What College Admissions Officers Look For: A Must-Read Guide

What College Admissions Officers Look For: A Must-Read Guide

In a nutshell: Want to truly understand what admissions officers at top colleges are looking for? Through original, data-backed research, we’ve identified the Golden Rule of Admissions, 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Applicants, and many other findings. Understand the bigger picture, gain the ability to critically evaluate information about college admissions, and save hours of time and headache in the process.

Trying to understand the college application process of selective schools can feel like driving without GPS and relying on a two-year-old to navigate you with an outdated map.

But you persevere because you’re a good parent. And because you need your beloved child to move out so you can convert their room into that home yoga studio you’ve always dreamed of.

Like many people, you’ve probably turned to your most trusted adviser, Google, and asked it: “What are admissions officers looking for?”

Dear Google, please tell me everything about college admissions. Thanks.

You find quotes from admissions officers, discover the components of the application, watch some videos, read top 10 lists, watch more videos, find more quotes, and get lost down the rabbit hole of College Confidential’s forums (don’t do it!).

The information keeps piling on, and at the end, you’re more confused than ever. How do you differentiate the good info from the bad info?

Greg Wong & Kevin WongMy brother Kevin and I created this in-depth guide to navigate you through this ocean of information so you can confidently understand what colleges are really looking for.

The advice in this guide is based off:

  • 20+ years of experience in college admissions helping 1,000+ students
  • 50+ hours of analysis of primary sources (mission statements, financial statements, university websites, and government data) and
  • Lots of research and quotes from experts and other super smart people

What You’ll Get Out of Reading This

You will gain a research and data-backed understanding of the bigger picture of college admissions.

Light BulbSpecifically, you will learn about:

  • 8 important themes revealed by school mission statements
  • The main purpose of a university and how this impacts admissions
  • The Golden Rule of Admissions
  • 3 Pillars of the most successful applicants
  • “Institutional priorities,” the mysterious X-factor of admissions

You will gain the ability to critically evaluate all future college admissions advice. You will understand what to focus on, save hours of time, and make better decisions.

Too busy to read all of this now? Skip around using the table of contents below – or go straight to our summary and key takeaways.

Here's what we cover:


What Are A College's Priorities?

Dilbert Comic

Our students and families often ask us: "What are college admissions officers looking for?"

However, diving right into this question is like trying to put together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without first looking at the picture on the box.

It’s important to step back and understand the bigger picture. We can do this by asking this question first: "What are a top college's strategic priorities?

Why? The strategic priorities of a university directly impact and influence admissions policies.

To understand the strategic priorities of colleges, we will deep dive into three main areas:

  • Mission Statements - What schools say they do
  • Financial Statements - What schools actually do
  • “Institutional Priorities” - What schools discuss behind closed doors

Strategic Priorities of Colleges


2) WHAT COLLEGES SAY THEY DO – MISSION STATEMENTS

How Can Mission Statements Help Us?

MegaphoneUniversity leaders are literally telling you what is most important to them through their mission statements. You just have to know how to interpret them.

We combed through dozens of these statements and synthesized the data to cut through university-speak and tease out practical takeaways.

What Is a Mission Statement?

A mission statement is a public declaration that answers “an organization's most fundamental question, which is 'Why do we exist?'” according to Christopher Bart, business professor at McMaster University and authority on mission statements, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

University presidents and the board of trustees use mission statements to formalize their priorities.

For example, in a survey conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 290 institutions were asked, “What steps has your institution taken to make its involvement in community service activity more effective?” The top response was to place greater emphasis on community service in their missions.

Mission statements provide the foundation for strategic plans and steer various components of school operations towards the same goals.

What Does a Mission Statement Look Like?

They come in all shapes and sizes. Below is a fairly short mission statement from Brown University:

Brown Logo"The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation. We do this through a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community known as a university-college."

What Data Did We Use?

We analyzed 32 mission statements from the top 20 ranked national universities and the top 10 ranked liberal arts colleges, as determined by US News and World report (Yes, we know that rankings can be problematic, but we chose US News because they're well-known, and as you'll soon find out, most any list we use would still yield similar conclusions):

Top 20 Ranked National Universities (2016)

Ranking National University Admissions Rate
1 Princeton Logo Princeton University 6.5%
2 Harvard Shield Harvard University 5.4%
3 UChicago Shield University of Chicago 8.0%
3 Yale Shield Yale University 6.3%
5 Columbia Shield Columbia University 6.0%
5 Stanford Logo Stanford University 4.8%
7 MIT Logo Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7.9%
8 Duke Logo Duke University 10.7%
8 UPenn Logo University of Pennsylvania 9.4%
10 Johns Hopkins Shield Johns Hopkins University 11.9%
11 Dartmouth University 10.6%
12 Caltech Seal California Institute of Technology 8%
12 Northwestern Seal Northwestern University 10.7%
14 Brown Logo Brown University 9.3%
15 Cornell Logo Cornell University 14.1%
15 Rice University Shield Rice University 15.3%
15 Notre Dame Logo University of Notre Dame 18.7%
15 Vandberbilt University Logo Vanderbilt University 10.7%
19 Washington University Seal Washington University in St. Louis 17%
20 Emory University Shield Emory University 25.2%
20 Georgetown Seal Georgetown University 16.4%
20 Berkeley Seal UC Berkeley 17.5%

Top 10 Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges (2016)

Ranking Liberal Arts College Admissions Rate
1 Williams Seal Williams College 16.9%
2 Amherst Seal Amherst College 14%
3 Wellesley Seal Wellesley College 28%
4 Middlebury Shield Middlebury College 18.9%
4 Swarthmore Seal Swarthmore College 12.5%
6 Bowdoin Seal Bowdoin College 14.8%
7 Carleton Seal Carleton College 22%
7 Pomona Seal Pomona College 9.2%
9 Claremont McKenna Seal Claremont McKenna College 9.4%
9 Davidson Seal Davidson College 20.1%

(What’s the difference between a national university and liberal arts college? National universities are usually larger and have both undergraduate and graduate programs. Liberal arts colleges are usually smaller and focus on the undergraduate experience.)

There are about 3,000 four-year colleges in the US, so our list of 32 schools reflect the top 1% of colleges and universities.

We focus on the nation’s highest ranked colleges and universities, not because we’re elitist snobs, but because these top schools typically set the standards for other schools.

If we can figure out what it takes to get into the nation’s most elite schools, then we’ll be setting ourselves up for admissions success to ALL schools.

On to our findings...

Finding #1 - Mission Statements Are Pretty Similar

Copying Test - University of Nebraska
Image from University of Nebraska-Lincoln

We broke down each mission statement and looked for recurring themes and ideas. We found that mission statements were surprisingly similar. It was like the smart kid in class wrote a mission statement, and every other kid copied it.

A recent study by Gallup corroborates our observation and found that “the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What these similarities confirm is that most schools have the same goals, and that the conclusions we draw from our analysis of these 32 schools can be applied to all top schools.

Finding #2 - Mission Statements have 8 Recurring Qualities/Themes

We identified 8 important themes that were repeatedly mentioned in the mission statements:

Theme Frequency
1. Education & World-Class Teaching 32 of 32 statements (100%)
2. Service 29 of 32 statements (91%)
3. Produce Leaders and Useful Members of Society 28 of 32 statements (88%)
4. Diversity 27 of 32 statements (84%)
5. Community / Communication / Collaboration 26 of 32 statements (81%)
6. Creative / Innovative & Critical Thinking 25 of 32 statements (78%)
7. Intellectual & Personal Growth 23 of 32 statements (72%)
8. Admission of Promising Students 10 of 32 statements (31%)

Theme #1 – EDUCATION & WORLD-CLASS TEACHING

Teaching"Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation."
(Harvard University, excerpt from mission statement)

It should be no surprise that the theme of education and teaching was found in 100% of mission statements analyzed.

Schools tout their “distinguished” and “dedicated” faculties, “excellence in teaching,” and “unparalleled educational journey.”

In reality, most top schools these days have great teachers, and the strength of the academic programs will be similar across many schools.

Theme #2 – SERVICE

Service

"Dartmouth fosters lasting bonds…which...instill a sense of responsibility for each other and for the broader world." (Dartmouth College, excerpt from mission statement)

The concept of service is frequently used in the context of a university’s commitment to serve its students, the local community, and the world/society at large.

This is done through community service, research, and instilling in students a “sense of responsibility for each other and for the broader world.”

The concept of service and otherness is becoming increasingly important for universities, and therefore for applicants. We’ll be revisiting this topic quite often.

Theme #3 – PRODUCE LEADERS AND USEFUL MEMBERS OF SOCIETY

Leader"Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society." (Yale University, excerpt from mission statement)

Of course a university would want to produce leaders. You don’t go to school with aspirations to take an entry-level job and just stay there. More importantly, a university wants students to think beyond themselves and lead others towards a better society.

Colleges look for the desire and motivation to become leaders when evaluating applicants.

Theme #4 – DIVERSITY

Diversity"[Columbia] seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body." (Columbia University, excerpt from mission statement)

Diversity has been a hot topic and will be for a while.

The concept of diversity has evolved from affirmative action. Diversity of all kinds (e.g. ethnic, international, geographical, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic) significantly enhances the quality of education.

The idea of diversity even extends to knowledge, skills, interests, and preferences. Colleges want intelligent students of all backgrounds to come together to create a rich campus environment.

Universities recognize that “diversity and excellence are interrelated,” include it specifically in their mission statements, and apply these ideals not just to student body recruitment but also to the faculty and support staff as well.

Theme #5 – COMMUNITY / COMMUNICATION / COLLABORATION

Community"The University’s defining characteristics and aspirations include…a human scale that nurtures a strong sense of community, invites high levels of engagement, and fosters personal communication." (Princeton University, excerpt from mission statement)

Do not underestimate the importance of the community to a college.

Mission statements frequently mention the benefits of their “residential,” “campus,” and “academic” communities.

Bringing together a diverse community into a single campus promotes positive engagement, tolerance, collaboration, and communication. These skills are as important to long-term success as any skills learned from books or in the classroom.

Theme #6 – CREATIVE, INNOVATIVE, AND CRITICAL THINKING

Creativity"In the tradition of its eighteenth-century founders, the College of Arts and Sciences regards the enduring purpose of education as the liberation of the mind from ignorance, superstition, and prejudice." (University of Pennsylvania, excerpt from mission statement)

Mission statements emphasize an environment with a “free exchange of ideas” to “challenge conventional thinking” in pursuit of “intellectual transformation.”

The goal of college is to learn, but more importantly the goal is to also expand minds, challenge assumptions, and learn how to critically evaluate information. These will be the most important skills students take away from the college experience.

Theme #7 – INTELLECTUAL AND PERSONAL GROWTH

Growth"Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character." (Williams College, excerpt from mission statement)

Colleges understand the important role they play in young students’ lives and aim to foster not only intellectual, but also personal growth, thus setting a foundation for future success.

Colleges value character and specifically mention “high ethical standards,” “integrity,” “self-reliance,” and “humane instincts.”

The development and testing of character and values occurs throughout our lifetimes. These traits play a large role in our successes (and failures).

Theme #8 – ADMISSION OF PROMISING STUDENTS

Admission"Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community." (Amherst, excerpt from mission statement)

The practice of admitting only the most exceptional students is, of course, fairly obvious. What is less obvious is that this pipeline of promising students is the lifeblood of the university.

By attracting and admitting the most able students, schools build an amazing community. Great students become successful graduates, thereby maintaining/increasing school prestige and ensuring the school’s future.

Schools need you as much as you want them. Without great students, a school cannot be a great school.

Finding #3 - The Purpose of Universities & Colleges

The 8 themes identified above are nice on their own, but sometimes (actually, all the time), it helps to organize ideas into a framework:

Purpose of a University

Note: Our discussion is hyper-focused on the undergraduate missions of top schools. We purposely excluded research, which is a large part of a university’s mission. Research tends to be a component of graduate school programs, which have different standards and expectations than undergraduate programs.

Finding #4 - Education by Peers is the Secret Sauce

In the framework above, we highlight the important distinction between education INSIDE the classroom and education OUTSIDE the classroom.

Education inside the classroom is what we typically think about when we think of the classic definition of “education.”

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, argues that each person possesses a unique configuration of multiple types of intelligence:

  1. Howard Gardner's Multiple IntelligencesLinguistic
  2. Logical-Mathematical
  3. Spatial
  4. Bodily-Kinesthetic
  5. Musical
  6. Naturalist
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Interpersonal

The classroom typically focuses on developing the logical and linguistic intelligences (although there is certainly overlap with the other types of intelligences).

However, outside of the classroom is where you typically develop the many other types of intelligences, through interaction with people and extracurricular activities.

The campus community brings together a diverse group of peers. Through interactions with peers, you will enhance your interpersonal abilities (a.k.a. social/emotional intelligence). You will also be exposed to the highest levels of other types of intelligence. You and your peers will teach, challenge, and push each other.

Colleges cannot create this community on their own. They provide the buildings and faculty, but they need great students to fill those buildings.

Finding #5 - Selective Admissions is Necessary for Top Colleges

The value of the peer community is 100% dependent on the quality of students, and this is why admissions is so important for a college.

Administrators put tremendous effort into attracting and retaining the “best and brightest.”

Schools state in their mission statements that they “produce leaders” and “develop” and “transform” students. This is true, but a little misleading.

Renowned economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale cite a conclusion from Shane Hunt’s “seminal” research:

Quarterly Journal of Economics"The C student from Princeton earns more than the A student from Podunk not mainly because he has the prestige of a Princeton degree, but merely because he is abler. The golden touch is possessed not by the Ivy League College, but by its students."

In other words...

DiamondTop schools pre-select students, through highly selective admissions, who demonstrate the potential to achieve greatness. Selective schools don’t find rocks and turn them into diamonds. They polish diamonds into shinier diamonds.

Finding #6 - What Mission Statements Tell Us about What Colleges Look for in Applicants

To recap so far…

  1. We identified 8 important themes in school mission statements
  2. We organized these themes into an easily digestible framework
  3. And then we derived why selective admissions is so important to colleges

Now, we take these learnings and develop a “Golden Rule” to understand the most important qualities that admissions officers look for in applicants.

If there is only one thing you take away from this article, this is it:

The Golden Rule of Admissions

3 Pillars of Students of Exceptional Potential:

#1 – Academic Achievement

Albert EinsteinColleges are first and foremost academic institutions, so high school academic achievement is the number one quality that colleges seek in applicants.

This criteria may be painfully obvious, but sometimes we forget and spend a disproportionate amount of time on a fifth sport in order to beef up our extracurricular resume.

Getting a C in algebra? Hit the books, because winning the sportsmanship award in intramural bowling is not going to help you.

At large/public universities, academic achievement might be the ONLY criteria for admissions.

At top/private universities, most applicants already demonstrate high academic achievement, so schools evaluate other qualities to differentiate the applicants (“holistic” admissions).

#2 – Extracurricular Distinction

Mia HammStudents of exceptional potential don’t just achieve inside the classroom – they distinguish themselves outside the classroom as well.

Why? Because colleges want to know that you will contribute to their community and that you will enhance the experience and education of your classmates.

They want you to inspire your classmates, influence each other, challenge each other, help and learn from each other.

Colleges want to know that you are taking advantage of the opportunities available to you. These opportunities include a broad range of activities – athletics, arts, community service, part-time jobs, family obligations, etc.

Figure out your strengths and interests and make the most out of your time OUTSIDE of the classroom.

#3 – Character & Personal Qualities

SupermanColleges seek out students with remarkable personal qualities such as character, personality, intellectual curiosity, and creativity.

Character is foundational to success. But what exactly is character?

There is a lot of different research out there about character. We define “character” to consist of 3 major components:

  • Values – what is important to you
  • Morals – what is right and wrong
  • Principles – guiding beliefs

There is certainly overlap between the elements. Your principles (belief system) are composed of your values (what is important to you) and morals (what is right and wrong). All are inextricably linked.

Are you lazy or driven? What is your moral code? Do you care about helping others?

