October 26, 2015

Behind The Ivy Curtain: A data driven guide to elite college admissions

The following is a guest post from Aayush Upadhyay:

Want to know what separates successful Ivy League applicants from the rest? I did back in 2008 when I was a high school sophomore. I was a bright kid in your typical public school, and I figured I was on the fast path to Harvard. One day I discovered a forum called College Confidential and I was stunned to find so many kids with insanely high test scores, bucket loads of extracurriculars, and awards/contests that I hadn’t even heard of (ISTS/SMST/IChO anyone??). Till that point my primary extracurricular was going home and watching TV.

Anyways, I spent well over a hundred hours scouring the boards for information about how to apply to top colleges, how to do well on the SATs, and to do whatever else it took to get into a good school. Motivated by what I saw, I worked to get good test scores and started some clubs at school (which I’m proud to say are still going strong today). 

My effort paid off and I went off to Yale, but more importantly I began giving presentations and tutoring other kids in my school to share my knowledge. I was the first kid from my school to go to an Ivy and two kids went to Penn two years later, and a lot more kids believed that they could end up in good places because someone had shown the path.

Over the years I got away from formal tutoring but still helped out friends whenever I could. I always recommend the College Confidential forums, but I was always bummed that I couldn’t organize the knowledge of the forums in book form. A few months ago I decided to actually make that happen. I was a Google employee now and had the programming chops to make my original dream come true. 

I scraped posts from nearly 5,000 students over a six year period to discuss what works and what doesn't for Ivy League admissions. I also tied that in with my anecdotal knowledge of how applications are reviewed to present a plan that anyone can use to have the best odds of getting into a top school. This is information that top private school counselors pass on to their kids, and I’m trying to pass that on to the rest of us, but with actual data to back it up. And out of that came the book: Behind The Ivy Curtain: A Data Driven Guide to EliteCollege Admissions

 So what are some of the insights from data? Here we go:

1. Academics is a threshold. A lot of kids obsess over perfect grades and scores. Don’t bother.
Once your SATs are over 2200, or your ACTs are over 33, there isn’t a notable difference in admission results.

For GPA, higher is better, but there’s a big dropoff if you’re less than a 3.8.

2. AP scores don’t matter much. Having a strong courseload was good, but the actual AP scores didn’t change admission rates. Kids with 5’s/4’s/3’s were admitted at about the same rates, though having 1’s/2’s i.e. failing scores did hurt. The total number of 5’s you had didn’t make much of a difference either.

3. You suck at evaluating your essays. Now obviously kids aren’t posting their whole essays on the forums, but they do post a summary like “I wrote it about football and thought it showed my passion and work ethic” or “It was a meh essay, I wrote about soup kitchen volunteering.” What’s cool is that with technology we can analyze polarity (whether you thought it was good or bad), and sentiment (how biased you were). What I found is that admission rates were unchanged no matter how good or bad you thought your essay was - you weren’t a good evaluator. What you should do is have a stranger read your essay and write a paragraph summarizing what they think of the author, because that’s basically what the admission committee does at top schools.

4. Leadership positions don’t matter. I wrote some code to look for things like “president”, “vice president”, “captain”, “secretary,” etc, and just counted number of leadership positions versus admission result. There wasn’t any notable difference as the number increased. The point is that you can’t just start clubs and become president and think you’re “done”. The college admission officers see this all the time and are too smart to fall for it.

There’s loads more in the book about how the admissions committee evaluates your applications, statistics on other parts of the application and aggregate statistics by school. I hope it can demystify the admissions process and set you up for success so you don’t have to spend the hours that I did or stress over things that don’t actually matter.

Best of luck!


About the author:

I'm a recent Yale graduate who works as a Product Manager at Google in San Francisco. I love programming, sports, laughing, and writing.

I care a lot about education and explaining complex concepts in a simple way. My first book, Behind the Ivy Curtain, is about analyzing real admission outcomes at top colleges and helping people figure out what works and what doesn't.

I want to write more books that help people achieve their goals. If you have ideas, or just want to chat, feel free to reach out to me at topcollegeadmit@gmail.com

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