hard. But President John F. Kennedy once said, "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

If you choose to go down this road, things will be challenging, but that challenge is a reward in itself.

You do have what it takes to get into Harvard and other elite colleges. Once you hit submit on your application, expect the acceptance letters to come falling in — there is nothing more empowering. And even if they don't, it's better to have tried than to have not — live life without regrets.

All the best.

Jarell Cheong

I'm Jarell, a student at Harvard University. I write about mathematics, focusing, in particular, on probability and games.