How to get into a competitive college

Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Stanford
How do you get into one of these schools?

As someone who attended one of these schools as an undergraduate and graduate, I'd like to give my simple and general advice. General because I don't think it matters whether you study liberal arts or engineering. Simple because I think high school students are worrying too much these days about SATs and AP courses to get into the college of their dreams. Then in college we worry about grades again, the GREs, MCATs, LSATs, etc to get into grad school. I admit that I have fallen into that type of behavior, but in hindsight I think I over-complicated my life and distracted myself from what I ought to be focusing on. We should all be doing well on the exams and classes anyway, but that's definitely not all there is to getting into one of these schools.

Why spend 10 hours a week for a year studying for the SATs when you could be spending that same amount of time raising a million dollars for a cause you are passionate about? The candidate who does the latter will have the stronger college application, let alone resume. And that's exactly what one of my colleagues did as a high school student. Another friend of mine spent 40+ hours a week building solar cars and solar cell controllers as an undergraduate. His GPA is not so high, but he doesn't even mention it on his resume. People are more interested in what he can actually do. Surely enough, many solar startups and big semiconductor companies come knocking on this guy's door trying to recruit him. The high GPA can only help, and if you are still figuring out your life, I am not blaming you for studying so hard as a safety net. I would still recommend you to take risks and think more about how you can add value to society.

Value to society
These big name educational institutions have taken on the responsibility of contributing significantly to society. You can listen to what the President of Stanford University has to say about it here. Students and faculty define and make up these schools, so the question to ask yourself before applying--perhaps at least 1 year before--is How will you contribute to goals of the university? and What value would you add to society?

I think you need at least 2 of the following to be a good candidate, whether applying for undergraduate or graduate, listed in order of what I view to be most important:
  1. Passion - You need to care about the world around you, about society. Easier said than proven. What kind of things do you care about? What is important to society in your perspective? If you grew up a in a well-sheltered bubble (many of us have), perhaps you need to read the news, travel more and meet more people before you know how to fulfill this. See this post for more.
  2. Leadership - Everyone can contribute something to this world; it's a matter of taking risks, sacrificing and acting. What can be done about those things from 1? What have you done? What do you plan to do going forward? Who have you brought along?
  3. Ability - Society is faces challenging problems at large. What skills and talent do you bring to help solve problems? This is where results from past projects, math competitions, and scores on exams may help. Creativity plays an especially important role here. If you're good at math, what can you do with that skill? If you're good at writing or persuasion, what can you do with that skill?
If you fulfill at least two of the above, then you should have developed relationships with teachers, mentors, etc. who can write strong recommendation letters for you. You should also have more than enough content to write about in the essays, personal statement, or statement of purpose. Finally, you'll be well prepared to comfortable and fluently discuss yourself in the interviews. For more detailed advice on grad school, check out this Philip Guo's site.  Good luck!

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