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How to Ace the “Why Our School?” Essay Question

January 10, 2022 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, Admissions, Examples, Yale, Why Us?

Whether you have been dreaming about attending a particular university for years or just discovered a college's program offerings on Google, one of the most popular application essay questions that stumps students is:

"Why do you want to attend our school?"

There are several challenges with the "Why Us?" essay question:

  • How do you answer this question in a way that doesn’t just regurgitate facts about the school that the admissions officer already knows?
  • How do you avoid coming across as insincere or adulating while still sounding impressed and enthusiastic about the school?
  • How do I make an essay that is putatively about a school an essay about myself?

This can be a tough balance to strike, especially when you consider that an admissions officer will read through hundreds of similar essays over the span of a couple months.

However, with a bit of research and thoughtful reflection, you can be well on your way to a successful essay!

In this blog post, we will outline four key strategies to better demonstrate your unique appreciation of a particular university and to showcase the distinctive contributions that you will make to its community.

Let’s say you’re applying to a popular university, which we’ll refer to as College X.

Trophy A picture of a hypothetical College X (can you guess what school this actually is?)

If there's only one thing that you take away from the rest of this article, it's this:

Remember that you are applying to College X out of hundreds of alternative schools because there is something (or likely several things) that makes College X stand out from every other college for a student with your unique background and interests.

We will tackle this question by identifying and making a list of all the unique aspects of College X (again, emphasis on features that are unique to College X) that draw you to the school. This list will be a good starting place for your essay.

Your essay should delve into these four major areas:

  1. Path of study/major
  2. Interests outside of the classroom
  3. Giving back to the school community
  4. General campus culture

1. Path of study/major

You should have a clear idea of what aspects of College X’s academic program you will explore.

Note: Even if you are totally undecided as to what your major will be, you still need to have some idea of what you want to study. List a couple of fields that you’d like to explore in lieu of having a specific major chosen.

For example, maybe you are interested in public policy and you have heard great things College X’s School of Global Affairs .

Instead of simply stating that you are interested in this particular department of College X, you first need to do some deeper research into the courses and special programs offered by this department.

You must be aware of the current professors on the faculty if the department and the unique opportunities available for student involvement.

This can take the form of any of the following (I've done this exercise for College X's School of Global Affairs below):

  1. Summer/term-time research programs ( Example )
  2. Student clubs advised by faculty in the department ( Example )
  3. Publications or newsletters published by the department ( Example )
  4. Affiliated institutes or research centers ( Example )
  5. Majors, joint majors, minors, or certificates ( Example )
  6. Special concentrations or focus fields ( Example )
  7. Famous courses or faculty ( Example )
  8. Unique programs, initiatives, or fellowships ( Example )
  9. Post-graduate opportunities ( Example )
  10. Traditions or community culture ( Example )
  11. Study abroad, summer programs, or internship opportunities ( Example )
  12. Events hosted by the department ( Example )
  13. Community service trips
  14. Industry affiliations
  15. Capstone projects
  16. ...and more!

It is important that the specific offerings that you mention are not things that you could have pulled together by simply skimming the university home page for five minutes.

After reading through tens of thousands of applications, admissions officers can quickly distinguish between a student who has taken the time to understand their school and write a thoughtful answer and a student who simply sprinted through the question without much forethought.


2. Interests outside of the classroom

Since you will undoubtedly find yourself with some free time in college, it is important that College X knows that you will use this free time to do something other than sitting in your dorm and watching TV.

You need to show that you are a student who will not simply treat life as a 24/7 academic-a-thon, but will rather be proactive outside of class to get involved on campus and participant in student activities or groups in some way.

If you are interested in pursuing your current high school extracurriculars in college (e.g. through a debate team or a club/intramural soccer team or a cultural affinity group), then you should let the admissions committee know!

Again, this question is a great opportunity for you to do some background research and learn more about what College X offers that could keep you busy and happy outside of academics.

Most schools have a list of officially recognized student groups , so definitely do some digging to try to find this online. If you can’t find any such list on College X’s website, then reach out to a current student to get the scoop!

Another great place to find extracurriculars is to go to College X’s student newspaper .

There, you’ll likely find a ton of articles describing on-campus events and activities and general goings-on, which can be a great source of information as to what students are up to outside of class.


3. Giving back to the school community

Universities value students who have a sincere desire to give back to their community.

This may be a cliché, but it’s only a cliché because it’s true:

You will learn more from your peers in college than from any of your classes/professors/textbooks.

And you will be one of those peers to someone else!

But you can’t be a positive part of someone else’s college experience if you never leave your dorm.

College X wants to know that you’ll not just acquire things from it (knowledge, housing, food, a degree), but also that you’ll give back.

College X is greedy – sure, it wants to educate the youth.

But College X primarily wants to make College X better, and so you need to demonstrate how admitting you will make College X a better place.

There are countless ways to give back to the broader school community.

Involving yourself in student organizations (as detailed above) is one way.

Doing community service is another great way to contribute to campus life or to College X’s surrounding community.

Many colleges are located in urban areas or smaller suburbs that revolve around the college (these are known as "college towns"). Thus, there is usually a broader neighboring community that the college will interact with and sponsor community service projects within.

Whether it's through Habitat for Humanity or service outings or business programs that seek to involve traditionally underrepresented people, find out how you can weave your skills and knowledge into an activity or organization that is of service.


4. General campus culture

Each school has its own culture, and College X is no exception.

This essay is the one place in your application where an admissions officer can essentially directly ask you whether you understand College X’s culture and how you might fit in.

When addressing this point, it can be helpful to first read through College X’s mission statement (to get a sense of the administration’s vision for the school).

Next, skim through a few student publications (to get a condensed impression of how students view the school and each other), like undergraduate research journals , public policy reviews , scientific essays , creative magazines or international policy reviews

Finally, if you get the chance, I highly recommend that you talk to current students about their experiences (to get a true sense of how students view the school and each other).


By structuring your essay to include these four topics and doing the requisite background research for each point, you should now be ready to produce a compelling, well-rounded answer to the question "Why do you want to attend our school?"

An answer that demonstrates that you have spent a significant amount of time seriously considering how your interests match the offerings of the school, and why you are a uniquely great fit for the school given the contributions that you will make to campus life.

If you would like additional advice on your college essays or are looking for more personalized guidance in your writing process, feel free to submit your essays for review here .

Or, click here to make a free appointment with one of our qualified Ivy League essay mentors to learn how we can provide 1-on-1 mentorship for your applications!

COVID and College Admissions: What Admissions Officers Have to Say

September 10, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | COVID, Common App, Essays, Admissions, Admissions Officers

Over 300 Admissions Deans published an open letter in June detailing the most significant ways that they see college admissions changing because of COVID-19.

Here is a brief summary of 5 key takeaways.

1. Increased Community Service Expectations

It sounds like volunteer work will be more highly valued/expected this cycle for students who are in a position to help others.

Here is the exact wording that the admissions officers use in their letter:

We value contributions to one’s communities for those who are in a position to provide these contributions.

We recognize that while many students are not in this position because of stresses and demands, other students are looking for opportunities to be engaged and make a difference.

This pandemic has created a huge array of needs, whether for tutoring, contact tracing, support for senior citizens, or assistance with food delivery. We view responding to these needs as one valuable way that students can spend their time during this pandemic.

