How to get into Harvard

For reasons that will soon become apparent this piece could easily have been called, ‘Why you’re not getting into Harvard’. Just as easily I could have substituted Harvard with the name of any of the other seven Ivy League schools, or for that matter any of the Ivy League Plus (such as Stanford or MIT). Everything written below also applies to the ancient universities of Oxbridge, both the dreaming spires of Oxford, and its 13th Century spinoff, Cambridge.

Positive Psychology 1504: Harvard's Groundbreaking Course
Harvard. is one of eight Ivy League universities

Just by way of a disclaimer I didn’t get into Harvard University, I haven’t even visited. However, in nearly two decades as a high school Guidance Counsellor I have worked with hundreds of students on their Common App and UCAS applications, met with admissions officers from most of the world’s top universities and visited various others as part of their Counsellor Tours. From the University of British Columbia (my first) to the University of St Andrew’s (my last), I have had an inside look at what it takes to gain admission to some of the most sought-after seats of learning.

1. Come 1st in your grade

OK I am exaggerating. While displaying academic excellence is essential, it is just a chair at the poker table as opposed to holding the winning hand. I‘ve seen students with a 100% for Mathematics turned away from Mathematics courses at Cambridge. If your academic excellence sets you apart at high school, it merely makes one of the crowd in the Ivy League. You might be cleaning up at your high school prize giving but so is every other student applying to these institutions at theirs. What is critical is that the university can see that you will cope intellectually with their courses and that you have something extra to offer. They will look for potential as well as achivement. Top colleges could fill their places with students who score a 1600 out of 1600 on the SAT but they choose not do that. They want intellectually curious, creative people who can link their learning to the world around them.

While displaying academic excellence is essential, it is just a chair at the poker table as opposed to holding the winning hand. You might be cleaning up at your high school prize giving but so is every other student applying to these institutions at theirs.

2. Pay someone a lot of money

Before the College Admissions scandal (see Netlix trailer below) you could have bribed your way in through a sophisticated system of middlemen to get you a sailing scholarship based on that harbour cruise you went on in Cape Town last holiday. Now that ship has sailed you can spend the money instead on an agent to enhance your application. This is a whole industry and there are thousands to choose from. In South Africa, a group like Crimson Education can guide you to the right university and assist with your application. It will cost from anywhere between R20,000 (for a personal statement) to R54,600 (for 8 essays), to north of R150,000 for the full package (including personal strategist). They claim to increase your chances of admission to the Ivy League, Oxbridge, and other top universities by up to 700%. Even so most of you will need a much bigger boost than that. The reality is that an agent can only work with what you give them. EducationUSA, part of the US State Department, insist that paying money to agents, is not necessary to gain admission to colleges in the US.

3. Forget extra-curricular, think super-curricular

No, the college doesn’t care whether you have been a Prefect, played for the 1st XV or that 10,000 people watched your last TikTok video. You have to forget extra-curricular and think super-curricular. The students I know who have made it, have either hosted youth conferences, won debates at world competitions or toured Europe with their band. Community service is also important be it building homes in the Far East or providing technology for local village schools. In the US universities look for around ten activities that you have been involved with. Meanwhile in the UK, in line with their degree structure, it’s about depth not breadth. You don’t have to do everything, but you do need to do something, and you need to do it well. Cambridge have published their super-curricular suggestions, activities (often reading) that demonstrate subject interest, develop research skills, broaden subject knowledge, and reflect self-motivation. As a former student of mine recently pointed out the best thing you can do is pursue exactly what you care about as hard as you can. The best applicants tend to be the people very good at following their passions.


Watch this video from the Cambridge Counsellor’s Conference on super curricuars
4. Take a long run up

It is no good walking into your Guidance Counsellor’s office sometime in Grade 12, or even Grade 11, on a sudden whim that you want to attend one of the world’s top universities. It should be becoming clear that an application of this nature is something you build towards over time. In the US universities want to see all your marks from Grade 9 onwards and you will have to write the SAT (preferably in Grade 11). Bear in mind that they will look to see improvment in your marks over your school career that indicate academic promise. Don’t forgert too that this is in addition to making a significant contribution to the life of your school or community already (see above).

5. Apply yourself

All of the above takes time, determination, and focus. Once you have that foundation you must polish your achievements for your application which, for the US in particular, can be excruciating. From writing the SAT to writing your college application essay for each university (yes one for each that you apply to) you need to work hard and apply yourself. Each application needs, well, application. Count the cost of each application in terms of the hours and effort you will need to put in during what is already a busy year.

Plan B

If you meet most of the criteria above, we can talk about your chances of getting an offer. Slim. Harvard has over 33,000 applications each year all of whom will have met the five conditions above. Yet typically only 7.8% of those are getting an offer and recently that has fallen below 4%. Doe that mean there is no hope for you? Absolutely not.

There are lots of other options. A South African university will only look at your marks, and it’s probably hard to get better value for money anywhere in the world. It will save you time and your parents money. Then there are host of other international universities to look at. In America alone College Board lists 3680 institutions which means if you can name 20 there’s another 3660 you’ve never even heard of. And then in the UK there’s the Russel Group to look at…


Read more about my trips to various universities below.

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