How to get into MIT (or Harvard)

I answer questions on Quora fairly frequently. This morning, I received a question from an Indian student in grade 8 asking about how to get into MIT. What follows is my answer. I thought you would like to know what I think it takes to get into Ivy League level schools.

How do I get into MIT or the Ivy League?

First, it is very important for you to understand just how rare it is to gain admission to a top level university in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world all are working hard to achieve this goal. And even if you end up being perfect, you may not get an offer just because there are too many excellent candidates to choose from.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ambitious and try. It just means plan for other options. There are thousands of excellent schools, and any one of them can provide you with the education you need for a wonderful life.

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What you need

But you wanted to know what you need. These are only the steps to make you attractive and interesting, not goals that will magically make you chosen.

  1. Grades—Your grades in high school need to be excellent, not just fairly good. Yes, some students attend schools with less than stellar grades, but they are often legacy or other special status applicants. You will be competing against other Indian students (or Korean students, or Chinese students) , so your grades need to be as good or better than those of other applicants.
  2. Test Scores—Plan out your standardized tests so that you can score as high as possible (above 1540 on the SAT, 34 on the ACT). If you want a realistic shot, you need scores in the range of the top 25th percentile. Don’t worry about a perfect score, a 1560 and a 1600 on the SAT are not significantly different. Plan to take at least 2 SAT Subject tests and achieve a perfect score on them.
  3. Outside Interests—If you want to attend a school like MIT, you need to be passionate about innovation. You can demonstrate this by having personal projects that you work on. Also you should try to be a little well rounded by playing a sport, or an instrument, be involved in interesting activities…that you REALLY enjoy. These are not just check boxes to fill in.
  4. Leadership—Be involved in clubs and activities that demonstrate you can both work with a group and lead a group. Again, these should be things you are honestly interested in.
  5. Essays—In your application, you will need to write several essays that will reveal who you are as a person and the things that are meaningful to you. If your entire life has been a series of activities done and forgotten, you are going to find this difficult. Have experiences, think about how they impact you, reflect on yourself and the choices you are making. Do things you are interested in.
  6. Live—Have a life filled with friends and experiences. Don’t be afraid to try and fail at things. Learn how to balance an ambitious workload with the rest of your life. Be a complete person, not just a computer in a human body that only studies and works.

A Caveat (fancy talk for “a warning”-now you learned something today)

As I said, there are no guarantees. However, the students that I have seen gain entrance to top level American schools had all of these qualities. It is also important to understand that many of them are a little let down. Schools like MIT, Brown, and yes, even Harvard, don’t radically change your life and make you feel different about yourself. If you are insecure in high school, Harvard will amplify that because now instead of being surrounded by regular students, you are surrounded by students who got accepted into HARVARD! There are amazing opportunities to be had, but the pressure and competition only gets greater in these schools.

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