We also value forms of contribution that are unrelated to this pandemic, such as working to register voters, protect the environment, combat racial injustice and inequities, or stop online harassment among peers.

2. Decreased Extracurricular/Summer Activities Expectations

Here is what the admissions deans have to say about extracurricular activities affected by COVID-19:

No student will be disadvantaged for not engaging in extracurricular activities during this time.

We also understand that many plans for summer have been impacted by this pandemic, and students will not be disadvantaged for lost possibilities for involvement. Potential internship opportunities, summer jobs, camp experiences, classes, and other types of meaningful engagement have been cancelled or altered.

3. Increased Emphasis on “Family Contributions”

Contributing to your family, whether that is working a job or caring for a relative, also counts as a form of service.

If you have spent a significant amount of time providing for your family, then you should make sure this comes across in your application and doesn’t get overlooked by your admissions reader.

Here’s what the admissions deans have to say:

Far too often there is a misperception that high-profile, brief forms of service tend to “count” in admissions while family contributions—which are often deeper and more time-consuming and demanding—do not.

Many students may be supervising younger siblings, for example, or caring for sick relatives or working to provide family income, and we recognize that these responsibilities may have increased during these times.

We view substantial family contributions as very important, and we encourage students to report them in their applications. It will only positively impact the review of their application.

4. SAT/ACT Test Optional

Many schools have gone ACT/SAT optional. Here is the official statement from Princeton’s Admissions Office:

Though standardized tests results will not be required for the 2020-21 cycle for an application to be considered complete, we still value these results and will evaluate them within the context of our holistic review. However, if you do not submit standardized testing, you will not be at a disadvantage.

And here is MIT’s :

Updated requirements. We will not require either the SAT or the ACT from first-year or transfer applicants applying this cycle…Students who do not submit SAT/ACT scores will not have any negative inferences be drawn from their absence.

5. New COVID-19 Essay on the Common App

The Common App added an optional 250-word prompt for students to use to shed light on how the pandemic has affected them.

Because this prompt is separate from the Personal Statement, it is strongly suggested that your primary Personal Statement essay not focus on the pandemic, something that we stress to the students we mentor while helping them develop strong Personal Statements.

How to Answer "Gotcha" Questions in Your Interview

August 22, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Interview, Admissions

How do I answer "gotcha" questions during a college alumni interview?

The typical answer is that most interviewers won't try to give you "gotcha" questions. Their primary job is to get to know you better, and to add color to your admissions file, not to make you look foolish.

The real answer? If you don't adequately prepare for your interviews, then every question will feel like a "gotcha" question no matter how simple they seem.

So how do you avoid that?

In this article, I'll first explain how to properly handle 3 simple questions that often become "gotchas" for unprepared high school interviewees.

Second, I'll show you how to handle "gotcha" questions in general, and explain the simple process for turning difficult, tricky questions into softballs you can knock out of the park.

The 3 Most Common "Gotcha" Questions

1. “Tell me about yourself”

Because this question is so simple and obvious, the expectations for your answer are sky high.

If you can’t deliver a coherent, 2-minute story about yourself, your motivations, and how you intend to use the next four years of college to explore those interests, then you haven’t prepared enough.

The trick?

Look at (or create) a resume of your most notable achievements/experiences in high school. Once you get that on paper, go through the list and practice telling one coherent, unified story of your experiences.

Time yourself. Practice reciting your story out loud with a friend or parent.

By the time of your interview, you should basically have this story memorized.

That's how you'll know if you've prepared adequately enough.

2. “Do you have any questions for me?

Trick question.

There is only one answer, and it’s always Yes.

You should prepare some specific questions about the college in advance.

If you run out of specific questions, fill in the blanks below by mix-and-matching words from Group A and B:

What was your A B ?

  • A: Favorite, least favorite, most memorable, most unexpected, most surprising, most popular, least popular, most enjoyable, least enjoyable, most unusual, most common, least common
  • B: Class, extracurricular, club, volunteer activity, academic experience

3. What would you change about your high school/extracurricular/class you’ve taken?

Don’t fall for the negativity trap.

The trick here is to stay positive .

There are 2 parts to this question:

  1. Identify a problem you’ve encountered

  2. Say how you would solve it

It’s all too easy for your answer to Part #1 to be overly negative and critical of the status quo.

Don’t use this question to bash your teachers or fellow students. That reflects poorly on you.

It takes practice to toe the right line, but the key theme that should come across in your answer is your positivity (even when faced with a negative situation), problem-solving skills, and initiative.

The General Strategy for Tricky Interview Questions

What if you get a truly "gotcha" question that you couldn't have possibly prepared for?

One wrong answer can ruin an interviewer’s impression of you.

The trick to answering tricky questions is to go with the flow. Easier said than done, yes, but a skill that can be learned.

Out-of-the-box questions require out-of-the-box responses . If you take yourself too seriously, you won’t be able to give a good answer to these sorts of questions.

Let’s take the above scene from Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happiness as an example.

Will Smith’s character is interviewing for a job at a white collar finance firm.

He’s severely under-dressed.

The interviewer pointedly asks him:

“What would you say if a guy walked in for an interview without a shirt on, and I hired him?”

Why is this question a “gotcha”?

It’s posed fairly rhetorically — the premise is that hiring someone dressed like Will Smith would not be smart , and thus he should not be hired. The question is delivered to make it seem like the answer is obviously “no.”

Any answer that takes this question at face value would implicitly be acknowledging and accepting this, damaging Will Smith’s chances of landing the job.

The best way to defuse a “gotcha” question is to identify the premise that makes it a “gotcha,” and then deflect from that premise.

So, instead, Will Smith flips the question on its head.

What if the premise were false? What if hiring someone without a shirt was actually the smart move?

And that’s why the answer:

“He must’ve had on some really nice pants.”

Comes off so well.

Use this strategy in your college interview if asked a “gotcha” question.

For example, in the question:

“What did you dislike most about your school?”

The underlying assumption is that there is something wrong with your school. Maybe a teacher you hated, or a class you thought was terrible.

That’s a fairly negative premise, and one that will reflect poorly on you if you use this opportunity to bash your teachers or fellow students.

Flip the premise on its head.

Don’t list things that are wrong about your school.

Instead, list ways that you’ve improved your school.

Or, list things at College X that you are excited about since your school did them differently.

The content of your answer will be similar, but by re-framing your answer in a more positive light, you can avoid the trickier nature of these critically-oriented questions.

7 Simple College Interview Tips and Tricks

Here are 7 simple tips for having a great college interview.

August 06, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Interview, Admissions

How do I ace a college admissions interview?

First off, breathe.

Because below, I’m going to hit you with seven of the best interview tips for really nailing your college interview.

1. DON’T Suit Up

(Unless they tell you to.)

A big mistake is overdressing the part.

Just because you’re doing an interview with Princeton doesn’t mean you should show up like you’re giving a presentation to a Fortune 500 CEO.

But what’s wrong with dressing in my best duds? Doesn’t looking better mean doing better?

Not always.

Overdressing can make both you and the interviewer uncomfortable. You want to match the level of attire of your interviewer, not overdo it.

That also doesn’t mean show up in a graphic T and pastel shorts.

But if the interviewer says it’s casual, trust that it will be casual (especially if you’re meeting in a public place).

A nice button-down or a simple dress will do just fine.