Colleges try to understand your character through your actions (your academic and extracurricular achievements), what other people say about you (recommendations), and your stories (essays).

Positive character traits can be learned and developed. The first step is understanding what they are.

Summary of Mission Statement Findings

Jeff Brenzel, former Dean of Admissions from Yale, sums up our findings pretty well in Yale Alumni Magazine:

Jeff Brenzel
Jeff Brenzel. Image from Yale Bulletin & Calendar.

"At the same time, we do not admit undergraduates primarily in order to create the next generation of scholars and investigators, though we know that some of our undergraduates will choose these paths and go on to great intellectual distinction…

In undergraduate admissions, however, we must also keep before us Yale’s longstanding aspiration to cultivate responsible citizens and leaders, graduates who will achieve prominence in the founding or management of enterprises, in public service and public office, in the professions, or in the realms of religion, the arts, and education.

By 'leaders' I do not mean individuals who succeed merely in achieving high status or high income. To develop leaders means to nurture individuals with superb skills for collaboration, an orientation to service, high levels of creative energy, and the aspirations and character required to make substantive contributions to the common good. Our mandate is to send talented, courageous, and far-sighted people into the global endeavors, organizations, and communities that sorely need them."


3) WHAT COLLEGES ACTUALLY DO – FINANCIAL STATEMENTS

Joe Biden“Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.”
― Joe Biden

Through their mission statements, universities tell us what is important to them. But do their actions back up their words?

After reviewing the 2016 financial statements of the same 32 schools in our analysis of mission statements, we can confirm that, yes, universities absolutely mean what they say in their mission statements.

Additionally, our findings corroborate the Golden Rule of Admissions that we derived in the previous section.

Below is a summary of our main financial takeaways.

Takeaway #1 - Higher education is not cheap

Top 20 National Universities_Operating Expenses

“Excellence cannot be bought, but it must be paid for.”
– Princeton Professor and Nobel Laureate, Val Fitch

The 10 liberal arts colleges in our study averaged $175 million dollars in operating expenses in 2016. The 22 much larger national universities averaged $2.2 billion dollars of operating expenses. Stanford University topped our list at $4.9 billion dollars!

Takeaway #2 - Donations & endowment distributions fund a large percentage of school expenses

Top Universities & Colleges - Revenues Sources 2016

Donations (private gifts, contracts, and grants) & endowment distributions make up an average of ~30% of the operating budget for the national universities in our study, and ~50% of the operating budget for the liberal arts colleges.

11 of the 32 schools analyzed depend on donations & endowment distributions to cover more than 40% of their budget.

While we only have one public university in our study (UC Berkeley), it is important to note that public universities also rely on state and federal aid.

Takeaway #3 - Therefore, alumni giving is an important priority for schools

Bowdoin College’s mission statement explicitly lays out this expectation:

Bowdoin Logo"Succeeding generations of members of the College must carry the costs of their own enjoyment of its benefits; as alumni they remain a part of Bowdoin, assuming responsibility for renewing the endowments and buildings that will keep Bowdoin a vital, growing educational force for future generations of students and faculty."

Takeaway #4 - Universities must select applicants of exceptional potential (our Golden Rule of Admissions) in order to ensure financial stability

Exceptional students have a higher chance of achieving financial success. This means they have a greater ability to potentially give back to their alma mater.

Colleges look for students of exceptional potential who will become successful leaders (our Golden Rule), not only to satisfy their social mission, but also to ensure their financial stability.


4) WHAT COLLEGES DISCUSS BEHIND THE SCENES – INSTITUTIONAL PRIORITIES

WhisperThrough mission statements, schools tell us what is important to them. Financial statements confirm these public declarations by showing us what is important to them.

The third and last piece of the puzzle in this study looks at other school priorities, typically called “institutional priorities.”

These are less public and you have to dig a little deeper to find them. Schools acknowledge these priorities yet rarely publicize them.

Robin Mamlet is a former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence. Her book, “College Admission, from Application to Acceptance, Step by Step,” co-authored by journalist Christine Vandevelde, explains that:

“Institutional Priorities” are the strategic needs of a school as it considers whom to admit. For example, one year a school may seek tenors, female engineers, fullbacks, or geographic diversity. Institutional priorities can change from year to year, though some may carry over.

Institutional priorities are set by the president and board of trustees, sometimes with input from faculty and other parts of the university (e.g. athletics, arts). Some of these priorities also make it into mission statements as well (e.g. diversity).

Examples of institutional priorities:

  1. Natalie Portman
    Did you know that Natalie Portman went to Harvard?

    Legacies – children of of alumni

  2. Faculty – children of faculty members
  3. Development – children of big-money donors
  4. VIPs – children of famous people and well-connected/influential people
  5. Exceptional Talent – superstar athletes, artists, musicians
  6. Diversity – ethnic/cultural, socioeconomic (especially first-generation students), geographic (both domestically, and internationally)
  7. Departmental/Programmatic Needs – for example, female computer scientists

Institutional priorities are sometimes also referred to as “tags” or “hooks” because they help meet institutional needs and increase your chances of admission.

What Can We Do About Institutional Priorities?

Nothing.

You can’t change your ethnicity, where your parents went to school, or whether your family name is on one of the university’s buildings.

It's not you, it's me

Every school has different institutional priorities. This explains why you might get rejected from one school but get accepted into an equally difficult peer school.

Focus not on the specific school you wish to attend, but on the traits that will make you most successful in life, and the college stuff will fall in place.

Jeff Brenzel, former Dean of Admissions from Yale, confirms this thinking in a New York Times Q&A:

Every college aims at putting together a diverse and interesting class, and colleges differ greatly in their institutional priorities. Accomplished students with high aspirations will find a welcome at a broad range and a large number of excellent colleges. Further, it matters far less exactly which of those colleges they attend than it matters how prepared they are to engage the world of opportunities available at any strong college.


5) SUMMARY & KEY TAKEAWAYS

Strategic Priorities

Admissions officers are tasked with recruiting and admitting students to satisfy the needs/priorities of the university.

So, to understand what admissions officers are looking for, we took a step back and learned about the priorities of a college.

To understand the priorities of a school, we analyzed:

  1. Mission Statements – What schools say they do
  2. Financial Statements – What schools actually do
  3. Institutional Priorities – What schools do but try not to publicize too much

Our Major Takeaway

All of our research and analysis led us to develop The Golden Rule of Admissions and its associated characteristics.

The Golden Rule of Admissions

The Golden Rule of Admissions

3 Pillars of Students of Exceptional Potential

  1. ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT – number-one priority for all schools, and sometimes the only priority for large public schools
  2. EXTRACURRICULAR DISTINCTION – success not just inside the classroom but also outside of the classroom
  3. CHARACTER & PERSONAL QUALITIES– consists of values, morals, and principles. Character is an indication of leadership potential and is demonstrated through your academic and extracurricular activities

You should think about every activity and action you take through the lens of the above rule and pillars.

6 Additional Insights

Our original research reveal basic, fundamental truths derived from the needs and priorities of universities. These findings are applicable to all selective schools in your college search.

1.  Analysis of mission statements for 32 of the most selective schools revealed 8 recurring themes:

  • Education & World-Class Teaching
  • Service
  • Produce Leaders and Useful Members of Society
  • Diversity
  • Community / Communication / Collaboration
  • Creative, Innovative, & Critical Thinking
  • Intellectual & Personal Growth
  • Admission of Promising Students

2.  We distilled these themes into a framework to easily understand the purpose of schools (why do they exist) and how they achieve that purpose:

Purpose of a University

3.  This framework highlights the importance of education by your peers, which leads to insights into selective admissions:

  • The prestige of a university lives and dies by the student community it is able to attract. To create this community, the university is required to be as selective as possible.
  • Top schools pre-select students who demonstrate the potential to achieve greatness. Selective schools don’t find rocks and turn them into diamonds. They polish diamonds into shinier diamonds

4. From the above insights, we developed our Golden Rule of Admissions and identified 3 Pillars that admissions officers look for in applicants.

5. Analysis of financial statements corroborates our findings from mission statements and uncovers the importance of donations/endowment and their impact on admissions:

  • Alumni giving is essential to the quality and future viability of the university (11 of the 32 schools analyzed depend on donations & endowment distributions to cover more than 40% of their budget)
  • The more successful their alumni, the more money they have to give
  • Colleges look for students of exceptional potential who will become successful leaders (our Golden Rule), not only to satisfy their social mission, but also to ensure their financial stability.

6. We also uncovered other institutional priorities of schools, which increase chances of admission, but which you have no control over:

  • Legacies – children of of alumni
  • Faculty – children of faculty members
  • Development – children of big money donors
  • VIPs – children of famous people and well-connected/influential people
  • Exceptional Talent – superstar athletes, artists, musicians
  • Diversity – ethnic/cultural, socioeconomic (especially first-generation students), geographic (both domestically and internationally)
  • Departmental/Programmatic Needs – for example, female computer scientists

The College Application

Future Behavior

Colleges make predictions about your future leadership potential based on what you’ve done in the past.

The college application is simply a tool for admissions officers to gather information to evaluate your academic achievement, extracurricular distinction, and character.

The tools may differ (e.g. common app vs. universal college app vs. coalition app) or even change over time but the admissions criteria and guiding principles we covered earlier will not.

How Do I Use All This Information?

This is not a how-to guide. We’ll cover the tactical stuff in other articles.

The purpose of this piece is to educate you on essential background information about colleges and admissions:

  • To help you understand what admissions officers at top schools are looking for and why
  • So you can critically evaluate information about the admissions process within a framework
  • To re-frame your perspective and help you focus on what is most important

These understandings will save you hours of time and help you make better, more informed decisions.

Conclusion

In the frenzy of college preparation admissions, we sometimes get laser-focused on the individual components of the college application – grades, test scores, activities, essays, interviews, etc.

It’s important every now and then to step back, breathe, and reflect.

How do your efforts align with the qualities that are most sought after by schools – academic achievement, extracurricular engagement, and character? Remember that a large component of character involves helping others.

Fortunately, these qualities also translate into real-world success.

YOU – your skills, your talent, your character – are the main determinant of your success, not the college you attend.

Aim to be the best version of yourself while making an impact on others and you’ll be setting yourself up for success in school and beyond.


How Colleges Read Your Application: A 4 Step Process

By now, you have a deep understanding of what admissions officers at selective colleges are looking for.

Click here to learn how these admissions officers actually read your application. (this is our most popular guide)


How I Got Into Princeton Series

Interested in how other successful applicants have done this? Check out Erica's story.

“People telling me that I was worthless only drove me to study more, to work harder, to prove them wrong.”

You can also check out a summary of all our other stories here - How I Got Into Princeton


Next Steps

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other in-depth guides like this.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


Harvard Summer Programs for High School Students_PrepMaven

8 Harvard Summer Programs for High School Students

8 Harvard Summer Programs for High School Students

Bonus Material:PrepMaven's Summer Calendar

Every summer, Harvard hosts a handful of summer programs for high school students. Such programs give participants an opportunity to experience Harvard's campus, pre-college life, and exceptional academics.

Some of these programs will be online for 2021, but many are still up and running.

We've compiled all of the current Harvard summer programs for high school students in this post, including application and session details.

We've also added Harvard's high school summer programs to our free Summer 2021 Calendar, a growing list of summer programs at elite U.S. institutions like NYU and Princeton in one easy-to-use spreadsheet. Grab it below!

Here's what we cover:


Harvard Summer Programs for High School Students

Harvard offers three dedicated summer programs for high school students every year. These programs are sponsored by the university and, when held in-person, are on campus.

  1. Harvard Pre-College Program
  2. Harvard Secondary School Program
  3. Harvard Academies @ Home

Note: Harvard University emphasizes that attendance of these programs does not guarantee admission to Harvard. However, "attending Harvard Summer School and performing well will strengthen your application to any college or university. Additionally, the Secondary School Program offers many opportunities designed to help you navigate the college application process, gain admission to the college of your choice, and enhance your performance in a college setting."

Harvard's Pre-College Program

High school students seeking an immersive summer enrichment program can participate in Harvard's Pre-College Program. This program is well-suited for academically driven, mature high school students. Over the course of 2 weeks, pre-college participants take one non-credit course and engage in a wide variety of co-curricular activities with their peers.

At the end of the program, students receive a written evaluation from instructors, which can be an excellent supplement to their college applications.

Students choose from 30 courses, which span the following categories:

  • Business and Leadership
  • STEAM
  • Race, Gender, and Ethics
  • Speech, Writing, and Literature
  • Psychology, Medicine, and Public Health
  • Law, Politics, Philosophy, and History

Find the full course catalog here.

  • Program Cost: $3,200 + $75 application fee (limited scholarships available)
  • Program Length: 2 weeks, 3 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 27-July 9
    • Session 2: July 11-July 23
    • Session 3: July 25-August 6
  • Application Deadline: May 14, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

The Secondary School Program

For high school students seeking a longer summer enrichment program, consider Harvard's flexible, 7-week Secondary School Program. Program participants choose from over 200 courses and earn college credit for the classes they take, which are led by Harvard faculty.

Many of the Secondary School Program's courses emphasize career pathways, giving students a chance to pinpoint what they want to study in college. Participants get access to advising services to ensure they're signing up for the best courses given their individual interests.

Career pathway courses span the following categories:

  • Computer Science and Applied Math
  • Global Justice and Sustainability
  • Economics and Entrepreneurship
  • Medicine and Healthcare
  • Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Race, Identity, and Public Policy

Find the full course catalog here.

  • Program Cost: $3,400–$6,800 + $75 non-refundable application fee (financial aid awards available)
  • Program Length: 7 weeks, June 19 - August 6, 2021
  • Application Deadlines: January 26 (early) // March 4 (regular) // May 20 (late rolling)
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Harvard Academies @ Home

The Harvard Academies @ Home give high school students a chance to learn from Harvard undergraduate instructors. Through rigorous curriculum and hands-on experience, Academy @ Home participants can take a deep dive into academic subjects that interest them, all from home.

For 2021, there are 6 Academies @ Home available:

  1. Business Academy
  2. Business Consulting Academy
  3. Coding Academy
  4. Politics Academy
  5. Pre-Law Academy
  6. Pre-Med Academy

Business Academy

With Harvard's Business Academy, participants learn everything they need to know about launching their very own business. From brainstorming ideas to creating a business plan, program attendants explore all steps in the entrepreneurial timeline. Participants pitch their business at the end of the program.

  • Program Cost: $200
  • Program Length: 5 days over 2 weekends, multiple session dates
  • Application Deadline: Registration Ongoing
  • Online/in-person: Online

Business Consulting Academy

Understand what it takes to be a successful business consultant at Harvard's Business Consulting Academy. Learn the ins and outs of market sizing, mergers and acquisitions, profit and loss, and much more over the course of two weekends. Participants will also analyze Harvard Business School case studies.

  • Program Cost: $200
  • Program Length: 5 days over 2 weekends, multiple session dates
  • Application Deadline: Registration Ongoing
  • Online/in-person: Online

Coding Academy

Through Harvard's Coding Academies, participants learn either the fundamentals of coding (Coding Level 1) or foundations in web development (Coding Level 2). Come away proficient in Python (Level 1) and React (Level 2).

  • Program Cost: $200 for Level 1 // $250 for Level 2
  • Program Length: 5 days over 2 weekends, multiple session dates
  • Application Deadline: Registration Ongoing
  • Online/in-person: Online

Politics Academy

The Politics Academy @ Home offers high school students interested in politics a deep dive into this subject's core principles, including theory, campaign management, and international relations. Students collaborate with peers on a policy project, and the program culminates in presentations of this research.

  • Program Cost: $200
  • Program Length: 5 days over 2 weekends, multiple session dates
  • Application Deadline: Registration Ongoing
  • Online/in-person: Online

Pre-Law Academy

High school students who are passionate about law will find much to love about Harvard's Pre-Law Academy. Examine landmark U.S. court cases, due process of law, and what it takes to prepare for the LSAT and beyond. Acquire the skills you need to become a pre-law student.

