How to Get into an Ivy League Grad School

Expert Tips for Earning Admission to Ivy Leagues and Other Highly Competitive Universities

Most people know that the eight Ivy Leagues -- Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale -- represent the best schools in the nation, which means gaining admission to one of these institutions is no easy task. And while these schools continually rank at the top, there are other colleges and universities that are also highly selective, but do not officially hold the title of Ivy League. (While stories differ considerably depending on the source, most individuals agree that the term “Ivy League” was first inadvertently used by a 1930s sports writer who advocated for an athletic league amongst these eight Northeastern schools. The name Ivy League stuck due to the old, ivy-covered buildings dotting many of the campuses.) Schools like Duke, MIT, and Stanford are just a few examples.

While it is difficult to get a coveted Ivy League acceptance letter, it is not impossible. If you want to walk among those hallowed halls as a graduate student, but do not know where or how to start, this guide can help. There is no magic formula or secret trick, but this guide will walk you through the application process and offer expert tips on what to focus on, whether you’re applying to an Ivy League or other highly competitive university.

Quick Facts to Know Before Applying

Application Requirements for Ivy League Grad Schools

All grad school applications require thoughtful attention to detail and clear explanations of why you want to complete an advanced degree, and while Ivy League graduate schools call for similar requirements, the standards and expectations are much higher. Review the various components of the Ivy League application below to get a sense of common requirements and steps.

    • Application and fees:

      As with any other college, Ivy Leagues require prospective students to fill out an application. This usually asks for a range of basic information, such as name, gender identity, address, birthdate, citizenship status, intended area of study, phone number, and contact information. In addition to providing answers to all questions on the application, individuals must also pay a fee. These can range from $50 to $100, though some schools may charge as much as $175.

    • Transcripts:

      In order to verify whether an applicant earned the grades required for admissions consideration, Ivy League graduate programs require transcripts from all colleges or universities applicants attended. Some may also require high school transcripts if admission is highly competitive. Each school maintains a unique process for reviewing transcripts. At Yale University, for instance, prospective degree seekers can upload unofficial transcripts during the application process but must provide official transcripts if they receive a letter of admittance.

    • Test scores:

      Depending on the particular discipline an individual plans to study or the department they hope to join, Ivy League grad programs require applicants to take at least one of several advanced study standardized tests. In addition to the most commonly required GRE, students may need to take the GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT if they plan to study business, law, or medicine, respectively. Some schools do not specify score requirements, but applicants can review average scores from past admissions to get a sense of expectations. Depending on the competitiveness of the program, some schools may also want to review ACT or SAT scores that were taken for undergraduate education.

    • Letters of recommendation:

      In addition to all the information potential students provide themselves, Ivy League graduate schools also want to hear from others who can speak to an applicant’s preparedness for the program and their likelihood of contributing something unique to the student body. When selecting individuals to write these letters of recommendation, applicants should think carefully and strategically. Do not ask anyone who doesn’t know you well and who you don’t maintain a professional or academic relationship with, as they won’t be able to speak to the nuances of what makes you an exceptional student and strong grad school candidate. Most schools look for two to three letters from former professors, mentors, or supervisors.

    • Personal statement or statement of purpose:

      While much of the application process calls on applicants to provide hard facts such as test scores, GPAs, and work history, personal statements/statements of purpose allow students to introduce themselves to admissions committees in a more personal way. Learners should use this opportunity to highlight unique qualities, discuss their academic passions, and clearly lay out what they bring to the table. Anyone wanting more information about this topic can review GoGrad’s guides on Writing a Successful Grad School Statement of Purpose and Writing a Winning Personal Statement for Grad School.

    • Resume/CV:

      The resume or CV exists for students to demonstrate relevant professional and academic accomplishments. When creating this document, ensure all major achievements appear on the document, but focus on succinct descriptions for each. It’s also important to ensure organization reigns supreme: start with a header at the top that clearly states your name and contact information. Use bullets, indentations, and bolded text so readers can easily identify individual sections. Select a professional-looking font, and avoid grammatical errors and syntax issues.

    • Interview:

      While it’s becoming less common for applicants to visit campus and interview with members of the admissions panel, schools are increasingly utilizing alumni living in the prospective student’s region to conduct interviews. These may be done in-person or online. Interviews tend to be more conversational. These face-to-face interactions offer students the chance to demonstrate other qualities about themselves that are not easily conveyed in an application or personal statement, such as confidence, charisma, diplomacy, and character. While some may decide to emphasize points made on their applications, others use interviews as an opportunity to introduce other facets of themselves.