Here's another tip: Take 3 seconds to Google your interviewer and figure out when they graduated. The age of the interviewer tends to make a difference in terms of the formality you should expect.

Younger alumni interviewers typically prefer a more casual vibe when interviewing prospective students. Older alumni, however, may appreciate a more conservative, traditional button-down look.

2. DO Keep Your Guard Up

Even though you don't want to be too formal in how you dress/approach the interview, you also don't want to be overly casual.

No matter how "laid back" or "chill" your interviewer seems, you must remember that the interview is evaluative and you are always being judged.

I don't say that to make you nervous.

But don't let your guard down.

Don't try to appear "more vulnerable" or show your "human side" by talking crassly or discussing something that reflects poorly on you.

The interviewer is not your therapist.

The interviewer is not your college counselor.

The interviewer is not your friend, to be quite frank.

Yes, the interviewer should like you as a person. But their job is to write up an honest report of you to the admissions committee.

Don't give them something bad to write about.

3. Just Take the Dang Bottle of Water

This is one of the biggest (and most hilarious) problems that students worry about.

What happens if they offer to buy me a water or cup of coffee?

I don’t want to spend their money!

What if they think I’m using them?

Oh no, they're going to think my entire interview is a sham to get free water from schools that have billions in endowments!

Chill out. Play it cool.

If they offer you something to drink, graciously accept.

For one, this makes you seem more receptive right away. The interviewer is there for you, let them treat you in a friendly way!

Don’t make yourself seem closed off because you’re too humble to accept a drink from someone else.

And for another, you might actually need a drink! Nothing worse than chopping up the flow of a good answer with a dry mouth. Get your free liquid on!

Heck – if you see that they don’t have something to drink, offer them a water. The buck-fifty you spend might start you off on a positive note.

4. Go Ahead and Have A Big Mouth

This is SO important. KEEP TALKING!

You are meeting with a person who has never met you and essentially needs to know about every aspect of your life.

This is different from a regular interview – where they might inquire about your ability for a specific position.

The person you are going to meet (usually a school alum) is trying to figure out if you – as in a whole person – would be a good fit for the campus.

Don’t cut yourself short by giving minimal answers! It may seem awkward to share so much, but it is actually very helpful for the interviewer.

Tell stories, talk about interests, and make sure you have a bunch to say when they hit you with the opening line “So Tell Me About Yourself.”

5. Ask Some Interesting Questions

This last one is obvious. Do some homework about the campus and be prepared to return the favor and ask questions at the end.

Don’t just ask something you could have found out by Googling.

Here's a great list of 80 interview questions to start.

6. Small Talk Makes a Big Difference

The cliche that people hate small talk is misleading.

Sure, small talk can feel trite.

But it's a heck of a lot better than the alternative -- awkward silence.

Have a bit of small talk prepared for filling in the natural awkward silences that will occur during your interview, especially at the start and end of your interview.

These moments are like the "on" and "off" ramps to the metaphorical highway of you cruising through your interview at 80mph. Even if you do great on the actual "interview" (highway) portion of your interview, it doesn't mean much if you total your car getting on or off that highway.

When you've just entered your interviewer's office, or you're just getting seated with your interviewer, or you're waiting in line for coffee, or you're walking back to your car...

None of these situations are part of your actual "interview." You won't be getting grilled on your love of biology while you're waiting in line at Starbucks.

However, you're still being evaluated during these moments, and if they feel awkward that will reflect poorly on you.

The solution? Small talk.

OK, great.

But how do you "get good" at small talk?

Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

The night before your interview, take 20 minutes to do a quick Google search for:

  1. The weather
  2. Local sports scores
  3. Front page of the New York Times
  4. Front page of the college's student newspaper

Are there any TV shows you've recently seen, or books/articles/magazines you've read and enjoyed?

Just be mentally ready to unleash your small talk when needed, and you'll be able to avoid awkward silences and lulls in conversation.

7. Show up Early

Don't be late.

It's that simple.

But if you are late, be honest and stay positive, like one of our Essay Mentors did when his 150-pound English Mastiff got in the way of his Harvard interview.

And that’s it! Those are my seven biggest points to nailing an interview.

Put in the time and remember, the interview process is not about luck.

Luck is just when preparation meets opportunity.

University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die?

UChicago's acceptance rate has continuously trended down

July 30, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | University of Chicago, Admissions, Chances

“Where fun goes to die”

When The New Yorker refers to your college that way, you know your school has got to be selective.

UChicago, currently the 6th most selective university in the world, has earned this tongue-in-cheek moniker for good reason — it had a 6.2% acceptance rate in 2020, lower than half of the Ivy League. ( Source )

The University of Chicago has achieved this by dramatically outpacing all other elite colleges at reducing acceptance rates over the past decade .

The reasons for this are too long for this answer, so I’ll point you to this article if you want to learn more about what’s driving this race. But the below chart captures this trend perfectly — UChicago is the very negative line at the very bottom.

Regardless of why it’s doing it, UChicago’s methods have clearly paid off.

The college has reduced its acceptance rate 6-fold over the past decade, from an astronomical 38% in 2006 to a microscopic 6.2% in 2020.

UChicago now rubs shoulders with the most elite institutions in the world, as the below chart from US News & World Report shows clearly:

How to Set Yourself Apart from the Crowd

July 20, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, Admissions, Chances, Early Decision, ECs

1. Be a bridge-builder between fields. The way to set yourself apart is to do something no one else is doing. But how do you do that in a field like “History” or “Computer Science?”

The answer is simple: Don’t .

The easiest way to distinguish yourself as a senior in high school is to showcase an interdisciplinary interest that bridges multiple, disparate subjects.

“Oh, you’re interested in Computer Science and built an iOS game, just like 30,000 other applicants? Yawn.”


“Oh, you’re interested in Computer Science AND want to combine it with your love of Shakespeare to do Natural Language Processing analyses on historic texts? That’s different. That’s memorable.”

MIT researchers used a neural network in 2019 to estimate which parts of Shakespeare’s plays were written by another famous playwright, John Fletcher.

2. Apply Early . Ivy League colleges and other top universities have an almost 2–3x higher early acceptance rate than regular acceptance rate, a gap that continues to widen every year.

According to a survey of US colleges by the National Associate for College Admissions Counseling ,

Among all colleges with early decision, their regular admit rate was 50.7 percent, but the rate for early decision was 62.3 percent.

3. Learn how to brag about your Extracurriculars . What matters in college admissions is NOT JUST what you choose to pursue, but also HOW you frame your accomplishments to the admissions office.

The sum of your Extracurriculars is greater than the parts. All of your activities should tell a unified story about yourself, no matter how disparate they are.

A “well-rounded” applicant dabbling in several unconnected things is not nearly as compelling as someone driven by one central passion.

I’ve provided 7 examples here of how the same extracurricular can be framed or pursued in increasingly impressive lights.

Sending AP Scores to Colleges - What Should I Report?

July 18, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | AP Exams, Admissions, Ivy League

Here are answers to 5 common questions about AP exams, AP score reports, and how AP scores affect college admissions chances.

(1) Do AP scores matter when applying to top colleges?

Yes. AP scores demonstrate proficiency in a subject that has been standardized in a way that can be used to evaluate candidates across the country. It used to be expected that for schools like Stanford/MIT/Ivies, applicants should have at least half a dozen AP scores with 4’s and 5’s (assuming that their high school offered them).