  • Program Cost: $200
  • Program Length: 5 days over 2 weekends, multiple session dates
  • Application Deadline: Registration Ongoing
  • Online/in-person: Online

Pre-Med Academy

Considering a pre-med track in college? Harvard's Pre-Med Academy gives high school students passionate about medicine a thorough introduction to pre-med curriculum (Level 1) and emergency room patient care (Level 2). The Level 1 Academy also introduces students to the MCAT process.

  • Program Cost: $200 for Level 1 // $250 for Level 2
  • Program Length: 5 days over 2 weekends, multiple session dates
  • Application Deadline: Registration Ongoing
  • Online/in-person: Online

Download PrepMaven's Summer Calendar

High school students have a lot to choose from when it comes to summer programs this 2021, both online and in-person. Given that college applications often ask students how they've spent their high school summers, these programs can be fantastic means of filling those summer months.

We created PrepMaven's free Summer Calendar with this in mind. Our calendar compiles competitive summer programs for high school students in one simple spreadsheet!

Here's what you'll get:

  • An organized list of Harvard Summer Programs for 2021
  • Additional summer programs for 2021, including NYU, Stanford, and Princeton summer programs
  • Session start and end dates
  • Relevant links


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


Stanford Summer Programs 2021_High School_PrepMaven

20+ Stanford Summer Programs for High School Students

20+ Stanford Summer Programs for High School Students

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's 2021 Summer Calendar

High school students have over 20 Stanford summer programs to choose from in 2021.

From philosophy to neuroscience, these programs give students a taste of college academics, campus life, and beyond.

Summertime is an important time for high school students, especially given the fact that many college applications ask students how they've spent their previous two summers. Pre-college programs like Stanford can bring a special focus to these valuable summers and give students rich material to draw upon when applying.

In this post, we've compiled over 20 Stanford summer programs that are up and running this year. We've included relevant details like application deadlines, session dates, and links.

We're also giving readers access to PrepMaven's 2021 Summer Calendar, which includes the top summer programs at elite U.S. institutions, including NYU and Princeton, in one easy-to-use spreadsheet. Grab it below!

Here's what we cover:


Stanford Summer Programs for High School Students: Pre-Collegiate

There are currently 2 summer programs at Stanford that emphasize pre-collegiate studies and experiences.

  1. High School Summer College
  2. Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes

Stanford's High School Summer College

Get a taste of college academic life with Stanford's High School Summer College, an 8-week program that gives students a chance to take actual Stanford courses for credit. Along with peers from over 40 countries, participants can study a wide range of subjects, from molecular genetics to Greek and Latin roots.

  • Program Cost: $3,919 - $10,084
  • Program Length: 8 weeks, June 19 - August 15, 2021
  • Rolling Admissions Deadline: June 1, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be all online for summer 2021

Note: There is a $95 application fee to apply to Stanford's High School Summer College. Students find out within 20 days of applying if they've been admitted.

Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes

With Stanford's Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes, you'll have the chance to pursue your passions as a member of a vibrant intellectual community. Participants pursue a single-study program track for non-credit enrichment.

There are 30 possible courses spanning philosophy, humanities, engineering, math, writing, science, and more.

  • Program Cost: $2,500 per course (financial aid is available)
  • Program Length: 11 days
    • Session One: June 21, 2021 - July 2, 2021
    • Session Two: July 12, 2021 - July 23, 2021
    • Session Three: July 26, 2021 - August 6, 2021
  • Application Deadline: March 10, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be all online for summer 2021

Stanford Summer Programs for High School Students: Arts & Humanities

Stanford has one Arts & Humanities related summer program for eligible high school students: the Humanities Institute.

Stanford Summer Humanities Institute

Rising juniors and seniors can participate in Stanford's Summer Humanities Institute, a non-credit academic enrichment program that "explore the big questions at the heart of humanities" with Stanford professors. Students participate in daily group discussions and activities.

  • Program Cost: $3,000 (financial aid is available)
  • Program Length: 11 days
    • Session One: June 21, 2021 - July 2, 2021
    • Session Two: July 12, 2021 - July 23, 2021
    • Session Three: July 26, 2021 - August 6, 2021
  • Application Deadline: March 10, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

We've added all of Stanford's summer programs for 2021 to our Summer Calendar, which compiles summer programs for elite U.S. institutions like NYU and Princeton. It's free, and you can download it below right now!


Stanford Summer Programs for High School Students: STEM Programs

There are 7 STEM-related summer programs for high school students at Stanford:

  1. Stanford University Mathematics Camp
  2. Stanford Medical Youth Science Program 
  3. Stanford Anesthesia Summer Institute: Medical Internships
  4. Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program
  5. Clinical Neuroscience Immersion Experience at Stanford
  6. Stanford Pre-Collegiate University-Level Online Math & Physics
  7. Stanford AI4ALL

Mathematics Camp

Current 10th and 11th graders around the globe are eligible for this three-week math intensive at Stanford. Take a deep dive into advanced mathematics through lectures, research, and group collaboration.

  • Program Cost: $3,250 (financial aid is available)
  • Program Length: 3 weeks
    • Session One: June 21, 2021 - July 9, 2021
    • Session Two: July 19, 2021 - August 6, 2021
  • Application Deadline: March 10, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Medical Youth Science Program

Through Stanford's five-week Medical Youth Science enrichment program, students can take a deep dive into the world of medicine. This is specifically for low-income juniors from certain counties in Northern and Central California.

Over the five weeks of this program, participants work on a group research project and get valuable advising in college admissions and health careers.

  • Program Cost: Free for admitted applicants
  • Program Length: 5 weeks, June 21, 2021 - July 23, 2021
  • Application Deadline: March 10, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be all online for summer 2021

Stanford Anesthesia Summer Institute: Medical Internship

At the Anesthesia Summer Institute, participants get valuable hands-on experience via Stanford's School of Medicine over a rigorous two weeks. This institute qualifies as a medical internship and is led by Stanford faculty.

  • Program Cost: $3,999 (scholarships available)
  • Program Length: 2 weeks, July 26, 2021 - August 6, 2021
  • Application Deadline: March 19, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be all online for summer 2021

Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program

This eight-week summer program gives students a rich opportunity to conduct medical research with Stanford faculty, graduate students, and peers. Participants also receive a stipend for their work (minimum of $500).

  • Program Cost: Free to admitted applicants ($40 application fee, waivers available)
  • Program Length: 8 weeks
  • Application Deadline: N/A
  • Online/in-person: Cancelled for summer 2021

Clinical Neuroscience Immersion Experience at Stanford

Over a period of two weeks, participants in Stanford's Clinical Neuroscience Immersion Experience get a rich introduction to neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology through seminars and collaborative learning. Students complete a capstone project at the end of the program.

  • Program Length: 2 weeks, 3 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 14 - 25
    • Session 2: June 28 - July 9
    • Session 3: July 12 - July 23
  • Application Deadline: February 15, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Stanford Pre-Collegiate University-Level Online Math & Physics

High school students with a passion for math and science can take online advanced courses through Stanford for college credit this summer. Choose from 13 courses ranging from Multivariable Calculus to Light and Heat. Open to 9th through 12th graders.

  • Program Cost: $1,500 per course ($35 application fee) // financial aid available
  • Program Length: June 21, 2021 - August 15, 2021
  • Application Deadline: June 7, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online

Stanford AI4ALL

This summer program, open only to 9th graders, aims to increase representation in the world of artificial intelligence. Through AI4ALL, participants experience hands-on learning in a vibrant peer community and take a deep dive into AI's power to make the world a better place.

  • Program Cost: $2,000 (financial aid available)
  • Program Length: June 28 -July 16, 2021
  • Application Deadline: March 29, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online for 2021

Download PrepMaven's 2021 Summer Calendar

High school students have a lot to choose from when it comes to Stanford summer programs this 2021.

That's why we created PrepMaven's Summer Calendar, which compiles competitive summer programs for high school students in one easy-to-use spreadsheet.

Here's what you'll get:

  • An organized list of Stanford Summer Programs for 2021
  • Additional summer programs for 2021, including NYU and Princeton summer programs
  • Session start and end dates
  • Relevant links


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


NYU Summer Programs 2021_Your Complete List

NYU Summer Programs for High School Students

NYU Summer Programs for High School Students

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's 2021 Summer Calendar

NYU has a wide variety of summer programs for high school students, especially those looking to deepen their interests in the arts, engineering, media, language, and scholarship.

We’ve compiled all of the current NYU summer programs for high schoolers (2021) in this post, including application and session details. We’ve organized these 20+ programs by the following interests:

  • Pre-College
  • Arts & Humanities
  • STEM
  • Other Summer Programs

You’ll also find information about NYU academic year programs and NYU middle school summer programs at the end of this post.

If you’re eager for more, students and parents are welcome to attend virtual information sessions for high school summer programs at NYU or request more information.

We've also added NYU's summer programs to our Summer 2021 Calendar, a growing list of summer programs for competitive college applicants in one easy-to-use spreadsheet. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover:


NYU Summer Programs for High School Students: Pre-College

There are currently 4 summer programs at NYU that emphasize pre-college or pre-professional skills:

  1. NYU Pre-College
  2. High School Academy - Career Edge
  3. NYU CALI
  4. High School Academy - Aspire

NYU Pre-College Summer Program

With NYU Pre-College, 10th and 11th graders essentially become NYU students for a six-week period over the summer. Participants earn college credits (two classes' worth), connect with NYU faculty and students, and get oriented for college!

Students also have the option to attend the following as NYU Pre-College participants

  • A non-credit College Writing Workshop led by NYU faculty to learn college writing skills, including research
  • College 101 workshop series
  • Other special summer programs (Summer Journalism @ NYU, and Summer @ Stern)
  • Other events and activities with the NYU pre-college community

Here are some other important program details:

  • Program Cost: $5,000-$15,000
  • Program Length: 6 weeks, July 5 - August 13
  • Regular Application Deadline: June 24, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be all online for summer 2021

Scholarships are available -- the deadline to apply for one is April 1, 2021.

NYU High School Academy - Career Edge

With Career Edge, high school students can get ready for college and get a taste for the professional world through one-week summer intensives at NYU. Participants have the chance to explore possible career paths and get a feel for life as a college student on campus.

  • Program Cost: $1,495
  • Program Length: 1 week, 4 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 28 - July 2
    • Session 2: July 12 - 16
    • Session 3: July 19 - 23
    • Session 4: July 26 - July 30
  • Regular Application Deadline: June 11, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be all online for summer 2021

NYU College Access Leadership Institute (CALI)

The NYU College Access Leadership Institute offers high school students a week-long summer intensive that demystifies the components of the college admissions process.

CALI is led by NYU admissions officers, and it gives 10th and 11th graders thorough insight into building a college list, standardized tests, college essay writing, and more. CALI participants also can apply to NYU as seniors for free!

Here are some other important program details:

  • Program Cost: Free to accepted applicants
  • Program Length: 1 week, July 12-16
  • Regular Application Deadline: April 5, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

NYU High School Academy - Aspire

Current sophomores enrolled in a New York City high school are eligible to apply for the NYU High School Academy Aspire program, which prepares students from underrepresented communities to become first-generation college students.

Accepted participants take part in a one-week summer intensive and then receive 2 years of college mentoring in support.

  • Program Cost: Free (full scholarship awarded to accepted applicants)
  • Program Length: 1 week each summer (August 1-6) // 2 years of support
  • Priority Application Deadline: March 1, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be remote for summer 2021

NYU Summer Programs for High School Students: Arts & Humanities

There are currently 7 options for high school students wishing to pursue an NYU arts summer program:

  1. Tisch School of the Arts Summer Residential
  2. Filmmakers Workshop 
  3. Screenwriters Workshop
  4. Music and Performing Arts Professions (MPAP)
  5. NYU High School Summer Art Intensive
  6. NYU Virtual Art Program
  7. Urban Journalism Workshop

The Summer Residential

High school students who participate in the Tisch School of the Arts Summer Residential have a fantastic opportunity to earn actual credits while exploring a wide range of arts over four weeks:

  • Acting
  • Dance
  • Design
  • Dramatic writing
  • Filmmaking
  • Game Design
  • Photography and imaging
  • Production and design
  • Recorded music

The Summer Residential is based on Tisch undergraduate curriculum and culminates in 4-6 college credits. It's open to 10th and 11th graders.

Here are some important program details:

  • Program Cost: $12,000-$13,000
  • Program Length: 4 weeks
  • Regular Application Deadline: Now Closed
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Online Filmmakers Workshop

Are you an aspiring filmmaker? You won't want to miss the Tisch School of the Arts Online Filmmakers Workshop, which gives high school students a chance to experience aspects of the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television degree program over a 6-week period.

Participants do earn credit for the work they complete, and this workshop is open to 9th-12th graders.

  • Program Cost: $6,868
  • Program Length: 6 weeks, July 11 - August 7
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 14, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Online Screenwriters Workshop

Screenwriters, unite! With this workshop through Tisch, participants learn screenwriting fundamentals and create a short screenplay under the direction of Tisch faculty. 9th-12th graders earn credit for the work they complete over this six-week workshop.

  • Program Cost: $6,868
  • Program Length: 6 weeks, July 11 - August 7
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 14, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Music and Performing Arts Professions (MPAP)

High school students who are passionate about music and/or the performing arts will find a lot to choose from through MPAP, summer programs offered by NYU Steinhardt. From piano to music technology intensives, there's something for every performer.

Find the full list of options, including which programs are currently operating, here.

  • Program Cost: $1,200 - $5,000
  • Program Length: 1 week, 2 week, 3 week, or 4 week
  • Regular Application Deadline: Depends on specific program
  • Online/in-person: Depends on specific program

NYU High School Summer Art Intensive

Participants in the NYU High School Summer Art Intensive will get a taste for what it's like to be an NYU art student over a period of 4 weeks in the summer. Sign up for studio and non-studio art courses (non-credit), and enhance your creative skills through an immersive campus experience.

For 2021, this intensive will be replaced by the NYU Virtual Art Program.

  • Program Cost: $6,200
  • Program Length: 4 weeks
  • Regular Application Deadline: N/A
  • Online/in-person: Replaced by NYU Virtual Art Program 2021

NYU Virtual Art Program

Very similar to the NYU Summer Art Intensive, this virtual program gives aspiring artists the chance to take three core classes and two elective classes led by NYU faculty and graduates of the Art and Art Professions Department, all online.

  • Program Cost: $3,000
  • Program Length: 4 weeks, July 5 - 31
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 1, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online

Urban Journalism Workshop

Aspiring journalists have the opportunity to participate in a rigorous boot-camp over 10 days in the company of 20 other high school students. During the NYU Urban Journalism Workshop, you'll receive NYU faculty instruction, produce your own stories, and gain valuable insight into the college admissions process.

  • Program Cost: Free to admitted applicants
  • Program Length: 10 days, July 19-28
  • Regular Application Deadline: April 26, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online and in-person mix for 2021

NYU Summer Programs for High School Students: STEM

High school students have 9 STEM-related summer programs to choose from at NYU for 2021.

  1. ARISE
  2. NYU GSTEM
  3. Science and Technology Entry Program
  4. Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences Summer Math Program for Young Scholars
  5. Coding for Game Design
  6. Machine Learning (Tandon)
  7. XR Through Virtual Worlds (Tandon)
  8. Connected Devices (Tandon)
  9. Computer Science for Cybersecurity (Tandon)

Applied Research Innovations in Science and Engineering (ARISE)

ARISE caters to academically motivated students in the STEM field from underrepresented communities, giving participants an immersive experience in the world of civil and urban engineering, robotics, and mechanical and electrical engineering. Students also receive college admissions guidance and a stipend for completing the program.

  • Program Cost: Free to admitted applicants
  • Program Length: 7 weeks, June 25 - August 15, 2021
  • Regular Application Deadline: March 1, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online and in-person mix for 2021

NYU GSTEM

Looking to take a deep dive into STEM in an inclusive environment? NYU GSTEM allows students historically underrepresented in the sciences to work alongside researchers and develop skillsets and a peer network they need to succeed in a future STEM-based career path.

