How to Get into an Ivy League School with Average Grades

A student gets 2100 on the old SAT and gets into Harvard. No, this is not the start to a bad joke. Despite falling into the 25th percentile for Harvard’s class of 2020, a place that you really don’t want to be if you’re looking to get in, she got in. Not only did she get into Harvard, though. She got into all six of the Ivies she applied to. If you’re scratching your head, that’s understandable, but we’re here to tell you the not-so-secret secret to getting into an Ivy League school with average grades: a killer essay.

We’ve given instructions on how to start the essay, we’ve told you what doesn’t work, and we’ve warned you what words to stay away from, but this post isn’t about generalized advice. Here, we’re going to get into the weeds of a stellar Ivy League-acceptance-winning essay.

Her essay is called Pierogies. Yes, the Central European dumplings that are unreasonably delicious. You should read the essay in full, but here we are going to break apart some of the things that make it a standout.

Show Don’t Tell

The concept of showing rather than telling can be tough because you’re writing, so of course, you're telling, but it really is how you tell the story.

The essay starts:

“The Brighton Beach train station stands above a maze of old brick apartment buildings and a gray polluted ocean. My grandfather and I would walk through the maze every morning from fifth to seventh grade, past windows that opened to kitchens with steaming tea kettles, and past vendor women in scarves setting up their pierogi and fruit stands. We would climb the stairs towards the B train and sit in our usual place. My grandfather would tell me Russian anecdotes, while we cracked sunflower seeds and listened to Chopin on his portable CD player.”

This scene evokes emotion without actually listing feelings or emotions off - and that’s the crux of ‘show don’t tell’. Instead of spelling out that riding the train with her grandfather was important to her, she showed that through the loving and intimate way in which she described it. She used detail to paint a scene that pulls the reader into her world, and we don’t want to leave.

Put Yourself At the Center

Essays are supposed to be about you, the applicant, and this essay is really good at this. The entire piece is about her traveling to and from her neighborhood on the train, and she introduces a whole cast of other characters but stays rooted in its central subject: her.

She writes:  

“I control the trains as much as I control my drunken biological father’s abandonment or my mother and grandfather’s cancers. Didion taught me that our words are the only things we can ever control. With her essays on water and mortality she made me want to be a writer”

This moment has five different people in it, but she’s still at the center. The people serve to revolve around her experiences, feelings, and interpretations of the world, all told through her voice. They are supporting characters in her story and she is careful not to let them steal the show.

Go Somewhere

Not every essay needs to have a surprise ending, but this one has a wonderful twist that we won’t ruin for you but that you really must read. Without spoiling it, the essay is bookended by two moments: getting on the train and getting off of the train. She takes the reader on a wild journey while the train is barrelling along, but gently places the reader back on the ground at the end.

Now, this student didn’t just come up with this. This essay took months of work and it doesn’t hurt that she wants to be a writer (and we can’t wait until she starts publishing). Strong essays aren’t the product of spontaneous conception. They take time and effort, and they take true dedication - but that’s what it takes if you want to get into Harvard (and five other Ivies) with a 2100.

If you’re looking to get into a school you ‘shouldn’t’ be able to, let us know. We’d love to help you on your journey.