However, low AP exam scores are not necessarily bad, as will be explained below.

(2) What is the distribution of AP exam scores?

In 2018, the distribution of AP exam scores for all exams was as follows. (Data taken from this Tableau visualization)

STEM Exams

Arts & Humanities Exams

Language Exams

Social Sciences Exams

(3) Does having mostly AP scores of 3's and 4’s hurt my college admissions chances?

Yes, if that’s the best you have to offer. An AP Score of 3 or 4 will likely not get you any college credit or respect at a top school like Stanford/Ivies/MIT.

A score of 5 may not either — top colleges like to think that their courses are more rigorous than APs and thus should not be passed out of, and earning a 5 is simply expected for top admits.

(4) Since I can self-report by AP exam scores, do I have to report all of my scores to colleges or do I not have that obligation? Will low AP scores hurt my chances?

You can save yourself from low AP exam scores by simply choosing to NOT self-report your 3’s.

Colleges ask you to self-report scores for a reason. If you were expected to submit all of your exam scores, then colleges would simply make reporting mandatory, just as they already do for the SAT/ACT.

Top colleges will let you self-report your AP scores. Take advantage of that and don’t report scores that you don't want to share. Including 3’s will weaken your application to a school like Stanford.

Only a year ago, this would not have been the case. Schools would have read your omission of AP scores as suspicious.

However, things are different in 2020 because of COVID-19. Schools are much more understanding of students who report fewer AP scores this cycle.

But don’t take my word for it.

Here is Yale’s Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan on the matter:

Students who have completed AP Exams, IB Exams, or AICE Exams prior to submitting their applications may opt to self-report scores in the application, but there is no expectation that students enrolled in academic-year courses associated with any of these tests complete exams in spring or summer 2020.”

And Dartmouth’s Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin :

At Dartmouth, we will welcome any testing element a student chooses to share—the SAT, the ACT, a subject test, an AP score—or none at all.

Our admission committee will review each candidacy without second-guessing the omission or presence of a testing element.

And an official statement from Columbia’s Admissions Office :

Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), SAT Subject Test and other proficiency exam scores are not required by Columbia, but we will accept your results if you choose to submit them in the testing section of your Common Application or Coalition Application. Optional SAT Subject Test scores can also be submitted on the Columbia application status page after you have applied.

You will not be at a disadvantage should you choose not to take these optional tests or submit the scores to Columbia.

(5) How do I know which AP scores I should report? Don't schools have different standards for what they consider a "good" or "bad" score?

Here’s a quick method for determining whether you should submit your score to a specific school or not (Stanford is shown below).

First, go to the College Board's AP Credit Checker here.

Second, type in the college to which you’re applying. The website will pull up a list of every AP exam and the school’s policy on granting academic credit for that exam.

Third, look at the Min Score Required column of results. This tells you the minimum score needed for that college to give you academic credit for taking that AP.

If your AP score is below this threshold, then you probably should not report it. You should only self-report scores that make you look smart.

(6) How prestigious is the "AP Scholar with Honour" award? Will it increase my chances of getting into a top college in the US?

Let’s do some math. According to The College Board, in 2019 the following numbers of students received AP Scholar awards (listed in increasing prestige):

  • AP Scholar: 305,822 students
  • AP Scholar with Honor: 128,491 students
  • AP Scholar with Distinction: 219,925 students

The “AP Scholar with Honor” is the 2nd most prestigious AP merit award.

That means that every year, 348,416 students will receive an AP Scholarship award that is equivalent to or more prestigious than your AP Scholar with Honor award.

According to The College Board, the “AP Scholar with Honor” is given to students who fulfill this criterion:

Granted to students who receive an average score of at least 3.25 on all AP Exams taken, and scores of 3 or higher on four or more of these exams

The College Board used to give out 10 AP-based merit awards. However, in an effort to “reduce the burden on students, the AP Program is discontinuing awards that encourage students to take large numbers of exams” starting in 2021.

These are marked with asterisks in the chart below:

And the State AP Scholarships were also discontinued:

How to Get into an Ivy League School

A list of the exact metrics used by Ivy League Admissions Offices

July 10, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Admissions, Ivy League, Guide, Admissions Secrets

While each Ivy is unique, they share similarly high standards for accepting applicants and tend to draw from the same pool of exceptional individuals.

They are also incredibly secretive about their admissions practices.

Luckily, one of them -- Harvard -- was forced to reveal incredibly detailed information on its admissions practices through both a recent federal lawsuit as well as FERPA records requests submitted by our own Essay Mentors to view their admissions files.

Read on to learn the Ivy League admissions secrets behind getting into an Ivy League school, and use this information to better prepare your application to get into the Ivy League. (Note: No other Ivy League school has released such detailed information on its admissions practices, so this may be the best glimpse into what are likely common practices amongst Ivy League admissions offices)

Q: How are applicants selected?

A: First, they are graded on 4 dimensions using a scale of 1 (best) to 6 (worst) with +/-’s in between.

After taking into account background factors (legacy, donor status, minority, geographic location, etc.), the applicants with the best ratings are selected.

At Yale , on the other hand, they use a scale of 1 (best) to 4 (worst), but the principle is the same.

Nassau Hall, Princeton

Q: How are ratings assigned to applicants?

A: The 4 dimensions on which all applicants are graded are:

  1. Academics
  2. Extracurriculars (“ECs”)
  3. Personal Qualities (“PQs”)
  4. Athletics

Each applicant is rated on a scale of 1 (best) to 6 (worst) across each dimension, with +/-’s for more nuanced ratings. The scale is interpreted as follows (image taken directly from Harvard’s Internal Admissions Handbook :

Admissions Handbook

Q: What do admissions officers talk about during admissions office proceedings behind closed doors? How fast do admissions officers read applications?

Admissions officers read essays on their own time, then reconvene during admissions committee meetings to discuss applications and decide on admissions.

Admissions officers read applications incredibly fast, a skill sharpened by churning through 40,000+ applications. During a 2-hour committee session, a group of admissions officers will read and evaluate roughly 300 applications, then decide on accepting or rejecting each application.

As Yale Admissions Officer Ed Boland writes,

You could look down at the names of four or five kids from one school who were terribly smart but not exceptional and say, “Reject the entire high school”; sometimes you could go further and say, “Reject the page,” and send 20 kids on a single page of computer paper packing; or, most famously, “Reject the state,” when it came to sparsely populated places like North Dakota or Wyoming.

Q: What does my application look like to the admissions office?

A: For Harvard specifically, your admissions file will get boiled down into the following one-page summary sheet:

Summary Sheet

Q: How do I get the best rating in each category on which my application will be graded?

A: The answers, quoted directly from Harvard’s Admissions Handbook, are as follows.


  1. Summa potential. Genuine scholar; near-perfect scores and grades (in most cases) combined with unusual creativity and possible evidence of original scholarship.
  2. Magna potential: Excellent student with superb grades and mid-to high-700 scores (33+ ACT).
  3. Cum laude potential: Very good student with excellent grades and mid-600 to low-700 scores (29 to 32 ACT).
  4. Adequate preparation. Respectable grades and low-to mid-600 scores (26 to 29) ACT).
  5. Marginal potential. Modest grades and 500 scores (25 and below ACT).
  6. Achievement or motivation marginal or worse.