  • Program Cost: $3,250
  • Program Length: 6 weeks, July 6 - August 13, 2021
  • Regular Application Deadline: April 15, 2021
  • Online/in-person: In person for 2021

Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP)

NYC high school students seeking a pre-college STEM-based enrichment program shouldn't overlook STEP, designed to encourage historically underrepresented minority groups in STEM-related fields. STEP includes both academic year and summer sessions.

  • Program Cost: $350 (waivers available)
  • Program Length: 5 weeks, July 6 - August 5, 2021
  • Regular Application Deadline: March 5, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences Summer Math Program for Young Scholars

With NYU's Summer Math Program for Young Scholars, participants have a chance to experience college-level math, graph theory, combinatorics, and other concepts with academically motivated peers.

  • Program Cost: $1,000 (financial aid available)
  • Program Length: 3 weeks, August 9 - 27, 2021
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 1, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Coding for Game Design

NYU's Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education (CREATE) brings aspiring game designers a 2-week coding summer program at NYU. Participants learn about Unity, game design principles, and how to code their own games. This is a non-credit summer program.

  • Program Cost: $2,400
  • Program Length: 2 weeks, 3 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 21 - July 2
    • Session 2: July 12 - 23
    • Session 3: August 2 - 13
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 31, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online

Machine Learning Program (Tandon)

High school students passionate about machine learning have the opportunity to deepen their interest and skill set through the Tandon School's Machine Learning non-credit summer program. Experience over 50 instructional hours delivered by NYU Tandon School of Engineering faculty and graduate students.

This program is designed for "academically prepared, highly motivated" students who have successfully completed Algebra 2 or an equivalent course.

  • Program Cost: $2,000
  • Program Length: 2 weeks, 3 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 21 - July 2
    • Session 2: July 12 - 23 
    • Session 3: August 2 - August 13
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 25, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online

XR Through Virtual Worlds (Tandon)

With the Tandon School of Engineer's XR Through Virtual Worlds summer program, high school students take a deep dive into the realm of augmented reality. Learn what it takes to become an AR storyteller through over 50 non-credit instructional hours delivered by NYU faculty and graduate students.

  • Program Cost: $2,000
  • Program Length: 2 weeks, 3 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 21 - July 2
    • Session 2: July 12 - 23 
    • Session 3: August 2 - August 13
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 25, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Connected Devices (Tandon)

The third Tandon School summer program offering is Connected Devices, participants learn what it takes to build a device connected to the internet. Open to 8th through 11th graders, this program is suited for academically driven, highly motivated students curious about the Internet of Things revolution.

  • Program Cost: $2,000
  • Program Length: 2 weeks, 3 sessions to choose from
    • Session 1: June 21 - July 2
    • Session 2: July 12 - 23 
    • Session 3: August 2 - August 13
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 25, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

Tandon School's Computer Science for Cybersecurity (CS4CS)

At CS4CS, high school students gain a solid introduction to cybersecurity and computer science. This program is designed to empower young engineers who have historically faced underrepresentation in STEM sciences.

  • Program Cost: Free to admitted applicants
  • Program Length: 3 weeks, July 12 - July 30, 2021
  • Regular Application Deadline: April 12, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Will be online for summer 2021

NYU Summer Programs: Other

There are two other NYU summer programs students might want to consider, depending on their interests:

  1. Mastering English
  2. Bronfam Center for Jewish Student Life: Summer Excelerator 

Mastering English Program

Hone your English skills with NYU's Mastering English Program, which offers participants three non-credit courses of instruction in relevant content areas: global business, career pathways to international organizations, and storytelling and social media.

  • Program Cost: $2,000 - $5,000
  • Program Length: 3 weeks, July 26 - August 13, 2021

Bronfam Center for Jewish Student Life: Summer Excelerator

10th-12th graders experience a unique internship and leadership development program with the Bronfam Summer Excelerator. Acquire entrepreneurial skills and professional experience to bolster your resume and build a robust peer network.

  • Program Cost: $2,000
  • Program Length: 6 weeks, August 9 - 27, 2021
  • Regular Application Deadline: May 1, 2021
  • Online/in-person: Online and in-person mix for 2021

NYU Summer Programs for Middle School Students

Middle school students have a chance to experience NYU through the following summer programs:

NYU Academic Year Programs

High school students can also experience aspects of NYU during the academic year. Here’s a list of NYU academic year programs for high schoolers:

Download PrepMaven's 2021 Summer Calendar

High school students have a lot to choose from when it comes to NYU summer programs this 2021. That's why we created PrepMaven's FREE Summer Calendar, which compiles competitive summer programs for high school students in one easy-to-use spreadsheet.

Here's what you'll get:

  • An organized list of NYU Summer Programs for 2021
  • Additional summer programs for 2021, including Princeton summer programs
  • Session start and end dates
  • Relevant links


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


High School Extracurricular Activities_Examples & Advice_PrepMaven

500+ Extracurricular Activities & Examples for High School Students

500+ Examples of Extracurricular Activities for High School Students

Bonus Material: Extracurricular Activities Worksheet

Extracurricular activities are an essential component of competitive college applications.

When college admissions officers read your application, they're generally on the lookout for three things:

  1. Character & Personal Qualities
  2. Academic Achievement
  3. Extracurricular Distinction

Many of our students and ask us how they can achieve extracurricular distinction.

What extracurricular activities should they pursue? And how do they earn distinction within a specific activity?

To answer these questions, we like to start by first defining what actually counts as an extracurricular activity (hint: more than you might realize!).

Then we point students to this list of 500+ examples of activities worth pursuing within the categories that appear on the Common Application.

We also give readers access to our Extracurricular Activities Worksheet. This is a valuable FREE resource for students needing extra guidance in choosing activities likely to suit their interests and lead to a solid college application. Grab this below.

Here's what we cover:


What Are Extracurricular Activities?

Extracurricular activities can seem pretty straightforward. Aren't they just activities you pursue outside of the classroom?

Generally speaking, yes.

But extracurricular activities aren't limited to what your school offers. Nor do they have to be associated with a specific program or organization. They can be much broader than that.

Here is how the Common App, the platform many students use to apply to college, defines an extracurricular activity:

To reiterate, an extracurricular activity can be:

  • A personal pursuit, interest, or hobby
  • Athletics
  • School-based (or related)
  • Community-based (or related)
  • Online-based
  • Employment
  • Family-related and
  • Anything else that has been meaningful to you!

Extracurricular activities can be associated with clubs, organizations, programs, teams, or other groups. They can be entirely independent. They can also be activities that you start or initiate outside of your usual classroom obligations as a high school student.

So what's the secret?

Consistency.

We define an extracurricular activity as one you pursue outside of the classroom in a consistent fashion.

We like to add that particularly rich extracurricular activities from a college admissions standpoint often have at least one of the following qualities. These activities

  • Build or maintain specific skills
  • Prepare you for a future career
  • Demonstrate your interest or passion
  • Provide relevant context
  • Say something about you and what you care about and/or
  • Have impact of some kind (on you personally, others, or your community)

How We've Organized Our 500+ Examples of Extracurricular Activities

The Common App requires applicants to categorize each of their activities when reporting them. They also ask other questions about your role within an activity, organization name(s), and recognition or achievement.

Here are the categories the Common App uses to organize extracurricular activities:

We've organized our list of extracurricular activities below according to these Common App categories.

We want to emphasize that this list is not exhaustive! But it is an excellent resource for students looking for the kinds of activities likely to make their applications more competitive.

That's why we also strongly encourage readers to download our Extracurricular Activities Worksheet, a self-guided worksheet that helps students choose and plan the right activities for their time in high school.


500+ Examples of (Awesome) Extracurricular Activities for High School Students

Academic Activities

Academic activities include any programs, groups, or activities that have a strictly academic focus. These include college courses and programs, honor societies, school clubs, competitions or contests, and other academic programs or interests.

Type Examples
College
Course
or Early
College
Program
Princeton University courses for high school students
Community College Courses
Honor
Society
Quill and Scroll
National Business Honor Society
National Honor Society
National Society of High School Scholars
National English Honor Society
Math Honor Society
Club Young Architects Club
Literature Club
Local Amateur Astronomy Club
Junior Economic Club
ChemClub
Biology Club
Engineering Club
National History Club
Science Club
Math Club
Physics Club
Psychology Club
Coding Club
Computer Science Club
Art History Club
Shakespeare Club
American History Club
Creative Writing Club
Competition
or contest
National Academic Quiz Tournaments
National Science Bowl
International Mathematical Olympiad
American Mathematics Competitions
Academic Decathlon
Academic Triathlon
American Regions Mathematics League
Brain Bee
Caribou Contests
U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad
CSTL Clean Tech Competition
C-SPAN StudentCam Competition
Rube Goldberg Machine Contest
National Economics Challenge
Institute of Competition Sciences
Kids Philosophy Slam
Math League
Modeling the Future Challenge
Imagine Cup
National Academic League
National Geographic GeoBee
National Geographic GeoChallenge
Regeneron Science & Engineering Fair
National History Bee & Bowl
National Ocean Sciences Bowl
Scripps National Spelling Bee
Science Olympiad
School Innovation Challenge
School Bee
Science Fair
Other Math/Science Competition
Other Academic Competition/Contest
Program Academic Summer Program
Pre-College Program
Odyssey of the Mind
Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA)
Junior Academy of Science
Youth Entrepreneurs
Educators Rising
National Student Leadership Conference
Mock Trial
Other Peer Academic Tutoring
Peer ESL Tutoring
Peer Test Prep Tutoring

Art

Art activities include any personal interests, hobbies, clubs, groups, programs, or competitions/contests with an artistic or creative emphasis.

Type Examples
Personal
Interest
Photography
Visual Arts
Podcasting
YouTube Channel
Anime/Manga
Animation
Drawing/Sketching
Oil Painting
Acrylic Painting
Watercoloring
Textiles
Weaving
Blogging
Embroidery
Quilting / Sewing
Crocheting
Knitting
3D Art (Sculpture, Ceramics, Pottery)
Stenciling
Puppetry
Performance Art
Encaustics
Food Blog
Jewelry making
Fashion magazine or blog
Graphic Design
School Poster/Banner Design
Mixed Media Art
Metalworking
Carpentry
Screen printing or printmaking
Woodworking
Culinary arts
Candle-making
Cartooning
Scrapbooking
Graphic Novel Writing
Creative Writing
Poetry
Spoken Word
Videography
School or local web design
School or local radio station
Personal website or blog
School or local T.V. channel
Club Art Club
Film Club
Yearbook Committee
Anime/Manga Club
Photography Club
Creative Writing Club
Visual Arts Club
Podcasting Club
Watercolor Club
Classic Film Club
Poetry Club
Book Club
Fashion Club
Graphic Novel Club
Young Writers Group (online)
Young Artists Group (online)
Shakespeare Club
Science Fiction Club
Media Club
Arts & Crafts Club
Program National Art Honor Society
Local Arts Workshop
Local Writing Workshop
Arts Conference
Art-based Summer Program
Writing Summer Workshop
Young Writers Conference
Young Writers Workshop
Young Artists Exhibition
College-level Art Course
College-level Creative Writing Course
Competition
or Contest
Competitions for Young Writers
Competitions for Young Artists
Local Art Contests
Local Writing Contests
Film Festival Entrant
NaNoWriMo
Poetry Out Loud
Teen Poetry Slam
Bennington Young Writers Awards
Congressional Art Competition

Athletics

Athletics include personal interest, club, intramural, team, and JV/Varsity sports and athletic pursuits.

Type Examples
Club or
Program
Yoga Club
Equestrian Club
Hiking Club
Skateboard Club
Ultimate Frisbee Club
Club Swimming
Fencing Club
Martial Arts Club
Cycling Club
Ping Pong Club
Tai Chi Club
Quidditch Club
Intramural Sports
Cycling Club
Rock Climbing Club
Running Club
Marathon
Triathlon
Iron Man
Half Marathon
JV
Varsity
Pickleball
Cycling Team
Bodybuilding
Fencing
Martial Arts
Badminton
Baseball
Basketball
Cheerleading
Cross Country
Dance Team
Field Hockey
Flag Football
Football
Golf
Gymnastics
Hockey
Indoor Track & Field
Lacrosse
Soccer
Softball
Slow Pitch Softball
Surfing
Swimming & Diving
Tennis
Track & Field
Volleyball
Water Polo
Weightlifting
Wrestling
Ultimate Frisbee
Competitive Snowboarding
Competitive Skiing
Ice Hockey
Equestrian Team
Bowling

Career-Oriented Activities

Career-oriented activities emphasize professional skills and/or job preparation , often within a specific field. They can be clubs, programs, groups, or other activities.

Type Examples
Club Future Pharmacists Club
Future Doctors Club
Future Scientists Club
National Beta Club
Future Architects Club
Economics Club
Future Educators of America Club
Entrepreneurship Club
Future Investors Club
Investment Club
Young Artists Club
Stock Market Club
Wall Street Club
Program Youth Apprenticeship Program
Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA)
HOSA Future Health Professionals
Medical Explorers
Nursing Students Association
Society of Women Engineers
Leadership Summit
Mock Trial
Model United Nations
SkillsUSA
Pre-Med Summer Program
Forensics Team
Future Business Leaders of America
Business Professionals of America
Other career skills development program
Other School Store or Marketplace
Teacher's assistant / Classroom Aid
Assistant Coach
Job Shadowing
Peer Leadership Group
Mentorship Group

Community Service (Volunteer)

Community service or volunteering activities are any that involve offering your time to others without compensation. They can be clubs, programs, or self-directed activities, and these can be school-based, community-based, or organization-based.

Type Examples
Club Key Club
4H
Boy Scouts
Girl Scouts
Leo Club
Red Cross Club
UNICEF High School Clubs
Service Club
Program or
Organization
The Mountaineers
Big Brothers Big Sisters
Doctors Without Borders
Breast Cancer Awareness
Cancer Foundation
International Volunteer Program
Volunteer Fire Department
Adopt-a-Highway
Best Buddies
Special Olympics
Community Literacy Program
Litter Reduction Program
Make A Wish Foundation
Juntos Collective
Do Something
RAINN
Habitat for Humanity
Kids Helping Kids
Other or
Self-Directed
Community Garden
Volunteering at a local prison
Horse therapy
Working with disabled individuals
ESL Tutoring
Peer Tutoring / Mentoring
Children's hospital work
Local Hospital Work
Volunteering at a Wildlife Refuge
Local Conservation Work
Local charity fundraiser or event
Sexual Health Education
Local Animal Shelter
Missionary work
Church outreach
Community Soup Kitchen
Local Homeless Shelter
Local Nursing Home
Local Domestic Violence Shelter or Prevention Organization
Assisting the Elderly

Computer/Technology Activities

Computer/technology activities can be clubs, programs, groups, competitions, or personal interests that have an emphasis on computers and/or technology.

Type Examples
Club Coding Club
Young Hackers Club
Computer Science Club
Young Computer Scientists Club
Program Computer Science College Course
Computer Science Summer Program
IT Non-Profit
Coding Camp
Competition Coding Challenge
Hackathon
American Computer Science League
Imagine Cup
Other Website Development
App Development
Video Game Development
Theatre Tech (Lighting and/or Sound)
Computer literacy
School IT Support
Computer building

Dance

Dance activities are clubs, teams, hobbies, competitions, programs, or events that involve some form of dance or movement.

Type Examples
Club,
Team,
or Hobby
Hip Hop
Jazz Dance
Irish Dance
Contemporary / Modern Dance
Latin Dance
Interpretive Dance
Swing Dance
African, West Indian, African-American Dance
Ceremonial Dance
Tap Dance
Classical Dance
Cultural Dance
Ballroom Dance
Ballet
Other form of dance
Competition Dance competition (local)
Dance competition (national)
Dance competition (international)
Other Choreography
Dance Therapy
Juntos Collective
College-level Dance Course
Community Dance Program, Team, or Event

Debate/Speech

Debate/Speech activities include clubs, teams, competitions or contests, personal interests, or other programs that have an emphasis on debate, speech, or speaking.