    • Portfolio:

      Not all programs require portfolios, but for those that do, applicants should ensure they put their best work forward. The majority of art and design degrees require portfolios as a way of examining where an applicant stands in their artistic career and if they are ready for advanced study at an Ivy League. When selecting materials for an admissions portfolio, applicants should work with their professors, mentors, or colleagues to identify pieces that show their growth over time and demonstrate the evolution of their creative eye. Admissions panels typically do not want a large portfolio, so judiciously select works that highlight the unique angles and strengths of your artistry.

8 Expert Tips for a Strong Ivy League Grad School Application

Many prospective students tend to focus on GPA and test scores when preparing to apply to an Ivy League but these elements shouldn’t be the stars of your application -- they should be supporting evidence of your hard work, passion, purpose, and genuine interest in your chosen program. With that in mind, here are tips from experts Erin Goodnow, Going Ivy co-founder and CEO, and Dr. Marion Brewington, Ph.D., of Brewington Test Prep, on how to increase your chances of getting into an Ivy League school.

  1. Go beyond proofreading: Talk to any admissions advisor and one of the first things they’ll tell you is to ensure your essay and personal statement receive a thorough proofreading before sending it off. While this advice is great and should be followed, students applying to Ivy Leagues must go further. “Show your essays and application to others for their perspective,” encourages Brewington. In addition to grammar and syntax, sometimes applicants need help with the tone and overall message of their writing and outside perspective can help provide that.
  2. Go beyond the grade: “Excellent grades are necessary, but not sufficient,” reminds Brewington. “Passion for an activity, innovation, creativity, a unique perspective, and maturity all need to be evident in every corner of your application.” Admissions panels must get a true sense of the special qualities you bring to the program. “If these subjective items are so strong, they might even make up for a few B’s on your transcript,” says Brewington.”
  3. Get insight from a grad student who applied to your program recently: Prospective students can read every possible online article on how to get into an Ivy League, but no article can provide as much insight as someone who actually attended an Ivy League for graduate school. Seek out friends, family, colleagues, or friends of friends who attended -- or are currently attending -- your school of interest to get their insight and feedback.
  4. Provide those who write your letters of recommendation with unique details: Brewington suggests using letters of recommendation to help differentiate your application and in order to do that, your writers will need as much information as possible. “It’s a great idea to give your letter of recommendation writers unique details about you so they can write memorable recommendations that stand out to admission panels,” she says. Examples may include details about international travel, volunteerism, or field-specific advancements.
  5. Explain in detail why this school is right for you: Identifying why you feel drawn to a specific school represents an important component of an undergraduate application, but it’s even more significant at the grad school level. In addition to highlighting why the school as a whole speaks to your interests and desires for a campus community, Brewington says applicants should have specific reasons for wanting to attend a particular graduate school. And if you’re applying to multiple Ivy Leagues make sure you explain why each one is right for you. “Is it a particular faculty person? Program? Concentration only offered by that school? Highlight all of this in your application,” she urges.
  6. Don’t ignore anything labeled as ‘optional’: “If something says it’s optional, it is recommended,” says Brewington. Ivy League schools may indicate that certain application elements are optional, and while it may be tempting to gloss over these, taking the extra steps to still fulfill them may help set you apart from the competition.
  7. Take advantage of early admissions cycles: According Ivy Coach, all eight of the Ivy Leagues maintain significantly higher acceptance rates during the early decision round of applications. Students who want all the help they can get should strongly consider applying early. While this is no guarantee, it doesn’t hurt to try.
  8. Have a Plan B: Even if you achieved excellent grades and test scores, have an impressive professional resume, and take part in meaningful, relevant extracurriculars, Ivy League graduate programs still maintain dramatically low acceptance rates. If you don’t get in initially, it’s important to have a back up plan. “What will you do if you don’t get admitted on your first try? How can you strengthen your application for round two?” asks Brewington. If you want to re-apply to one of these eight schools, you’ll need to update your application to show how you’ve grown and/or accomplished impressive feats in the interim.

Ivy League Grad School Application Myths

Because of the mystery surrounding who receives an acceptance letter and who doesn’t, many myths about the Ivy League grad school application process exist. Don’t let these four common myths get the best of you when applying:

Myth

Myth: An Ivy League undergraduate degree automatically means you’ll get In for grad school

Reality

Reality: Even if you received a coveted acceptance letter from one of the eight Ivy Leagues, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be green lighted through to a master’s or doctoral degree at an institution within the group. “Just because you went to a top school for your bachelor’s, admissions panels still look for key metrics when making their final decisions,” says Goodnow. “You still have to get the grades, test scores, and more to prove yourself.”