  1. Unusual strength in one or more areas. Possible national-level achievement or professional experience. A potential major contributor at Harvard. Truly unusual achievement.
  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas such as class president, newspaper editor, etc. Local or regional recognition; major accomplishment(s).
  3. Solid participation but without special distinction. (Upgrade 3+ to 2- in some cases if the e/c is particularly extensive and substantive.)
  4. Little or no participation.
  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).
  6. Special circumstances limit or prevent participation (e.g. a physical condition).

Personal Qualities (Essays, Teacher Recs, School Rec, Interview)

  1. Outstanding
  2. Very strong
  3. Generally positive
  4. Bland or somewhat negative or immature
  5. Questionable personal qualities.
  6. Worrisome personal qualities


  1. Unusually strong prospect for varsity sports at Harvard, desired by Harvard coaches.
  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas; possible leadership role(s).
  3. Active participation.
  4. Little or no interest.
  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).
  6. Physical condition prevents significant activity.

Q: How are my academics (GPA, transcript, SAT score, ACT score, AP scores, etc.) weighed?

A: All of the Ivies use the Ivy League Academic Index (AI) to score applicants' academic aptitudes on a scale from 60-240. All applicants are graded on this AI.

The Academic Index was originally used by the Ivy League as a standardized metric for assessing the intellectual quality of each school's incoming class of athletic recruits.

The Ivy League colleges all compete in a sports league that is also referred to as the "Ivy League." In order to ensure that some Ivy League colleges don't "dumb down" their classes, and thus tarnish the intellectual reputation of the Ivy League, by recruiting students who excel at sports but aren't academically inclined, the Ivy League requires that all admitted athletic recruits have an AI above 170, and that the average AI of students on sports teams is within a standard deviation of the overall campus's average student AI.

The average AI of an incoming student is about 220 at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.

The average Academic Index at Dartmouth, Brown, and Penn is about 215.

And the average Academic Index at Columbia and Cornell is about 210.

Q: How is the Ivy League Academic Index calculated?

There are 3 separate components to the Ivy League Academic Index, each of which is scored from 20-80.

  1. Class Rank Conversion: Takes your unweighted GPA and adjusts it to the reputation of your school/strength of your courseload.

If you are an international student and have taken IB tests and courses under the International Baccalaureate system, then then following conversion chart is used to convert your IB grades into an "American" GPA. Higher Level courses are given double the weight as Standard Level courses.

7 = A+ = 4.3

6 = A = 4.0

5 = B = 3.0

4 = C = 2.0

3 = D = 1.0

If you are an international student whose high school follows the British system for grading, then the following conversion chart is used to convert your British grades into "an American" GPA. A Level grades are weighed twice as heavily as AS and GCSE grades.

A* = 4.3

A = 4.0

B = 3.0

C = 2.0

D = 1.0

If you are an international student from Singapore , then the following conversion chart is used to convert your H3 grades into "an American" GPA.

Distinction = A = 4.0

Merit = B = 3.0

Pass = C = 2.0

If you are an international student from New Zealand , then the following conversion chart is used to convert your grades into "an American" GPA.

Excellent = A = 4.0

Merit = B = 3.0

Achieved = C = 2.0

Not Achieved = F = 0.0

So then how does the Ivy League calculate your GPA and convert it into a raw AI score?

The table below shows how to convert the most common grading scales (percentile scores, 6.0/7.0/11.0/12.0 grade scales, letter grades, etc.) into a raw AI Class Rank Conversion score (CGS):


  1. SAT/ACT Scores: A perfect score on either the SAT or ACT will give you the maximum 80 points for this category.
  2. Best 2 SAT Subject Test Scores: If you get an 800/800 on two of the SAT Subject Tests that you report, then you'll receive a full 80 here.

5 Tricks to Get Accepted with a Low GPA

Is it possible to get into a top college with a low GPA?

July 10, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | How To, GPA, Admissions, Chances, B Student, Ivy League, AP Exams, SAT, Essays

Can low GPA (i.e. "B" students) get accepted into a top school?

The answer is a bit more nuanced than a hard "yes" or "no."

Are you a "B" student, or have you gotten B's?

Though these questions sound the same, their answers have very different consequences for the purposes of college admissions.

I went through every top university that reported the distribution of unweighted GPAs for its admitted students, and plotted them below.


The small black sliver at the top represents students with a “ B ” average or worse (3.0 GPA).

These are students with extremely extra-ordinary circumstances, so unless you have a building named after you or can throw a 95mph fastball, a “B” average is likely disqualifying. Thus, averaging a straight “B” is likely a death knell for top colleges.

All is not lost, however, if you generally do well in school but have a handful of B’s (e.g. a GPA between 3.6–3.8).

Having a lower GPA will require you to play your cards more thoughtfully, but you are still very much in contention for a spot at a top university.

Here are 5 tricks for making your application stand out despite a lower GPA.

1. Take more APs

Since they are graded on a 5-point scale, you can raise your weighted GPA to appear more in-line with a college’s admissions standards. The average weighted GPAs of Ivy League admits, shown in the USA Today chart below, is quite attainable:


2. Ace your standardized tests.

A high SAT or ACT score can help offset a lower GPA by demonstrating that you have the intellectual ability to perform at a high level.

3. Shine elsewhere in your application.

Your essays, for example, are a fantastic place to explain or indirectly shed light on personal circumstances that may have caused your lower GPA.

They also allow you to directly frame your application and convey why you — and only you — can add something uniquely meaningful to the incoming class.

As Logan Powell, Dean of Admissions at Brown University, writes:

“The essay is one of only two places where the student can tell us exactly who they are, in their own words (the other place is the interview).”

And Mitch Warren , Director of Admissions at Purdue University, adds:

"We receive about 54,000 applications from high school students each year, and despite that really large number, [the essay] truly is an individual and holistic review...[it] helps us to better understand the life of the applicant, especially things with grit, humor, motivation. I think also it helps tell stories that we may not have picked up on elsewhere in the application."

This is something that our Ivy League mentors specialize in.

4. Show an upward trajectory

If you got straight B’s freshman year but gradually worked your way up to consecutive semesters of straight A’s as a senior, then colleges will look much more favorably upon your transcript, as it demonstrates growth as a student.

As Dartmouth Assistant Director of Admissions Ariel writes,

[W]hen we review an applicant's transcript, we look at grade trends that will help us understand a student's academic trajectory in his or her secondary school.

We see transcripts that show steady grades throughout a student's high school career or a positive/upward trend from 9th-12th grade. We see transcripts where a student has bounced back from a transition or dip in grades. We also see downward trends in grades.

We use the rest of the application to try to fill in WHY the trend looks the way it does. If you have a particular reason for, say, a dip in grades in your junior year, please let us know about it in the "Additional Information" section of the Common Application.

Keep in mind that we will be looking to see how you have done in your most recent coursework since this will be a good indicator of how ready you are to move into a rigorous academic environment at Dartmouth.

5. Take the hardest classes offered

The negative impact of lower grades can be partially softened if they occurred while taking the hardest classes your school offers.

In the eyes of admissions officers, taking a rigorous course-load and challenging yourself, even if you do get a B or B+, can be equally as important as acing your classes.

An aside: These high GPA cut-offs are largely due to (1) increasingly high numbers of applicants and (2) rising grade inflation at the high school level.