Type Examples
Club or
Team
Speech and Debate Team
National Forensics League
Debate Club
Rhetoric Club
Young Orators of America
Personal
Interest
Speechwriting
Essay writing
Competition
or Contest
American Legion Oratorical Contest
Local Debate Competition
National Debate Competition

Environmental

Environmental activities emphasize anything related to the environment, often in the context of protecting, supporting, or understanding it. They can be clubs, programs, contests, personal interests, or other activities.

Type Examples
Club EcoClub
Environmental Club
Fair Trade Club
Recycling Club
Sustainability Club
Zero Waste Club
Program The Mountaineers
Sustainable Food Program
UCLA GreenSparks
Sustainable Summer
Environmental Science and Sustainability Program
Stanford Earth Young Investigators
Brown Environmental Leadership Lab
Forestry Summer Camp or Program
Environmental Science Summer Camp
Young Reporters for the Environment
Contest NCF-Envirothon
Carton 2 Garden Contest
National Recreation Trails Photo Contest
Other Local Conservation Work
Zero Waste Challenge
Trail Maintenance or Building
Permaculture
Gardening / Horticulture
Community Garden
Green Schools Initiative
Climate Change Activism

Family Responsibilities

Family responsibilities entail any obligations or duties specific to you within your family. We recognize that every family situation is unique and has its own set of responsibilities, so this list is by no means exhaustive.

  • Childcare/babysitting of siblings or relatives
  • Care of a family member with a disability
  • Care of a family member with terminal illness
  • Care of a family member with a medical condition
  • Care of an elderly relative
  • Assisting a single parent
  • Employment to support family
  • Religious obligations

Culture & Foreign Language Activities

Cultural and foreign language activities focus on a specific culture, language, and/or cultural practice, and can involve clubs, student-led groups, study abroad programs, and others.

Type Examples
Club Spanish Club
French Club
German Club
Japanese Club
Portuguese Club
American Sign Language Club
Chinese Club
Latin Club
Pacific Islanders Club
Russian Club
South Asian Student Society
Latino/a Students’ Association
Muslim Students’ Association
Greek Club
Foreign Language Club
Endangered Languages Club
International Food Club
Black Students' Union
BIPOC Students' Union
Asian Students' Union
Program Foreign Exchange or Study Abroad Program
Language-Based Summer Program
Other Foreign Language Contest, such as the National French Contest
Latin Honor Society
Student Diplomacy Corps
Cultural Dance
Tutoring students in a foreign language
Teaching English as a Second Language

Internship

Internships give high school students a period of (typically unpaid) work experience, often within an organization. The sky truly is the limit when it comes to possible internships for high school students. We've included a sampling of what's out there below.

  • Internship at local hospital
  • Job shadow internship
  • Laboratory internship
  • Law firm / legal internship
  • Healthcare internship
  • Media internship (newspaper, magazine, T.V., publication)
  • Anthropology internship
  • Environmental / Sustainability internship
  • Political science internship (campaign work, for example)
  • Community health internship
  • Theatre/drama internship
  • Research-based internship
  • Artist internship
  • Non-profit sector internship
  • Teacher's assistantship / internship
  • Other internship

Journalism/Publication

Journalism and publication activities are any related to the world of publishing and journalistic writing. They can be a school-led club or group, like the school newspaper, program, internship, or other activity. They can also involve actual publications of your writing in any genre, including scientific research and creative works.

Type Examples
Club or
Group
School Newspaper
Journalism Club
School Literary Journal
School Magazine
School E-Zine
Other Journalism internship
Publication (i.e., article, story, poem, etc.)
Local/Community Newspaper
Community or National Literary Journal
Young Journalists Competitions

Junior ROTC

A federal program, the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) introduces high school students to military customs, elements of leadership, and much more. We've also included other military-related extracurricular activities below.

LGBTQ+ Activities

LGBTQ+ activities are any that are related to the LGBTQ+ community and/or its rights and interests. They can be clubs, programs, acts of service, or other groups, and can also involve advocacy efforts.

Type Examples
Club LGBTQ+ Club
Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA)
Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA)
Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA)
Diversity Club
Pride Student Union
Queer Book Club
Queer Filmmakers Club
Queer Fashion Club
Queer Podcast
Queer Student Athletes
Program or Other Pride March
Pride High School Event or Program
Gender and Sexuality Awareness
Volunteering at an LGBTQ+ Center
Trans Rights Advocacy
LGBTQ+ Youth Peer Support Group
LGBTQ+ Rights Advocacy
Trans Youth Rights Advocacy
Other LGBTQ+ Advocacy, Program, Work, or Activity

Music: Instrumental & Vocal

Music activities are any that involve the practice and/or performance of music, instrumental or vocal. These include hobbies, clubs, groups, programs, and competitions.

Type Examples
Club or
Group
Music Creation and DJ Club
Pep Band
Jazz Band
Church Band
High School Band
Duo, Trio, Quartet, etc.
Other Instrumental Music Group
Music Appreciation Club
High School Orchestra
Community Orchestra or Symphony
Community Band
High School Choir
A capella group
Church Choir
Personal Band or Music Group
Young Composers Club
Program Songwriting Workshop
Music Summer Camp or Program
Tri-M Music Honor Society
Competition Songwriting Competition
District and/or state music festivals
National music festivals
Classical music competition
Vocal competition
Personal
Interest
Personal Instrument
Vocal training / singing lessons
Songwriting
Composing
DJing
Cultural Music
Album or record release
Music Podcast
Recording Studio

Religious

Religious activities are any associated with a religion or faith tradition. They can be school clubs, church groups, or community programs. They can also simply involve any consistent engagement within your church, such as acting as a Sunday School teacher or church greeter.

Type Examples
School
Club
Fellowship of Christian Athletes
Jewish Student Union
School Youth Group or Club
Christian Student Organization (CSO)
Other Church Youth Group
Church Greeter
Church Volunteer
Missionary Work
Church Choir or Band
Church Outreach
Church Mentorship Program
Bible Study
Sunday School Instruction
Study of Religious Text(s)
Assistance in Religious Services

Research

Research activities refer to any that involve dedicated research of a certain subject over a period of time. These can be programs, summer experiences, internships, and independent projects. The sky is the limit when it comes to possible research opportunities for high school students. We've included a sampling of what's out there below.

  • Summer Research Program
  • Independent research project
  • Research for course credit
  • Research-based internship
  • Assisting faculty members with research
  • Personal interest-based research

Robotics

Robotics activities include anything related to the creation, exploration, and/or study of robots and robotic technology. They can be school clubs, programs, competitions, or other activities.

Type Examples
Club Robotics Club
Robotics Team
Program Summer Robotics Program or Camp
Local Robotics Program
Independent robotics project or research
College-level Robotics Course
Competition FIRST Robotics Competition
KISS Institute for Practical Robotics Tournament
BEST Robotics Competition
School Robotics Challenge
Other local or national Robotics Challenge

School Spirit

School spirit activities are any that emphasize support for your school and its student body.

  • Pep Band
  • Campus Tour Guide or Representative
  • Cheerleading
  • Spirit Squad
  • Student Council
  • School Spirit Club
  • Student Event Coordinator
  • Other School Spirit Club, Program, or Event

Social Justice

Social justice activities have an emphasis on fairness and equality, especially for the marginalized. These include clubs, organizations, movement, advocacy efforts, programs, and more.

Type Examples
Club Animal Rights Club
Young Activists Club
Student Union
Organization or
Movement
Amnesty International
Black Lives Matter
Local Immigrant Rights Organization
Students Against Destructive Decisions
National Organization for Women (NOW)
RAINN
Indigenous Peoples Movement
Climate Change Activism
Move for Hunger
Students Against Sexual Assault
LGBTQ+ Rights Advocacy
March for Our Lives
Trans Youth Rights Advocacy
Girls Learn International
National Alliance to End Homelessness
Other Political campaign assistance or advocacy
Domestic violence prevention
Gun violence prevention
Racial equality work
Hunger equality / food scarcity work
Access to healthcare
Anti-racism work
Campus safety
Other activism

Student Government/Politics

Activities in this category are related to political and governing systems, politics, and/or student government. They include clubs, groups, competitions, programs, and much more.

Type Examples
Club or
Group
Teenage Republicans
High School Democrats of America
Student Council
Student Body Government
Community Government
School Board Representation
Young Democrats of America
Competition Euro Challenge
Virtual Supreme Court Competition
American Legion Oratorical Contest
American Foreign Service National High School Essay Contest
Program Running Start
Mock Trial
Model United Nations

Theatre/Drama

Theatre and drama activities emphasize performance and all of its genres, aspects, and forms. They include clubs, programs, events, competitions, and personal interests.

Type Examples
Club High School Drama Troupe or Club
Comedy or Improv Troupe or Club
Dungeons and Dragons Club
Film Production Club
International Thespian Society
Program Community Theatre Program
Community Theatre Workshop or Summer Camp
Renaissance Faires
Historical Reenactment Program
College-level Drama Course
Other/
Personal
Interest
Musical Theatre
Musical Theatre Songwriting
Community Theatre
LARPing (Live Action Role Playing)
Independent film-making
Set building
Stage management
Directing
Theatre tech (light and/or sound)
Screenwriting
Playwriting
Standup comedy

Work (Paid)

Paid work refers to any employment for which you are financially compensated over a period of time. There are many different kinds of employment opportunities out there for young people, so this list is not finite.

  • Yard or landscaping work
  • Housesitting
  • Camp counselor or assistant
  • Service industry work (restaurant, café, etc.)
  • Administrative work (receptionist, office assistant)
  • Assistantship
  • Paid internship
  • Paid research
  • Child care
  • Construction work
  • Grocery store clerk
  • Retail position
  • Copyediting or writing
  • Graphic Design
  • Other paid work

Other Club or Activity

You might encounter extracurricular activities that don't fall under the Common App's categories.

Some examples include:

  • Meditation Club
  • Health and Wellness Club
  • Mental Health Advocacy
  • Chess Club or Chess Competition
  • Horticulture or Gardening Club
  • National Model Railroad Association
  • Other Special Interest Club or Hobby

How to Choose Extracurricular Activities

With so many options to choose from, how do you make sure you're picking the right activities for your interests? What's more, how should students plan their activities so that they can have a competitive college application?

We've got some great advice for choosing the best extracurricular activities for you and your college aspirations. You can find all of this advice in our self-guided Extracurricular Activities Worksheet, which you can download for free!

Here's what you'll get:

  • Simple and effective exercises
  • Insight into what's important to you
  • Questions designed to help you choose meaningful activities
  • A copy of the 500+ activities in this post


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.



Admission Movie with Tina Fey

How Colleges Read Your Application: A 4 Step Process

How Selective Colleges Read Your Application

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Do you know what happens after you submit your application?

In our post What College Admissions Officers Look For, we took a high-level look at what colleges look for in students.

In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into how they actually read and process your application.

We'll focus mostly on the mechanics and structure of the admissions reading process at selective schools like Princeton, NYU, Stanford, and Vanderbilt.  

Here's what we cover:


What Data Did We Use?

Many parents are surprised when we explain that a lot of information about the admissions process is publicly available. Like burger chain In & Out's "secret" menu, much of the process is not so secretive anymore!

For example:

  • Many former Ivy League admissions officers have written books and articles revealing the “secrets” of the college admissions process
  • NYU admissions officers share their experiences on an official school blog
  • New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg was given behind-the-scenes access of the admissions process at Wesleyan University and wrote a book about it
  • Lawsuits against schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University claiming discrimination in the admissions process have produced detailed, publicly available information about the admissions process at those schools

For this article, we reviewed the above sources (and many more) to dig into the admissions process at several schools, including:

  • Dartmouth College
  • Duke University
  • Hamilton College
  • Harvard University
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Wesleyan University

Note: These sources were published between 2002 to 2017. While certain details might now be different, the overall process should not have changed much.


The College Admissions Reading Process

The Admissions Reading Process

Each college has its own specific way of judging applicants. The general admissions process of the schools we researched, however, is remarkably similar!

Selective admissions processes typically follow these four steps:

  1.  Screen & Sort - organizing the apps and sending them to the appropriate admissions officer
  2.  Individual Reads - one, two, three, or more individual reads to form initial impressions
  3.  Committee - deliberation of applications among a group
  4.  Final Decision - the lucky few are selected, financial aid packages are created, and acceptance letters are mailed out

We'll take a deep dive into each of these steps next.


Step #1: Screen and Sort

Screen & Sort

Selective schools can receive upwards of tens of thousands of applications! Take a look at this table to see the stats for 2020.

2020 Applications and Admittances

University Applications Admitted
Princeton Logo Princeton University 32,835 1,848 5.6%
Harvard Shield Harvard University 40,248 2,015 5%
UChicago Shield University of Chicago 34,372 2,511 7.3%
Yale Shield Yale University 35,220 2,304 6.5%
Columbia Shield Columbia University 40,084 2,544 6.3%
Stanford Logo Stanford University 45,227 2,349 5.1%
MIT Logo Massachusetts Institute of Technology 20,075 1,457 7.2%
Duke Logo Duke University 36,252 2,170 6.0%
UPenn Logo University of Pennsylvania 44,205 3,789 9.0%
Johns Hopkins Shield Johns Hopkins University 27,256 1,922 7.0%

The first part of the admissions process is getting organized! This usually means sorting and sending applications to the appropriate regional team.

Admissions officers are often assigned to a geographic region. In addition to reading applications from their region, they are also responsible for recruiting students and getting to know the local high schools and guidance counselors.

Numerical Scoring

Numerical scores are sometimes calculated for each applicant. This is simply an attempt to incorporate some sort of organization and scientific rigor into a very qualitative process.

  • Numerical RatingsHamilton, for example, uses one overall score on a 9 point scale for their “Applicant Rating”
  • Princeton assigns Academic and Non-Academic ratings on a 5 point scale (1 is the highest rating, 5 is the lowest). They also have a rating for "Institutional Priority."
  • Stanford gives scores in multiple categories: Tests, High School Records, Letters of Recommendation, Non-Academic, Support (Letters of Recommendation), Non-Academic, Self-Presentation and Intellectual Vitality

How are these scores generated?

Depending on the school, a staff member or regional coordinator may scan the application and apply the initial scores before the first read, initial readers may be responsible for generating this score, or the scores may be computed automatically by a computer system.

The Academic Index for Recruited Athletes

If you are a recruited athlete in the Ivy League (and increasingly in other schools as well), you are also assigned an Academic Index. This is calculated based on standardized test scores and high school GPA. Academic Indexes range from around 170 to 240.

The purpose of the Academic Index, or AI, is to ensure that:

  1. Every recruited athlete meets a minimum AI of at least 176
  2. The academic credentials of recruited athletes is no more than 1 standard deviation below that of the rest of the student body

Ivy League institutions have agreed to uphold these standards to keep the athletic playing field competitive while maintaining high academic standards. Just like the other ratings used in college admissions, a high AI is great, but it won't guarantee admission.


Step #2: Individual Reads

Individual Reads

First Read

1st Read

The main job of the first reader is to pass an initial, fair judgment on a new application.

First readers have varying levels of experience. Some are hired part-time to supplement the admissions team. Some are fresh out of college.

Immediately after graduation, my college roommate served as an admissions officer for Princeton University, responsible for first reads in his region. This was his first job, and he was 22 years old when he started.

After the first read, which often takes less than 10 minutes, an initial idea of how competitive the candidate is forms. In some cases, the first reader assigns a written recommendation of Accept, Deny, Likely, or Unlikely (or some other variation).

The first reader is sometimes responsible for creating an application summary card and creating detailed notes for each application.

Application Summary & Notes

Reader Card

The application summary card lists key details about the applicant. Admissions officers are responsible for reading thousands of applications over the course of several months and will often review an application file at various times, so summary cards are essential for allowing a quick scan of an application and refreshing their memories.