Myth

Myth: You need to be a well-rounded student

Reality

Reality: Contrary to popular belief, Ivy League graduate programs aren’t looking for piano virtuoso linguists who dabble in ecology and Russian language but plan to study mathematics. While undergraduate schools tend to want well-rounded students, grad schools, particularly Ivy Leagues, are looking for students with much more focus. Rather than trying to spread yourself across multiple areas, Ivy League grad admissions panels much prefer individuals who excel in their chosen field and have shown dedication to advancing knowledge in that field. If you happen to enjoy other interests, that’s admirable, but may not be a selling point.

Myth

Myth: Ivy League schools only want applicants who went to a top undergrad school

Reality

Reality: In a similar vein to the first myth, students who did not attend an Ivy League or other top institution should not automatically think that they are out of the running. “You do not need to have attended a prestigious undergrad school to gain admittance to a prestigious graduate school,” says Brewington. “If your undergrad record is strong and you have good relationships with faculty who are willing to support our application, shoot for the stars.”

Myth

Myth: Students at Ivy League schools are incredibly competitive

Reality

Reality: While all Ivy League students possess the drive, stamina, intelligence, and passion to secure a spot at the school, that doesn’t mean everyone is cut throat. Different colleges -- and even programs within colleges -- possess different personalities, so students who are worried about a campus taking competition too far should speak to admissions specialists or others who attended to learn more about the student body and campus culture before spending the time and money to apply.

Ivy League Grad School Application FAQs

When should I start preparing to apply to an Ivy League grad school?

Because Ivy League schools maintain such low admission rates, interested students should start far in advance. “Students should begin preparing at least a year in advance of the application deadline,” advises Brewington. “Standardized test taking is often the first step as a student determines to which schools he/she will apply.”

Will my chances for admission increase if I apply early?

Applying early is not a guarantee for anyone but there is some past evidence that shows students who focus on sending information as soon as possible benefit. “Schools usually admit a higher percentage of students through the early rounds than in the regular admissions cycle,” says Goodnow. “So yes, your chances are slightly better if applying early, but nothing’s a given.”

Is it possible to get into an Ivy League grad school if I attended a non-selective or lesser-known undergrad school?

As discussed earlier, potential Ivy League applicants shouldn’t get discouraged if they didn’t attend a top-ranking undergrad institution. “While many of the graduate school spots go to those with prestigious undergraduate degrees, there is room for anyone with great potential,” explains Goodnow. “This is especially true if you have the test scores, recommendations, and application to complete with elite-status applicants.”

If I was rejected, can I apply again?

Some students feel that once a rejection letter is received, admission panels have made their minds up once and for all on whether that student will ever attend the institution in question. Goodnow sees this differently: “If you have improved your resume and any other part of your application, by all means apply again,” she encourages. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with continuing to chase your dreams, but make sure you are adding something new and better to your application if you want to be considered again.”

I completed my undergrad degree a long time ago. Will this hurt my grad school application?

On the contrary, taking time out between degrees can impress admissions panels significantly as it demonstrates that the candidate possesses skills outside academia. As discussed throughout this guide, one of the best things an applicant can do for themselves is show passion and depth of experience. “Grad schools value work experience, so don’t shy away from highlighting that in your essays or short answers,” encourages Brewington. “A seasoned applicant with ‘real life’ experience and maturity brings a perspective to the classroom that newly minted undergrads can’t yet offer.”

If I’m admitted to an Ivy League grad school, can I defer admission?

Simply put, it’s probably not the best idea. Ivy League graduate schools are highly competitive and admissions panels only make offers to students who they feel can make a significant contribution to the legacy of the school. While deferment may be possible, it’s not ideal. “You may be able to defer an offer of admission,” notes Brewington, “but this is school and circumstance dependent; ideally, you shouldn’t apply to grad school if you are not reasonably certain you plan on attending.”

Do Ivy League grad schools accept transfer credit for previous work experience?

Some graduate programs do accept work experience for credit, but as Brewington notes, “it would be unusual for an Ivy League graduate institution to accept transfer credit for work experience.” While admissions departments greatly value students who bring a wide breadth of personal and professional experiences to the table, that doesn’t mean they will offer transfer credit for this time in your life. Ivy League schools offer a unique opportunity to learn from some of the brightest minds in the world in an academic setting, so students should try to take advantage of that at much as possible.