Is There an Advantage in Applying Early Decision/Early Action?

July 08, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Early Action, Early Decision, Ivy League, Stanford, Northwestern, Emory, Williams, Harvey Mudd, Admissions

Contrary to what most admissions officers will tell you, the answer is a definitive YES.

Here are 4 data visualizations and a study which prove that applying early decision or early action makes it easier to get into your dream college.

1. Numbers don’t lie; Ivy League colleges have an almost 3x higher early acceptance rate than regular admission rate! Applying to Harvard early action, Yale early action, Princeton early action, Cornell early decision, UPenn early decision, Columbia early decision, Brown early decision, or Dartmouth early decision will increase your chances of acceptance.


  1. On top of being relatively easier to get in, more overall students are being accepted early action and early decision by Ivy League schools. As the chart below shows, the overall number of spots being filled by early action and early decision applicants has increased almost every year for the past decade:


  1. This trend of higher early decision acceptance rates than regular decision acceptance rates holds for non-Ivies as well. Just to name a few shown below: Northwestern, Skidmore, Wellesley, Harvey Mudd, Carleton , Emory , and Williams :




  1. As a result of confirming which students will enroll sooner in the process through early decision and early action, the Yield rate of colleges has steadily increased ( This is an incredibly important measure of a college’s prestige , as it measures the percentage of students accepted who choose to actually enroll.


But why does applying early decision or early action make it easier to get accepted into a top college?

As Jed Applerouth, PhD in Educational Psychology, reports :

In a study undertaken by Avery, Fairbanks, and Zeckhauser…in their book The Early Admissions Game , the authors surveyed thousands of high school seniors, hundreds of thousands of applications, and five years of admissions records from more than a dozen colleges…Their conclusion was surprising:

“Colleges were much more likely to admit an early applicant than a regular applicant with the same qualifications.”

Why would colleges seem to reward students who apply early decision?...

[1] Typically, colleges can count on ED/EA students to be more enthusiastic about their first-choice school if accepted...

[ 2] Furthermore, colleges can manage their selectivity rates better through ED/EA, which in turn influences U.S. News & World Report rankings...

[3] [W]ith early decision, an acceptance is binding, which is of great benefit to the school..[A] student waives the right to shop financial aid packages, meaning that he will pay the full-tuition, or accept whatever financial aid his early decision school offers. This arrangement places much of the control in the college’s hands...

How Private Prep Schools and Public Exam Schools Impact College Admissions

July 07, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | High School, Private, Public, Acceptance Rates, Ivy League, Admissions

The conventional wisdom on how going to a competitive, top prep school affects your college admissions chances is wrong.

The downsides of “being a small fish in a big pond” during high school doesn’t matter. When it comes to admissions chances for top colleges, students of prestigious private schools have a clear statistical advantage over students from public high schools.

According to MarketWatch, 94 of the top 100 feeder schools to Ivy League institutions were private.

Overall, the benefits of going to a well-resourced prep school tend to outweigh the drawbacks of increased competition from your peers.


There are a few reasons for this.

(1) Private schools have more money, resources, and experience to throw at high-achieving students applying to elite colleges. As former Dean of College Admissions Jason England writes,

“A prep school applicant curated by elite counselors, tutors, essay writers, and a manipulative school profile is routine, even though it inspires less backlash.

Private schools create applicants who are difficult to reject.

The candidate is “prepared” (the assumption is that private schools’ courses are more rigorous), has a relatively high SAT score (a reflection of parents’ incomes and education levels), and is touted by carefully crafted recommendation letters from counselors who have many fewer students and far more resources than their public school counterparts.”

(2) Students can take advantage of more opportunities at top prep schools.

As University of Georgia Professor Greg Woniak, who specializes in higher education, writes:

“Attending a high school that is a known pathway to institutions like Princeton has a direct resource benefit for [a] student. In some ways, it can serve to offset other deficiencies a student might have if they’re not the strongest.”

Imagine if your high school looked like this (Philips Andover):

And had the following academic opportunities, as reported by The Daily Princetonian :

Flip through the pages of elite high schools’ catalogs, and it’s easy to find exotic course titles that the average Joe wouldn’t see until their later years of higher education.

Multivariable calculus and linear algebra — subjects normally reserved for college sophomores or juniors — are widespread among moneyed high schools.

Thomas Jefferson students can take electrodynamics and differential equations. Phillips Academy Andover offers organic chemistry. Stuyvesant High School teaches artificial intelligence.

(3) According to The Atlantic, grade inflation is more rampant and second chances are more frequently afforded at private schools, and thus students’ transcripts look better.


That’s why in 2015, the top 14 private high schools in the US had an average of 33% (!!) of their graduating classes attend an Ivy League college.

In order, they are:

  1. Trinity, NY (Percent admitted to Ivy League: 40%)
  2. Collegiate, NY (40%)
  3. Brearly, NY (37%)
  4. Horace Mann, NY (36%)
  5. Roxbury Latin, MA (36%)
  6. Phililips Academy Andover, MA (33%)
  7. The Spence School, NY (33%)
  8. The Winsor School, MA (31%)
  9. Dalton, NY (31%)
  10. St. Paul’s, NH (30%)
  11. Chapin, NY (30%)
  12. Harvard-Westlake, CA (30%)
  13. Phillips Exeter Academy, NH (29%)
  14. The College Preparatory School, CA (29%)

But that’s not the full story...

The above numbers make things look better than they actually are for public schools.

That’s because the vast majority of public school spots go to students from highly selective exam schools and charter public schools, not students of schools you'd typically think of as "public schools."


These are public high schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Boston Latin.

They have rigorous admissions standards, with even lower acceptance rates than Stanford, Harvard, and MIT! These nominally “public” schools will typically send 10–25 students to Harvard every year.

That’s how you get stats like this at Princeton in 2020:

One in 20 undergraduates at the University, for example, came from just five high schools. Four of them were world-class magnet schools, and the other was the $69,000 per year Lawrenceville School.

And this stat from a 2017 article in The Crimson :

In total, one out of every 20 Harvard freshmen attended one of the seven high schools most represented in the class of 2017—Boston Latin, Phillips Academy in Andover, Stuyvesant High School, Noble and Greenough School, Phillips Exeter Academy, Trinity School in New York City, and Lexington High School.

And the below chart of Harvard’s 2017 admissions, which shows that the top 10% of high schools sent almost a third of the student body to Harvard:


Does Your Choice of Major Impact Your College Admissions Chances?

Be careful when "declaring" that you're an undecided or undeclared major

July 04, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Declaring, Majors, Advice, Admissions, Application, Mistakes, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Harvard, UCs

Should I declare an intended major on my college application?

If not, does being undeclared or undecided hurt my admissions chances?

The short answer to both questions is YES, your declared major or the specific program to which you are applying can have a significant impact on your acceptance chances.

Even if schools pretend otherwise, the statistics bear this out (as shown later in this article).

Students who demonstrate interest in different majors/programs have widely different acceptance rates at certain colleges.

I've listed 5 case studies of different schools below to illustrate how the way in which you choose a major for your college application can improve or decrease your admissions chances.


At UCLA , different programs have vastly different admissions rates (shown below).


Additionally, even within the pool of students interested solely in engineering, the School of Engineering explicitly evaluates students by the specific engineering major that they intend to pursue.