Note-taking is also essential. Admissions officers often take important notes on a card that follows the application from officer to officer and ultimately to committee. Nowadays, physical reader cards might be replaced with digitized versions, but the idea is the same.

If the application goes to committee, the first reader may be responsible for presenting/summarizing the application to the committee group and advocating for the applicant.

Second and Third Reads

2nd and 3rd Reads

Some schools (e.g. NYU) will go to committee after the first read. Many other selective schools have two or more reads before the next stage of the process.

Admissions readers and officers go through intensive training to provide standardized and objective judgements. However, they have varying levels of admissions experience and their assessments and opinions might be shaped by their individual backgrounds and preferences.

Or, perhaps the first reader was having a bad day and missed something. Maybe he has more knowledge about science achievements and extracurriculars, while a colleague has broader knowledge about music and athletic achievements.

The second and third read can be thought of as a validation or second opinion for the first read.

This additional perspective is especially helpful for more subjective and difficult to judge scenarios, like these:

  • How do you rate an underrepresented minority at an under-resourced school with a great essay, okay grades, and few extracurriculars because he was working after school?
  • How much do you value the impact of certain “hooks,” like alumni legacies, 1st generation students, exceptional talent, or departmental needs?
  • How do you make subjective judgments about character and personal qualities to determine “fit” for the class?

According to a Dartmouth admissions officer who kept her identity a secret,

Anonymous

“You expect it to be more numbers driven than it is, but the message we always got was to make sure we consider everything else in the application...There's a high degree of subjectivity, at least in the first read, but that's what the second and third read are for. The probability that you get two people in a bad mood is ... lower than the probability that you get one person in a bad mood."

Many schools make sure most applications receive at least two full reads before going to committee.

The second reader will add additional input and notes to the applicant’s file. The second reader often agrees with the comments and recommendations of the first reader but sometimes they will disagree.

Team Reads

The first and second reads (and third reads, etc.) are usually done individually and at home on the admissions officer's own time.

Faced with an increasing number of applications, admissions teams from schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore are implementing a team-based method of reading applications to further streamline the process.

According to the Daily Pennsylvanian:

UPenn Logo

"Under Penn’s new regimen, admissions officers split into teams of two and read one application at the same time in the office. Then they discuss the application together and come to a consensus before passing it along.

After the team of two screens the application, it is given to admission officers responsible for the geographic region where the applicant lives. An exceptional applicant may skip this step and be handed immediately to a selection committee that includes school-based representatives. This committee will make the final decision on a potential acceptance."

Not Everybody Goes to Committee After Individual (or Team) Reads

Some schools can make a decision after the initial reading process without sending the application to committee.

For example:

  • Fast TrackExceptionally strong or exceptionally weak applicants often get ‘fast-tracked’ to the top for a chance at a quick decision
  • Schools with very quantitative admissions processes (e.g. large state schools) can make decisions without significant group deliberation
  • A senior admissions officer may have ultimate discretion to make the final decision after reading the notes and scores from the initial reading process

In The Gatekeepers, which takes an in-depth, behind the scenes view of Wesleyan’s admissions process, New York Times journalist Jacques Steinberg shares his observations and research about the reading process at different schools.

He talks about Stanford’s committee process, or lack of it:

"At Stanford, for example, the officers rarely met as a committee, which meant that the odds of someone sympathetic being able to advocate to the group...are low."

At Wesleyan, when readers arrived at a consensus on an application, the director of admissions would often endorse the choice, forgoing the need for committee deliberation.

"In the main round, in which there would be nearly six thousand applicants, each application would be read by two officers and then sent on to Greg Pyke, the interim director of admissions. If the two readers were in consensus on a decision, Greg would likely endorse the choice. But if there was a split recommendation, he would probably send that application to the committee for consideration during a series of meetings in early March.”

For many schools, however, final decisions are made in Committee, where a group of individuals discuss student applications and pass final judgment.


3. Committee

Committee

Every school has a slightly different committee process, but the overall idea behind committee judgement is similar.

A group of individuals gets together to discuss and decide the fate of your application. The group considers the notes, scores, and recommendations of the initial readers. A discussion ensues and each officer can share their opinion on the fit of the candidate for the school.

Hamilton’s Committee Process: Senior Officer Has Final Say

In Creating A Class, Mitchell L. Stevens describes the Committee process at Hamilton, a selective liberal arts school:

Hamilton College

“The primary form for evaluative storytelling in the office was committee, the weeks-long series of meetings during which officers consider and collectively determine the fate of applications. In contrast to the quiet solitude of reading and rating, storytelling was collaborative and often highly theatrical.”

Admissions officers from the initial reading process use their "pink sheet" (application summary form) and read off key details from the application (grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, essay comments, recommendation letter summaries, family information, initial recommendations for Admit/Defer/Wait List/Deny) to a committee of at least three officers. The Dean or Assistant Dean is present.

After the presentation and a discussion (sometimes debate) between committee members, the most senior officer has final authority over each decision.

At Hamilton, committee evaluations for easier decisions can take 5 minutes, but some cases can take 30 minutes or more.

Wesleyan’s Committee Process: Quick Discussion & Majority Vote

Wesleyan University

In The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg describes the very fast committee process at Wesleyan:

“It was those committee hearings, coming just days before final decisions were due, that provided the most visible drama of the admissions process. In a form of sudden death, each applicant would be discussed by the committee for no more than five minutes, after which a vote would be called...the majority, again, would carry the day."

NYU’s Committee Process: All Applications Debated in Committee

NYU

NYU admissions officer Rebecca Larson describes the committee and final judgment process in the official school admissions blog:

“Our team re-reviews the notes the first reader took on your application. The first reader will discuss your grades, the rigor of your curriculum, extra-curricular involvement, fit for NYU, quality of your essays, and what your teachers/counselor had to say about you. Once we read those notes, the committee discusses what to do with your application. We may vote to admit, deny, wait list, or refer a student to a different program at NYU–there are lots of different outcomes for each application.”

Sometimes committee goes smoothly and other times the group is split between a particular decision. While we all get along well, we will get into arguments over some students. The benefit of committee comes from the diverse perspective each admissions counselor brings to the group–one counselor may see something in an application that another counselor doesn’t, and that dialogue is really important as we build the class.

We do this 63,000 times! Then we go back and look at our admissions decisions one last time to make sure all students received an individualized and holistic review. Once our decisions are finalized, applications are sent over to the Office of Financial Aid where students are packaged with scholarships, loans, grants and work study opportunities.”

Harvard’s Committee Process: 2 Step-Process Involving Faculty

Harvard uses a two-step committee process that involves the faculty. A subcommittee discusses and votes on an applicant, and then they present their recommendations to the larger full committee. Harvard’s Dean Fitzsimmons describes the process in an interview with the New York Times:

Harvard Shield

“Each subcommittee normally includes four to five members, a senior admissions officer, and faculty readers.

Once all applications have been read and the subcommittee process begins, the area representative acts as an advocate, and summarizes to the subcommittee the strengths of each candidate. Subcommittee members discuss the application, and then vote to recommend an action to the full Committee. Majorities rule, but the degree of support expressed for applicants is always noted to allow for comparisons with other subcommittees.

Subcommittees then present and defend their recommendations to the full committee. While reading or hearing the summary of any case, any committee member may raise questions about the proposed decision and request a full review of the case.

Many candidates are re-presented in full committee. Discussions in subcommittee or in full committee on a single applicant can last up to an hour. The full Committee compares all candidates across all subcommittees, and therefore across geographic lines.”


4. Final Decision

Final Decision

By the end of committee, colleges will be close to the finish line.

Colleges must consider the size and selectivity of the various schools within their College (e.g. Engineering vs. Arts and Sciences). They also must consider their institutional priorities, like strong athletics and diversity, as they make their final decisions.

Typically, after the final decision, admitted applications get sent for consideration of scholarships, loans, grants, and work study opportunities before final decisions letters are mailed out.


Major Takeaways

To recap, in this post, we took a comprehensive look at the mechanics of the application reading process.

Here are some big takeaways:

1. The admissions reading process of selective schools is remarkably similar

The process will most likely resemble some version of these four steps:

  1. Sort
  2. Individual reads
  3. Committee
  4. Final decision

Larger, less selective schools will have a less “holistic” approach that make quicker decisions based mostly on academics.

There's no need for you to spend an inordinate amount of time researching the reading process of all the schools on your list. Understand the general reading process (which you've already done if you've made it this far) and you'll be set!

2. Your application is read quickly

Admissions officers will often average less than 15 minutes to assess your entire application. How long exactly? It varies by school. Check out former UVA Associate Dean of Admission Parke Muth’s interesting post about “fast and slow reads."

What should you do with this information? Make a strong first impression! Quickly and effectively communicate your strengths in your application.

3. Admissions officers are real people!

For example, NYU admissions officers look like this:

NYU Admissions Officers

Rebecca Larson (the admissions officer in the middle) really likes One Direction, looks forward to the the snacks her colleagues bring in for their committee meetings, and genuinely seems like she’s having fun at work.

What should you do with this information? Put a face on the process to make things less intimidating and help you create a more personal application.

4. Quantitative scoring is often used, but the process is very qualitative and subjective

Numbers and guidelines are used to create a standardized, efficient sorting process. However, at the end of the day, your application is being judged by real people with emotions and feelings. What's more, colleges have something very specific they're looking for.

What does this mean you should do? Tell a story through your application that is personal and emotionally engaging and you might be able to convince an admissions officer to go to bat for you during committee!

It can be discouraging to hear that your application is read fairly quickly.

However, please do not confuse “quickly” with “not carefully.” Admissions officers are experts in digesting a lot of information in a short amount of time. They understand the impact their decisions have and are extremely deliberate in their decisions. Most admissions officers genuinely care about your prospects and are looking for ways to accept, not reject you.


COVID-19 and College Admissions

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly influenced the way that colleges look at applications.

It's revealed a lot about equity and access, for one thing. It's also made it difficult for students to zero in on certain aspects of applications, like extracurricular activities and standardized test scores.

COVID has definitely impacted what colleges look for in applications, especially from a judgment perspective. You can learn more about this in our post COVID and College Admissions.

Has it changed the structure of admissions? Likely not. Officers might be changing how they look at aspects of applications, but the process probably remains the same.


How I Got Into Princeton Series

Interested in how other successful applicants have navigated the college admissions process?

We've created an entire series that takes a deep dive into the journeys of current and past Princeton students.

Check out Erica's story, the first in this series.

“People telling me that I was worthless only drove me to study more, to work harder, to prove them wrong.”

You can find a summary of all of these stories here: How I Got Into Princeton Series.


Next Steps

So, now what? If you’re in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, you’ll want to focus on the Golden Rule of Admissions and developing your Three Pillars.

As you put pen to paper and start working on your application and college essays (ideally in the summer before senior year), keep in mind how your application will be read to keep things in perspective.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other in-depth guides like this.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


Should I Take the SAT or ACT in 2021__ExpertAdvice

Should I Take the SAT or ACT in 2021? Your Expert Recommendation

SAT or ACT? The Ultimate Test Comparison

Should you take the SAT or ACT?

All U.S. colleges and universities accept either college admissions test equally.

No school will require students to submit scores from both tests. However, some U.S. states do require the SAT or ACT for high school graduation.

The SAT and ACT are different tests, and it does matter which one you take in preparation for applying to college. We also encourage students to prep for one test as opposed to both.

If you can focus on one test and hit your target scores, you'll free up a lot of time for other things, especially those components that college admissions officers really care about: academics, extracurricular activities, and application essays.

We're here to break down the top differences and similarities between the two exams. We also give you 5 questions to ask to help you determine whether you're an SAT or an ACT test-taker.

Plus, we'll give you actionable steps to take from there!

Here's what we cover in this post:


The SAT vs. the ACT: Top 5 Differences

The SAT and ACT differ in 5 major ways:

  1. Format
  2. Sections
  3. Content
  4. Timing
  5. Scoring

These are pretty big categories!

So does this mean that these tests are complete opposites of each other? Not necessarily.

We elaborate these 5 key differences and their essential nuances below.

Difference #1: Format

As you can see in the below birds-eye views of each test's structure, the SAT and ACT each follow a fairly different format.

The SAT, for example, starts with both Verbal sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing & Language. It follows these with both Math sections.

The ACT, on the other hand, begins with an English section but follows this with Math and then Reading.

SAT Format

Section Length (Minutes) Number of Questions
Evidence-Based Reading 65 52
Writing and Language 35 44
Math - No Calculator 25 20
Math - Calculator 55 38
Optional Essay 50 1
Total 3 hours, 50 minutes 151

(Note: During the actual test, you will have a 5 minute break after SAT Reading and a 10 minute break after the Math - No Calculator section.)

ACT Format

Section Length (Minutes) Number of Questions
English 45 75
Reading 35 40
Math 60 60
Science 35 40
Essay (Optional) 40 1
Total 3 hours, 35 minutes 216

(Note: During the actual test, you will have a 10 minute break after ACT Math and a 5 minute break after ACT Science if you take the essay.)

Difference #2: Sections

Both tests have 4 sections with an optional fifth section (the essay), but there are 2 prominent differences between these sections:

  • Math: the SAT has two Math sections, while the ACT only has one
  • Science: the ACT has an entire Science section that doesn't exist on the SAT

Other things to keep in mind: while SAT Reading and ACT Reading are similar, SAT Reading is longer (5 passages, 52 questions).

The opposite is the case for SAT Writing & Language (4 passages, 44 questions) and ACT English (5 passages, 75 questions).

Lastly, a calculator is permitted on only one of the 2 SAT Math sections. It is allowed for the full ACT Math section.

Difference #3: Content

The ACT has more questions in total than the SAT: 216 (ACT) vs. 151 (SAT).

What's more, depending on the section, ACT questions might emphasize certain content areas differently than SAT questions do, and vice versa.

Take a look at the chart below to see this in action:

Section Content or Skill Emphasis
SAT Reading Command of Evidence
Charts & Graphs
ACT Reading Author’s Purpose
Detail / Line Reference
SAT Writing & Language Charts & Graphs
Expression of Ideas
ACT English Writing Strategy
Concision
SAT Math Problem-Solving
Data Analysis
Applied Math
ACT Math Simple Concept Application
ACT Science Data Analysis

Difference #4: Timing

In general, the ACT has greater time constraints per section. This allows far less time per question throughout the entire test.

SAT Time Per Question ACT Time Per Question
SAT Reading vs. ACT Reading 75 Seconds 52.5 Seconds
SAT Writing and Language vs. ACT English 47.7 Seconds 36 Seconds
SAT Math vs. ACT Math 82.8 Seconds 60 seconds
Science N/A 52.5 Seconds

Difference #5: Scoring

The ACT and SAT both follow very different scoring systems.

A total SAT Score ranges from 400-1600, the sum of a student's Math sectional score and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing sectional score:

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (200-800)  
  • Math (200-800)

The optional SAT essay is scored separately and does not impact a student's total SAT score. Students receive three scores across three categories, Reading, Analysis, Writing, ranging from 2-8.

We take a deeper dive into SAT Scoring in a separate post.

A composite ACT score ranges from 1-36.  The composite score is an average of the scores in 4 subject areas: Math, Science, Reading, and English.  

  • ACT Composite: 1-36
  • Subject Scores: Math, Science, Reading, Writing (each receives a score between 1-36)
  • Optional Essay: 2-12 (does not impact Composite or Subject Scores)

You can learn more about ACT scoring here.

We'll be covering SAT and ACT score comparison later on in this post (jump there now).


The SAT vs. the ACT: Top 4 Similarities

Despite these differences, the SAT and ACT do have a lot of crossover.

We've boiled this down to 4 key similarities:

  1. SAT Reading and ACT Reading
  2. ACT English and SAT Writing & Language
  3. General ACT and SAT Math content
  4. Overall length of time

Similarity #1: SAT and ACT Reading

Yes, SAT Reading is longer than ACT Reading, as we established earlier. It also has some question types that aren't on ACT Reading, and timing isn't as much of an issue on SAT Reading as it is on ACT Reading.

