Don’t waste your summers – Get ready for the Ivy League

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Lulu Curiel

By Lulu Curiel

May 31, 2023

The journey to an Ivy League school doesn’t begin during your senior year of high school. With admission acceptance rates ranging between 5–8% for top-notch schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, successful applicants must delve into their preparation early on.

However, there is a fine balance between smart preparation and homework overload. Here are some tips for intelligently using your summers to pave your path to the Ivy League schools.


For most people, their high school years are the most important time for gaining the credentials that they’ll need for their college application. When they apply, they’ll be evaluated for their coursework, extracurricular activities, leadership experience, and everything else. Use the years before high school to experiment with different activities, such as sports, arts, family travel, coding camps, or volunteering opportunities. Summers are perfect for trying on new things and then deciding whether to continue them or move on to other activities. During this discovery phase, finding out what truly motivates and interests you will pay off in the future. Admissions committees too often review laundry lists of achievements that lack authenticity. Authenticity can’t be faked. Take your time to find a true interest.

Learn about the schools

If landing at an Ivy League school is your priority, it’s important that you understand its culture because schools screen for fit. Learning about a school is almost like a research project. Thanks to technology, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to visit the school. Not everyone has the resources to embark on a nationwide school tour. There is a myriad of information on the school’s website, from basic admission statistics to profiles of current students. Find the mission statement, understand what each word truly means, and then ask yourself “how does that mission statement connect to me?” 

Reach out to school alumni in your area. Most graduates are proud of their alma mater and are willing to share their perspectives with aspiring applicants. Use the summer to meet at least one alumnus per week, and keep in touch with them. Ask them how they got in. By the end of the summer, you will have a strong understanding of the school’s culture and the commonalities that its graduates share.

Consider financial fit in addition to academic fit and social/environmental fit. Are Ivy League colleges worth the cost? All of them have no-loans financial aid policies, where they replace loans with grants in the financial aid package.  But, you might be able to get a lower-cost education at an in-state public college, especially if it offers academic scholarships.

Learn about the world

The school year keeps us on daily and weekly academic schedules. Summers can be used to explore other cultures. Top schools value global awareness. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to travel around the world and learn five languages, but learning to understand a viewpoint that’s different from yours is important. You could call up the local consulate or embassy of another country and ask about volunteer opportunities. Or find out about arts programs that promote cultural diversity. Design a project that focuses on a specific region. Whether you are from Silicon Valley, the Upper East Side, or a small town, it’s important to demonstrate that you have a well-rounded perspective.

Understand your gaps

There is no such thing as a perfect record. Living in denial by pretending that you have a flawless profile won’t help. Get an assessment of your candidacy to understand your strengths and weaknesses. If you are early enough in the game there should be enough time to course-correct and make up for those gaps. That doesn’t mean that you need to immediately hire someone to design your remaining school years, but you should educate yourself about where you stand against the competition. It will help you to anchor your expectations in the right place.

Shop around

These days most people hire professionals to help them with the application process. I have spoken to many admissions officers who admit that they often assume that the applicant has hired a professional to help them with their application. Admissions consulting has become a lucrative industry, so don’t sign up with the first person that knocks on your door. Use your summer to shop around and learn what various advisors have to offer. When you find one who seems promising, consider taking on a small project with them to test the relationship.

Summers give you time and flexibility. Start early by experimenting, and then as you move up your academic ladder, start focusing on what truly defines you.

This is an updated version of this article, which was originally posted on 06/03/2015.

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