At Harvard , students interested in “humanities” are admitted at almost double the rate as students interested in “engineering”:


Carnegie Mellon (CMU)

At Carnegie Mellon (shown below), the acceptance rate of different programs ranges from 7% to 26%!


UC Berkeley

At UC Berkeley , applicants intending on studying “computer science” have an 8.5% acceptance rate, compared to 17% overall.


At Cornell , each application is individually considered by the specific college that a student applies to.

As Cornell Vice Provost of Enrollment Jason Locke stated in The Cornell Sun,

"Unlike many other colleges, which review all applications from a central undergraduate admissions office, Cornell has a 'somewhat unique system,' according to Locke.

Once an application is submitted, it will be given to the one — and only — college or school that the student is applying to, where his or her material will undergo what Locke called a 'first review.'"

This leads to wildly different outcomes for students who apply to different schools. For example, the undergraduate acceptance rate for Cornell's School of Industrial & Labor Relations was triple the rate of applicants to the College of Arts and Sciences.

What causes this statistical difference?

There are two main factors which make your choice of intended field of study important on your college application.

  1. Colleges have different strengths. Johns Hopkins’ world-renowned Biomedical Engineering (BME) program is much stronger than its English department. MIT’s Computer Science (CS) department is much stronger than its History department. Thus, more students interested in BME will apply to Johns Hopkins, and it will be harder to distinguish yourself as an applicant interested in BME. Same goes for applying to MIT as a CS major.

  2. Colleges have different weaknesses . Every program or school that a college offers represents a significant investment of time, money, and resources. Applicants that have the potential to dramatically improve relatively weaker programs (e.g. English at Johns Hopkins, or History at MIT) offer a larger marginal return on being admitted than students who would have to be literally world-class (e.g. win a Nobel Prize) to make a noticeably lasting impact on their stronger departments.

Use this knowledge to your benefit!

Most colleges will allow you to switch majors after enrolling.

If you can frame your application to provide an unmet need or fill spots in an under-enrolled program, you can greatly increase your admissions chances .

To learn more about college admissions from Ivy League students who’ve successfully gone through the process themselves, check out the services we offer here

The 7 Extracurriculars that Will Impress Your Admissions Officer

What matters is not the What, but the How and Why

July 03, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Admissions, ECs, Examples, Guide, How To

What high school activities and clubs look good on college applications?

Is a question I'm often asked.

Unfortunately, the very premise of this question -- and thus any answer to it -- misses one key insight:

There is no such thing as an “impressive” extracurricular.

There is also no such thing as an “unimpressive” extracurricular.

There are just extracurriculars.

The same activity can be impressive for one student, but meaningless for another.

What matters is NOT what you pursue, but how you pursue it, what you achieve , and most importantly, how you frame those accomplishments to the admissions office.

I’ve listed 7 common activities, and for each given 3 examples, to show how common high school clubs and activities can be pursued, or spun, in increasingly impressive lights.

(And by "spun," I mean how you describe your activities in your personal statement, supplementary essays, and Coalition/Universal/Common App Activities section.)

Student Council

1. Student Council

You were elected to your school’s student body. Congrats.

1. Unimpressive: You were elected as a class representative, or served for a year in an executive role (e.g. Treasurer).

2. Notable: You were elected School President.

3. Impressive: You were elected School President. You took the initiative to start several new programs at your school which were widely successful, from a book drive for local middle schools to a fundraiser that earned over $20,000 to spearheading the creation of a recycling program on campus. You fought for the main issue students cared about, issue X, even though the administration pushed back, and after months of back-and-forth you eventually succeeded at convincing your school to implement X. While none of these achievements are necessarily earth-shattering on their own, they collectively show that you’re a go-getter who takes initiative.


2. Research

You spent a summer or two doing research in a local college's lab.

1. Unimpressive: You contributed to a small, discrete portion of a larger project. You don’t really understand the science behind the larger project, or why it matters. You don’t make an effort to connect with your lab-mates, and your only souvenir from the summer is a short PowerPoint detailing your work. You don’t keep in touch with your mentor afterwards.

2. Notable: You contributed a small, discrete portion of a larger project. You understand the basic principles and goals of the project, and make an effort to finish your portion early to help others. You connect well enough with your mentor to have them write a recommendation letter for you for college. You get your name on the authorship list of a published paper.

3. Impressive: You independently design and execute your own experiments under the supervision of a well-respected investigator in your field. You connect well with your mentor and have them write a recommendation letter for you for college. You are the first or second author on a published paper in a prestigious journal. Given the scope of your ambition, you develop this project over multiple summers or continue during the school year.


3. Sports

You play a varsity sport for your high school.

1. Unimpressive: You play varsity level all four years and perform well. You win a few tournament MVP awards and your team wins the regional championships. You don’t reach out to college coaches or train on your own time.

2. Notable: You win a league MVP award for your performance. You attend recruiting camps over the summer and winter break, and reach out to college coaches. You train by yourself, and spend the summers practicing and competing.

3. Impressive: You commit to having sports be your ticket to college. You attend recruiting camps, train by yourself, spend the summers practicing and competing, play on multiple teams, and are unarguably qualified to play at the D1/D3 level. You are in frequent communication with college coaches and get a verbal or written commitment that you will be recruited/scholarship offer/likely letter.


4. Play an Instrument

You play the piano, trumpet, or some other instrument

1. Unimpressive: You’ve taken lessons for 12 years.

2. Notable: You’ve composed your own music, recorded it, and posted it online to YouTube and SoundCloud. You’ve won performance competitions. You’ve performed for large crowds in your church/community center/school.

3. Impressive: You’ve composed your own music, recorded it, and distributed it to 10,000’s of people. You’ve performed for large, paying crowds in concert halls. Alternatively, you started an educational outreach program to teach younger students how to play your instrument, and have had hundreds of middle schoolers advance through your program by your senior year.


5. Debate

You competed in Policy Debate all four years of high school.

1. Unimpressive: You’re the team captain, you’ve won a couple local tournaments, and you’ve placed at a few national tournaments.

2. Notable: You’re the team captain, you’ve won a couple national tournaments.

3. Impressive: You’ve only competed in local tournaments and won them all; however, before you there was no debate program at your school. After starting the team, you grew it from 2 to 50 kids by the end of your junior year. You led fundraising to pay for travel to tournaments, hired coaches, and ran team meetings. You independently competed in a few national tournaments with your partner and placed well. Alternatively, you won the national or world championships in your event, or consistently ranked among the top finalist for multiple years.

Science Olympiad

6. Science Olympiad/Academic Quizbowl

You competed in an academic event.

1. Unimpressive: You competed every year, served as your team captain, and placed first in state.

2. Notable: You were qualified for the national championships and placed well in the competition.

3. Impressive: You won the national championship or represented your country in the international championships. Alternatively, you began your school's participation in this event or competition, and led your fledgling squad to a strong placing at your state/national tournament. You fought the uphill battle of convincing the administration to let you compete, and enjoyed the rewarding experience of inspiring younger students whom would otherwise be discouraged to pursue their passions in the field.


7. Volunteer Work

You volunteered at a local soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity.

1. Unimpressive: You volunteered every week for a few hours.

2. Notable: You led or started the initiative to have students at your high school volunteer. You worked multiple days a week, or spent a summer volunteering full time.