But both sections do have a lot more in common than meets the eye:

  • Each has a dual passage (two shorter passages in one)
  • You don't need any outside content knowledge to answer any SAT or ACT Reading question
  • Both sections require strong strategy
  • Both sections are generally interested in main ideas, big picture themes, and author's argument
  • They share a lot of question types, including Words-in-Context, Detail, and Main Idea questions

Similarity #2: ACT English and SAT Writing & Language

These two sections do differ in terms of length. But they do have some significant similarities:

  • Both test the same 13 grammar rules
  • Each section consists roughly of 50% grammar questions and 50% expression of ideas questions
  • The passages themselves are often similar in tone and style
  • Both tests are interested in the way an author expresses her ideas throughout a text

Similarity #3: ACT and SAT Math Content

As we discussed above, the SAT has 2 math sections, while the ACT only has one. SAT Math is also very interested in applied math (i.e., students' problem-solving and data analysis skills), while ACT Math questions tend to be more literally concept-based.

Yet the math principles behind SAT and ACT Math sections are generally in alignment. These concepts will definitely surface on both tests, even if they have different emphases:

  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Pr-Algebra
  • Algebra I and II
  • Advanced Math
  • Word Problems
  • Data Analysis

Test-takers also complete roughly the same number of math questions on both tests: 58 questions on SAT Math and 60 questions on ACT Math.

Similarity #4: Length of Time

As we discussed above, the timing on each individual section differs dramatically between both the SAT and ACT.

However, in total, both exams run about the same length of time: 3 hours and 50 minutes for the SAT (with essay), and 3 hours and 35 minutes for the ACT (with essay).

This means that regardless of which test you take, you'll be in that testing room for roughly the same amount of time!


SAT and ACT Score Comparison Chart

In 2018, ACT and the CollegeBoard completed what's called a "Concordance Study," which examined the relationship between ACT scores and SAT scores. ACT emphasizes that this study does not "equate scores" but can be a "helpful tool for finding comparable scores."

Translation: It's impossible to pinpoint exact equivalences, but it is possible to approximate.

Here is one of the score comparison tables that resulted from this study, which compares ACT Composites to SAT Composites. Notice how this table also includes an "SAT Range," designed to compensate for fluctuations in test difficulty.

ACT also has a digital tool on its website that allows for quick score comparison calculations:

ACT and SAT Score Comparison Tool

Should I Take the SAT or ACT? 5 Questions to Ask

Now you know the major differences and similarities between the SAT and ACT. What happens next?

We've assembled 5 easy questions to ask in order to choose your best fit test. These have to do with the following:

  1. Speed
  2. Math
  3. Data analysis skills
  4. Test prep timeline
  5. State testing requirements

Question #1: How's your speed?

For most students, time is one of the biggest factors that influences their decision to take the SAT vs. ACT.

Earlier in this post, we broke down the time allotted per question on both the SAT and ACT, across sections. The ACT offers students far less time per question than the SAT.

In general, if you struggle with speed and pacing on standardized tests, the SAT is likely the better test for you.

If you struggle with reading speed, working quickly through math questions, or quickly interpreting charts and data, the ACT may be difficult for you to finish on time. With time crunches, students are also more likely to race through sections and sacrifice accuracy.

Question #2: How’s your math?

In general, if you are stronger in math than verbal skills, you may fare better on the SAT.

Here’s why: the SAT has 2 major scores, (1) Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and (2) Math.  Math makes up 50% of your SAT Score.  

On the other hand, the ACT Composite Score is an average of 4 subject scores: Reading, Writing, Math, and Science.  Math contributes to 25% of your composite ACT Score.  If you tend to struggle with Math on Standardized Tests, the ACT might be better for you.

In general, the ACT is better for “hiding” a weak subject area, since your composite score is an average of four subscores and your main SAT score is a sum of 2 major scores.  

Question #3: Do you feel comfortable with Science?

The Science section makes up 25% of your Composite ACT score and doesn’t even exist on the SAT, so your comfort with this section is a huge factor to consider.  

If your strength lies in analyzing experiments and interpreting charts, you’ll probably like the ACT Science section. It doesn’t require you to know many specific science facts, but it does test your ability to read about specific experiments and their results.

You are required to understand and analyze the experimental process and also the data and results of the experiment. Thus, if data analysis under timed conditions is your superpower, the ACT could be your test.

Question #4: How much practice do you need to achieve your target score?

The CollegeBoard has released 10 official SAT practice tests. ACT, on the other hand, has only released 6 official practice tests.

The key to maximizing your test score is building a study plan that is based on targeted review of your key weakness areas. A critical component of this plan is effective review of high-quality practice questions that mimic the questions you will see on the actual test.  

And in this respect, the edge goes to the SAT for having better test questions available to students for practice.

Of course, there are many publishers that create additional preparation materials and practice questions for both tests.  However, when it comes to practice questions, even the best publishers cannot create practice questions that are as close to the real test questions as the test makers themselves.

Question #5: Does your state require the SAT or ACT?

As of 2019, there are several U.S. states that require students to take either the ACT or the SAT in order to graduate. The data below is adapted from 2019 EdWeek data.  

State High School Test
Alabama ACT
Colorado SAT
Connecticut SAT
Delaware SAT
Hawaii ACT
Idaho SAT or ACT
Illinois SAT
Kentucky ACT
Louisiana ACT or WorkKeys
Maine SAT
Michigan SAT
Mississippi ACT or MAAP end-of-course exams
Montana ACT
Nebraska ACT
Nevada ACT
New Hampshire SAT
North Dakota ACT or WorkKeys
North Carolina ACT
Ohio SAT or ACT
Oklahoma SAT or ACT
Rhode Island SAT
Tennessee SAT or ACT
West Virginia SAT
Wisconsin ACT
Wyoming ACT

If you live in one of these states, you should still focus on your preferred test. If your preferred test is the same as the required test, then great! This will allow you to SuperScore if the colleges on your list permit this.

If not, then just make sure you sit for the mandatory test at some point, but we don't necessarily recommend that students invest in prep for this required exam.

Remember: No U.S. college or university requires applicants to submit both ACT and SAT scores. That's why it is best to sit for the test likely to give you the highest possible score.


What Should You Do Next? Step-by-Step Instructions

If you haven’t decided on SAT vs. ACT yet, now is the best time to take the process to the next step.  

Step 1: Take a full-length official SAT

  • Visit PrepMaven’s Free Official SAT Practice Test page and download one of our 10 free SAT practice tests
  • Visit PrepMaven’s SAT Proctoring Page for detailed instructions on how to self-administer the test
  • Take a full-test under timed testing conditions!

Step 2: Take a full-length official ACT (the following week)

  • Visit PrepMaven’s Free Official ACT Practice Test page and download one of our 6 free ACT practice tests
  • Visit PrepMaven’s ACT Proctoring Page for detailed instructions on how to self-administer the test
  • Take a full-test under timed testing conditions!

Step 3: Determine which test you performed better on

  • Compare the results, paying specific attention to:
    • Overall composite score (refer to our SAT and ACT comparison chart above)
    • Math performance vs. Verbal performance
    • Timing issues (if applicable)
    • Accuracy on ACT science
  • Select the test most aligned with your strengths and most likely to give you the highest possible score
  • Focus your prep on that test

Step 4: Determine when you should take the SAT or ACT

  • You'll want to develop a thoughtful testing schedule that allows you sufficient time to prep, allow for re-takes, and complements your other obligations
  • We developed 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help you get started!

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


6 Free Official ACT Practice Tests

6 Free Official ACT Practice Tests

Starting in 2005, ACT began releasing an official ACT practice test every year.

We've been tracking these releases over the years and have compiled easily accessible download links for all available ACT practice tests below.

Because of the scarcity of real ACT questions, these tests are like gold! Prepping as close to the source as possible is vital for getting closer to a competitive ACT score.

When using one of these tests as a diagnostic or full-length practice test, mimic official test conditions as closely as possible. This means printing the test out, strictly timing yourself, and taking it in one sitting. This will ensure you’ll get the most value out of these tests.

Below you'll find everything to get you going - official practice tests and clear instructions on how to self-administer the test.

Best of luck in your prep!


Official ACT Practice Tests - Download Links

--> ACT Practice Test #1 (2005-06) - Practice Test 1

--> ACT Practice Test #2 (2007-08) - Practice Test 2

--> ACT Practice Test #3 (2009-10) - Practice Test 3

--> ACT Practice Test #4 (2013-14) - Practice Test 4

--> ACT Practice Test #5 (2015-16) -  Practice Test 5

--> ACT Practice Test #6 (2018-2019) - Practice Test 6

You'll notice that there are several years of tests missing. The ACT has a habit of releasing duplicate tests.

For example, the 2016-17 and 2017-18 tests are the same as the 2015-16 test, and the 2018-2019 test is the same as the 2020-2021 test.

The exams above are the 6 free unique tests currently available. Each includes a blank answer sheet and answers.

Proctoring Instructions

If possible, a parent or third party individual should administer the test. Otherwise, students can easily self-proctor using the instructions below.

--> PrepMaven Proctoring Instructions_ACT

5 Tips for Taking An Official ACT Practice Test

  1. Set aside an uninterrupted chunk of time - Block off 3 hours and 52 minutes (if you're doing the Writing section) or 3 hrs and 10 minutes (without Writing section)
  2. Print out the test and answer sheets - The printed version will more closely mimic test conditions
  3. Time yourself - Make sure to include the appropriate breaks as well (if you're following our Proctoring Instructions, don't worry about this)
  4. Read the Proctoring Instructions above before you start - The instructions will identify which materials you will need and exactly how to time the different sections, including breaks and 5 minute warnings
  5. Carefully review your answers after the test - Careful analysis of EVERY question you answered incorrectly (or were confused about) is important for meaningful score improvements.

Additional Official ACT Practice Tests

Where can you find other official ACT practice tests and questions? Students have 4 more options:

  1. 1 Online ACT Practice Test via ACT.org (free)
  2. The Official ACT Prep Guide Book ($)
  3. The Official Beginner's Guide for the ACT Book ($)
  4. Sample ACT Test Questions via ACT.org (free)

1 Online ACT Practice Test

To access an online ACT practice test, students will have to create a MyACT account. If you've already registered for the ACT, you will already have an account.

Select "Free Online Practice" once you've navigated to your MyACT dashboard to access this practice test.

Note:The free practice available via download on ACT's website is also from our list of free official ACT practice tests above.

The Official ACT Prep Guide

ACT releases an official prep guide every year that includes ACT practice tests. The latest version, 2020-2021, includes 5 practice tests, and costs $25-$30. 

However, 4 of these practice tests are recycled. Only one is technically "new," from a June 2019 ACT exam. 

Students do get access to digital versions of these 5 practice tests, which can be helpful for on-the-go practice.

The Official Beginner's Guide to the ACT

Designed as an introductory guide to the ACT, the Official Beginner's Guide to the ACT does include one full-length official ACT practice test, from the April 2018 administration.

This test is not in the list of free official practice tests above, so it could be a valuable resource for students looking for even more test-like ACT questions.

The guide currently runs for $20-$25 online.

Sample ACT Test Questions at ACT.org

Lastly, students can access free sample ACT test questions for all 4 sections of the ACT at ACT.org. These are digital, and students can select their answers and view correct ones after they've completed each set.


Considering the SAT? Check out 10 free official SAT practice tests here.

Not sure which test to take (SAT vs ACT)? Ask yourself these 5 questions to find out your best fit test.

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started.


Next Steps

Like what you read? Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when we release other useful info. Please also share using the buttons on the side.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


College Admissions & the Impact of COVID

College Admissions & the Impact of COVID

Bonus Material: Get Access to Our College Admissions Seminar (+Presentation Slides)

The pandemic has profoundly impacted the world of education as we know it, but what can we expect when it comes to COVID and college admissions?

We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers.

BUT… we do have some thoughts and recommendations - based on data, recent research, and 15+ years of industry experience.

We recently presented a live seminar on this topic. Want to watch the video? Get access to the video link below. As an added bonus, we'll include the presentation slides as well.

Here's what we cover in this post:

  1. How the College Admissions Process Works
  2. How College Admissions Has Been Changing
  3. The Impact of COVID and College Admissions
  4. Our Recommendations
  5. Bonus: COVID & College Admissions Seminar (Slides and Video)

1. How the College Admissions Process Works

Foundational to understanding how COVID has impacted college admissions lies in first understanding how this process generally works.

It’s also important to understand how the landscape of college admissions has been changing in recent years, before the pandemic began.

If you haven’t done so already, we strongly encourage you to check out our post on what college admissions officers look for in applications and how they read your application

We summarize the key facts of this guide below.

Fact #1: College admissions officers assess both quantitative and qualitative factors in applications

Most college applications contain some combination of the following factors:

  • Quantitative
    • Test scores
    • Transcripts & GPA
    • Resume
  • Qualitative
    • Recommendation letters
    • Personal essay(s)
    • Portfolio(s)

Admission officers will review both quantitative and qualitative factors. Typically, this boils down to the review of three core "pillars":

  1. Academic achievement
  2. Extracurricular distinction
  3. Character

Fact #2: Selective schools are looking for students with potential

Admissions officers of selective institutions look for students of exceptional potential who will become successful leaders.

How do we know this?

Admissions officers want to admit students who will advance their college’s mission(s). 

Princeton University’s mission, for example, is as follows:

“Princeton University has a longstanding commitment to service, reflected in Princeton’s informal motto — Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity — and exemplified by the extraordinary contributions that Princetonians make to society.”

So we analyzed the mission statements of selective institutions and found some common ground in their themes:

Fact #3: Every school has its own approach to admissions

Every institution has its own individual mission statement or vision. This means that every institution has its specific priorities, and might weigh certain parts of applications differently. 

Larger public schools, for example, place more emphasis on quantitative factors, while smaller private schools will place more emphasis on qualitative.

How can you learn more about what schools value?

Mission statements are a great place to start. School admission officers sometimes offer general insight into how they review applications as well. For insight into quantitative factors and their weight in admissions, we recommend looking at school Common Data Sets.

We recently delivered a presentation on COVID and college admissions. Download a copy of this presentation's slides below.


2. The Changing Landscape of College Admissions

The college admissions process has been changing. We’ve been following these changes closely, and summarize the most important trends below.

Fact #1: More students are applying to college

College application numbers are increasing. They are also increasing faster than growth in available spots. This means that college admissions rates are falling across the board (COVID aside).

As you can see in this chart, over the last 20 years, increasing numbers of students have been submitting 3+ or 7+ applications.

This results in colleges having lower admission rates and higher selectivity.

Fact #2: Selective schools often get disproportionate attention

That being said, more selective schools get the spotlight here, and disproportionately so. 

Only about 19% of national institutions accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants, even though they receive about 36% of all applications.

Fact #3: Character is becoming more important in admissions

We’re seeing a general shift in college admissions towards character evaluation in applicants. The three pillars of admissions--character, extracurricular distinction, and academic achievement--are still important.

But admissions officers are increasingly emphasizing components like student essays and recommendation letters, as the below chart demonstrates.

These are not far behind grades, strength of curriculum, and test scores.


3. COVID and College Admissions: The Impact

Academics are a large piece of every college application. And COVID has significantly impacted many areas of academic life, including:

  • Grades / Transcripts
  • Standardized tests
  • Extracurriculars
  • Campus visits and
  • Other important factors (e.g. wellness, finances)

Many high schools reverted to a Pass/Fail system in the spring of 2020. 

Students taking AP exams this spring ran into many difficulties, and online learning has been incredibly challenging for even the brightest scholars.

Colleges have been scrambling to adjust their admissions policies related to standardized testing, given the fact that students had incredibly limited SAT and ACT testing options. Many students experienced repeated test center closures and administration cancellations. Two-thirds of colleges are now test-optional.

What's more, scores of students have been unable to participate in volunteering experiences, internships, employment, extracurricular activities, and college campus visits. As a result, it’s fundamentally difficult to show extracurricular distinction and demonstrated interest in applications.

In sum, almost every single important admissions factor has been affected by COVID. We’ve indicated these factors in red arrows below.

What does this mean? Colleges must adapt to these new circumstances in order to continue admitting students in a fair and equitable manner still in line with their mission.

The good news is that colleges have been speaking out about the ways that they are choosing to adapt to these circumstances. We’ve compiled some concrete data on what they’ve been saying in the next section.

What Admissions Officers Are Saying

Here is what admissions officers at selective institutions have been saying about COVID and college admissions.

We want to point out that these officers are HUMAN. As Tulane’s Director of undergraduate admissions admitted during the earlier stages of the pandemic, they’re “figuring it out as [they] go,” just like applicants, teachers, and parents.

Notice how most of these responses demonstrate a shift in admissions' officers focus on character distinction and qualitative factors in the application review process. 

Historically, character has been one of the three pillars of admissions, but its role is likely more significant, as we discussed above.

How do officers assess character?

They infer it from these elements of an application:

  • Personal statement and essays (most important)
  • Recommendation letters
  • Nature of extracurricular and work activities
  • Interviews

The chart below indicates results from a survey of 447 admissions officers in response to the question: how do you assess character attributes of applicants?

Officers very much understand the extraordinary challenges students have been facing because of COVID, as they emphasize in this "Care Counts in Crisis" report. They will be reading applications in this context.

The Care Counts in Crisis Report is endorsed by over 360 U.S. institutions. It outlines what admission officers value during this time, what they expect from students, and what they don’t expect.

Most importantly, they value:

  1. Self care (#1 priority)
  2. Academic work (assessed in context)
  3. Service and contribution to others (meaningful and authentic)
  4. Family contributions (i.e., supervising siblings, caring for sick relatives)
  5. Extracurricular and summer activities (no student will be disadvantaged here)

The COVID Essay

Coalition and the Common App both give students the chance to write about how COVID has impacted them personally in an optional essay.

Here’s the Common App’s COVID essay prompt:

We give pointers for responding to this essay in a separate post. Yet we encourage students to use this essay prompt as an opportunity to deeply reflect on something that has influenced everyone’s lives – in a specific, authentic way that demonstrates significant awareness.


COVID's Initial Effects on Admissions

Initial data (from November 2020) from the Common App and FAFSA on early decision and early action applications has revealed the following data points:

  • Colleges have seen 8% fewer ED / EA applications
  • 60% of colleges have seen a decline in applications overall
  • First generation applications are down by 16%
  • FAFSA completion rates are falling (by at least 15.5%)

Many colleges have indicated that their greatest concerns are related to:

  • Fall or summer enrollment
  • Finances
  • Online learning environments
  • Laying off faculty or staff
  • Mental well-being of students

This means that application rates are falling and low-income and first-generation students have been disproportionately impacted. It's important to note that applications from this group might rebound later in the process.

It also means that colleges are doing the best that they can to navigate financial concerns, enrollment challenges, online learning, and student need.

So, what do we recommend that applicants and families do in terms of navigating COVID and college admissions? 

We weigh in in the next section.


4. Our Recommendations

We are encouraging all of our students and families right now to focus on what is most important and what you can control.

Keep in mind that colleges are definitely very aware of context. They are adapting to these changing circumstances and doing their best to admit applicants with the pandemic's context in mind!

They are also placing an emphasis on what cannot be measured in concrete data points: character, personality traits, and individual potential.

We also recommend that students make use of the guidance offered by the "Making Caring Common" Project, which places high emphasis on the following (in this order):

  • Self care
  • Academic work
  • Service and contributions to others
  • Family contributions
  • Extracurricular or summer activities

Lastly, students should prioritize reading, writing, and thinking.

Applicants who can express themselves extremely well on the page are at an advantage in admissions, as this quote shows:

“Your ability to write well is critical to our decision because your writing reflects your thinking. No matter what question is asked on a college application, admission officers are looking to see how well you convey your ideas and express yourself in writing. It is our window to your world.”
Janet Rapelye (former Princeton University Dean of Admissions)

Students should spend a significant amount of time working on their personal statement and supplemental essays, for example. We've also compiled a reading list for all four levels in high school for students preparing for college.

We understand that these are challenging times. We are here to help! Send us a note for any questions or thoughts you have about COVID and college admission. We want to hear from you.


5. Get Access to Our COVID & College Admissions Seminar

We recently delivered a presentation to our families and students about COVID and college admissions.

You can download the slides we used in this presentation and get access to the seminar's recording below.


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.



How I Got Into Princeton - Harry (Story #20)

How I Got Into Princeton - Story #20

Harry's Story

Profile - Harry"If I want to pursue something, I am very good at figuring out what the best approach is and directing my energy into that approach."

Meet Harry, a member of Princeton's class of 2021.

In high school, Harry pursued a rigorous schedule of academics and extracurricular activities. He was one of only 8 students in his year to attain all A*s at GCSE level, won the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement at A-Level, and earned the History Subject Prize. He spent his free time participating in and coaching athletics and engaging in history discussion groups and other school societies.

Harry credits much of his success to mindful goal-setting and family support.

"The small things add up," Harry says. "I’ve learned in academics and athletics in particular that, when pursuing a goal or seeking a particular outcome, it’s best to focus not on a big late effort or intense “grind,” but on a steady approach that incorporates habits and daily tendencies which all promote the end goal."

Please read below to learn more about Harry and the personal qualities, values, and support system that have allowed him to succeed.

We recommend reading from beginning to end but feel free to skip around. Our favorite section is the "What Makes You You" section, where Harry describes his personal philosophies.

About this Series

In our "How I got Into" series, we share the stories of successful applicants to Princeton and other great colleges.

Our profiles go beyond a simple list of academic and extracurricular achievements. We also delve into the “how” and the qualities that successful applicants exhibit.

We provide a rare look into what drives these students, how they've overcome their challenges, how they've been shaped by significant events in their lives, how they deal with the pressure to succeed, and much more.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

SECTION 1 - FAMILY
SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING
SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES
SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS
SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION
SECTION 6 - DAY IN THE LIFE
SECTION 7 - WHAT MAKES YOU YOU
SECTION 8 - CONCLUSION

Disclaimer

Here's what we're NOT doing with this series:

  • We are NOT prescribing an over-engineered approach to college admissions
  • We are NOT presenting a blueprint for how you should get into college
  • We are NOT suggesting that you must gain admissions to a selective school to be successful (you most certainly do not)

Here's what we ARE doing:

  • We are presenting data and sharing stories
  • We are providing context that you usually don't see to highlight that we are more than just our grades and GPA
  • Our ultimate goal is to uncover the values and personal qualities that drive successful applicants

Whether you are considering selective colleges or not, it is our unwavering belief that our values and personal qualities (and luck) are the major contributors to success.


SECTION 1 - FAMILY

Geography

Birthplace: Manchester, UK
Where did you grow up? Cheshire, UK

Siblings

# of older siblings:  1
# of younger siblings: 1
Sibling Education Levels:  Sibling 1: Completed a Bachelors Degree, History, in the UK. Sibling 2: Currently undertaking A Level exams.
Where did your siblings go to college?  Sibling 1: Bristol University. Sibling 2: At High School (Sixth Form)

Parents

Parent's Marital Status: Married
With whom do you make your permanent home? Both Parents
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Wine Consultant / Runs an English Tutoring Business
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: Bachelors
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: Manager, Lords’ Marketing Consultancy
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: Bachelors

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parents' parenting style(s)?

Relaxed. They let me follow my passions, but also give advice and encourage me to think actively about important decisions. 

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most important), how important to your parents was:

Academics 1
Extracurriculars 1
Service 5
Family 3
Friends 4
Physical Health/ Fitness 2
Mental Health Never directly made it a priority, but indirectly encouraged positive mental health with a focus on the above… Particularly physical health/activities outside of the classroom.

Did your parents have specific philosophies regarding any of the areas above?

I’d say that my parents always encouraged me to pursue my passions and areas of interest, providing support for me to do this. They taught me to value family and good health above other things, and saw academics as an area of life through which fulfilment and personal growth could be achieved. They told me that I shouldn’t see it as a means to an end, i.e. doing Medicine to be a Doctor to get a good salary or doing Maths to go into accounting.


SECTION 2 - SCHOOLING

Middle School

Middle School: The Grange School Hartford
Type of School: Private

High School

High School: The Grange School Hartford
High School City, State: Northwich, Cheshire
Type of School: Private
Class Size: 120/year group up until Sixth Form (last 2 years), in which my class was 91 strong.

SECTION 3 - ACTIVITIES

Jobs

Did you work in high school?  Yes
What kind of job/s did you have? Worked part time during Christmas and summer breaks. Worked at a Packaging Warehouse putting together Hampers, and at Summer Sports Camps. 
Average hours/week worked? Seasonal. During term time I didn’t work, since I couldn’t find time alongside studies and extracurriculars. I worked for around 2 weeks at Christmas (9hrs/day), and 3 weeks during summer (7-8 hours/day).
Why did you work? For money for living expenses (public transport,) and leisure money (seeing friends, cinema, food etc.)

Extracurriculars/Passions & Interests

What were your major passions/ interests in high school?

Sports, Politics and Current Affairs, Philosophy & Political Philosophy.

I took part in a history discussion group where we talked about various historical periods/approaches to understanding history, and also led a political forum for students where we met during lunchtime to talk about current affairs & the UK/global political landscape. This ended up being heavily focused on the Brexit referendum and we engaged a range of students from different years. I think these made me more comfortable speaking in a smaller group setting and discussing problems academically, skills that I've found helpful in precepts at university. Being able to clearly explain ideas, refine them and justify them to others is critical in doing philosophy!

How much time did you spend on these things?

Sport ~ 20 hours/week. Other interests ~ 2 hours/week in school societies, and a good amount of time just reading and listening to news.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

When I was very young – around 15.  But more to the point, it was when I started to realise a bit more independence in my own life (as an early-mid teen) and started to set future ambitions based on what I enjoyed and valued!

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

Largely by my parents who encouraged me to take an interest in lots of things outside of school activities. I was very busy in the evenings after classes finished at school, and my family often did things together on weekends.

What level of achievement did you reach?

A good level. In sport, I represented England in the Multi-Events (Track and Field).

Each year, English Schools Athletics Association selects the top 4 finishers from the national championships to participate in a home countries international which takes place in Glasgow, Scotland. There, I competed for England against the other home countries and earned an international vest. It meant a lot to me at that point in my life as, just coming into my last two years of high school, I realised that I wanted to pursue my passion for track and field and that I had a genuine talent in it. I also spent all summer working hard to compete in the championships that qualified me for the England team, and can distinctly remember feeling amazing about being paid back for my hard work. Looking back, it made me really motivated to set goals and create plans to achieve them, which I tried to apply to my academics too.

Tell us a little bit about how you achieved these achievements?

I worked very hard from the third-to-last year (year 11) of high school. Committed 4 days a week and 3 school nights out of 5 to a pretty demanding training programme.

What kind of support did you have?

Good support. School teachers and staff were understanding of my commitment and parents worked incredibly hard to ensure I could follow my passion in track and field.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these extracurricular results?

Had to give up a lot in terms of social life, missing out on things that an average teen would enjoy. By this I mean things like going out with friends on weekends when I would be training instead, staying at home in the summer to compete, when my friends would travel. There was also the challenge of being more disciplined in my time management, in order to create sufficient time for academics. But this helped me be more productive and efficient I think!

Service

What were your major service-related activities?

I did a good amount of coaching athletics, both in school and outside of school. In school, I took care of younger students’ soccer practices, and outside of school I organized and oversaw track and field practices for children from the local area (in Manchester).

How much time did you spend?

2 hours/week.

Why did you choose this activity?

I think sport has tremendous power to bring people together and give young people confidence and fulfilment. I also enjoyed the personal relationships I could develop through coaching.

Summers

What did you do in the summers during high school?

Summer after 9th grade, I relaxed. Saw friends, Went on vacation. I did sport, went to camps and met other kids. Saw parts of the UK with my family and went to the theatre, saw plays. Because that’s what I enjoyed doing, and I didn’t have too much of an eye on the future!

Summer after 10th grade, was pretty similar to the previous summer. But I did spend a little time in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster shadowing my local MP, as I became more interested in politics.

Summer after 11th grade, again, lots of leisure/cultural activities, often with family. I also visited universities in the UK, gained some work experience at a local marketing company and coached at a summer athletics course. I worked part-time, and started putting together my application for college in the US. I began to narrow down my choices, and by August I was set on either Cornell or Princeton.


SECTION 4 - ACADEMICS

Grades/GPA/Awards

Class Ranking: We didn't receive class rankings
GPA - Weighted: We didn’t receive GPAs. However, I achieved 9 A*s at GCSE and A*, A, A in my A Levels. A* is the top grade in both sets of examinations.
GPA - Unweighted n/a

SAT/ACT

How many times did you take the SAT? 1
How many times did you take the ACT? 0
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? SAT: 1990
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? No
How many hours did you study in total? 8-10 hours, intermittently
When did you start preparing for the test? Around a month before I took it
When did you take the test? During 11th grade

Do you know which test to take? Check out our recommendations here - Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

SAT Subject Tests & AP/IBs

Which SAT Subject tests did you take? 

None.

Which AP/IBs did you take?

None.

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

I was one of only 8 students in my ~120 year group to attain all A*s at GCSE level. Gained full marks in Physics GCSE. Won the Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement at A-Level (given to students who earn at least an A grade in all their subjects). I also won the History Subject Prize, given to the highest achieving History A-Level Student in the school

What do you attribute your academic success to?

My parents - they always read to me, took me to see different things and ensured I was exposed to a lot of different learning experiences when I was young. I would also say I saw how hard my brother worked in his high school examinations and wanted to also work hard. The discipline of studying and setting aside time well in advance really helped me, especially in my last two years at school.

What kind of support did you have?

Besides my parents, I had a quality set of teachers and good relationships with these teachers. My relationships with those teachers started to form later on in my time at school and many were the result of doing extracurriculars where I'd spend time with teachers outside the classroom setting. Lots of this were the societies I mentioned, and also just casual things like playing pickup soccer against the teachers every Friday night. Lastly, I was lucky in that the subjects I chose for A Level had a small group of students in them. So, in history, philosophy and politics we had discussions and spoke individually with the teachers regularly. I'd talk over essays with them, and also ask for advice about universities, have them look over personal statements, application materials etc. In the last couple of years of school especially, 2/3 teachers really did start to become mentors more than anything else, which I'm very grateful for. They were invaluable in weighing up and making possible my future options.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?

No.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these academic results?

Time management was the major challenge, but I never saw it as a sacrifice because I enjoyed my extracurriculars enough to justify the challenge to myself. It was a choice for me to pursue sport to a demanding level, and so I didn’t regret that finding time for academics became harder consequently. In fact, I found (and still find) that this forced me to structure my time in a productive manner!

Any specific approaches/tips & tricks to studying that were particularly helpful for you?

Explain ideas and concepts to other people. When studying for exams that would test me on concepts and ideas, such as Philosophy, Politics and History, I would make an effort to explain key ideas to another person (family member, friend). This was really helpful! Additionally, starting on a blank page and just writing down an explanation sometimes really helped; I didn’t feel like I fully understood something until I was able to write it down and communicate it clearly on paper.


SECTION 5 - THE COLLEGE APPLICATION

Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? International
Did you apply regular or early? Early
How many schools did you apply to? 1
Were you a legacy applicant at any of these schools? No.
Were you recruited for athletics, arts, music, etc...? Athletics, Track and Field. (Unsure whether this assisted my app as I was not an official recruit, but I spoke with the Coach who encouraged me to apply.)
Did you declare a major? Did this end up being your actual major? Philosophy. Yes! (Though I did consider Politics particularly until right before declaration deadline!)

Which schools did you apply to (that you remember)?

Princeton UniversityRead more