3. Impressive: You led or started an initiative that drew from multiple high schools in your area, you began your own independent charitable organization for an under-covered issue, and/or raised significant funds for said efforts. You demonstrate a clear interest in continuing to pursue this cause in college, and have made a clear, tangible impact on individual peoples' lives that you are able to eloquently article in your application.

To summarize, colleges aren’t necessarily looking for a particular extracurricular pursuit (with the exception of sports, for which coaches will actively recruit).

Instead, colleges want you to demonstrate valuable personal qualities through your extracurricular pursuits. Qualities like:

  1. Leadership
  2. Initiative
  3. Integrity
  4. Determination
  5. Passion
  6. Dedication

If you can show that your extracurricular activity or involvement in a high school club demonstrates these qualities at a significant level, then your extracurricular will be impressive.

The key is to frame your involvement in these activities in such a way that these positive personal qualities shine through application.

Obviously, not all of your activities will be as impressive as the examples listed above.

But every one of your activities can be spun in a more impressive light, and thus the descriptions provided in your application can be just as important as your involvement in those activities themselves.

By way of illustration, note that all of the "impressive" examples listed above had much longer descriptions than the "unimpressive/notable" examples. That was on purpose: The very act of telling a story about an activity will make it sound more impressive.

(1) The most common place to do this is in your essays.

That is something we specialize in, and would be happy to offer you a free 20-minute consultation to ensure that your accomplishments come across as strongly as possible in your application.

(2) The second most common place is in the form of strong recommendation letters from teachers, advisors, coaches, bosses, and/or mentors who have personally witnessed your involvement in these activities.

If you can get your lab mentor, boss at work, or teacher/advisor to write you a stronger rec letter by investing yourself more fully in an extracurricular pursuit, then the “impressiveness” of that pursuit is instantly multiplied by the testimonial offered by such a trusted source.

The 5 Types of Students that Get into Harvard

Who gets into Harvard, and why?

June 29, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Harvard, Ivy League, Admissions

There are four main categories of students that get admitted to Harvard per Harvard's admissions policy.

Collectively, they comprise roughly 60% of every Harvard class.

Who makes up the other 40% of admits? The students who excel across the other 3 dimensions (Academics, ECs, and PQs) used to rank prospective students.

In this article, I'll walk you through each of the four main categories of Harvard students, then walk you through how the fifth category distinguishes themselves for Harvard's admissions requirements.


1) Recruited Athletes (20% of admitted students)

Harvard has the most D1 sports teams of any college in the nation — 42 — which means there are a lot of spots to fill.

Recruited athletes have a 90% acceptance rate and comprise 10% of the incoming class. (Source: The Atlantic) .

For perspective, the overall Harvard acceptance rate is below 5%.

Walk-ons comprise another 10% of the incoming class, and also get in at a much higher rate since coaches will “soft recruit” them. Harvard’s athletic recruitment process is detailed below.

Athletic Recruitment

2) Director’s List (10%)

The “Directors List” contains the names of top donors and influential families.

Students lucky enough to be on the Directors List have a 42% acceptance rate, and comprise roughly 10% of every class. (Source: The Crimson)

For example, Jared Kushner famously got in after his father donated $2.5 million.


3) Deferred (“Z-list”) Admits (3%)

Some students who would otherwise qualify for the Director’s List are not yet ready to begin college. Harvard will force these incoming students to take a gap year before coming to Harvard.

This is roughly 60 students every year, and is colloquially known as the “Z-list.”

On campus, the reputation is that Z-list admits tend to be less than qualified for admission.

As The Crimson reports:

Computer technicians in the admissions office coined the term “Z-list” because the group is the last to get admitted each cycle, after regular and waitlisted admits Students who are Z-listed must take a gap year before enrolling as freshmen the following year.

Faculty Club

4) Faculty Children (1%)

The children of Harvard faculty have a 47% acceptance rate, and roughly 20 students of faculty apply per year. (Source: The Crimson)

It’s a pretty funny sight to see the student of your professor copying off your homework for his dad’s class.


5) Legacies (15%)

A legacy is defined as an applicant with at least one parent who went to Harvard or Radcliffe College (Radcliffe was the women’s college that merged with Harvard).

Legacies are admitted at a 33% acceptance rate, and make up 15% of each class. (Source: The Crimson)

Harvard Yard

Assuming these groups don’t overlap much, that brings us to ~60% of Harvard’s admitted class.

Who makes up the other 40% of admitted students?

Those who excelled at the traditional 4 metrics used to rank every Harvard application.

They are, in no particular order:

  1. Academics
  2. Extracurriculars (“ECs”)
  3. Personal Qualities (“PQs”)
  4. Athletics*

*Athletics has already been covered in the 30% of recruited athletes and walk-ons, so we’ll ignore that.

This leaves us with 3 dimensions to rate applicants: Academics, ECs, and PQs.

Each applicant is rated on a scale of 1 (best) to 6 (worst) across each dimension, with +/-’s for more nuanced ratings. The scale is interpreted as follows. (Source: Harvard Admissions Procedures Internal Handbook)

Harvard Admissions Handbook

This image is taken directly from the Handbook given to Harvard’s Admissions Officers.

So, how do you get a 1 in each category?

The answers, quoted directly from Harvard’s Admissions Handbook, are as follows.


  1. Summa potential. Genuine scholar; near-perfect scores and grades (in most cases) combined with unusual creativity and possible evidence of original scholarship.

  2. Magna potential: Excellent student with superb grades and mid-to high-700 scores (33+ ACT).

  3. Cum laude potential: Very good student with excellent grades and mid-600 to low-700 scores (29 to 32 ACT).

  4. Adequate preparation. Respectable grades and low-to mid-600 scores (26 to 29) ACT).

  5. Marginal potential. Modest grades and 500 scores (25 and below ACT).

  6. Achievement or motivation marginal or worse.


  1. Unusual strength in one or more areas. Possible national-level achievement or professional experience. A potential major contributor at Harvard. Truly unusual achievement.

  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas such as class president, newspaper editor, etc. Local or regional recognition; major accomplishment(s).

  3. Solid participation but without special distinction. (Upgrade 3+ to 2- in some cases if the e/c is particularly extensive and substantive.)

  4. Little or no participation.

  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).

  6. Special circumstances limit or prevent participation (e.g. a physical condition).

Personal Qualities (Essays, Teacher Recs, School Rec, Interview)

  1. Outstanding

  2. Very strong

  3. Generally positive

  4. Bland or somewhat negative or immature

  5. Questionable personal qualities.

  6. Worrisome personal qualities


  1. Unusually strong prospect for varsity sports at Harvard, desired by Harvard coaches.

  2. Strong secondary school contribution in one or more areas; possible leadership role(s).

  3. Active participation.

  4. Little or no interest.

  5. Substantial activity outside of conventional EC participation such as family commitments or term-time work (could be included with other e/c to boost the rating or left as a "5" if it is more representative of the student's commitment).

  6. Physical condition prevents significant activity.

For further reading, I recommend checking out this great article from the New York Times which interviewed several Harvard freshmen about why they got in.

And for another blog post analyzing one of our team member's own Harvard admissions file, after getting to view it as part of a FERPA request, check out this post .

If you're applying to a selective college (even if it's not Harvard!) we want to help! We provide 1-on-1 mentorship with experienced editors who can help you craft your application. Sign up here for a free 20-minute consultation .