In 2016, the New York Times published a satire piece claiming Stanford University admitted no one to the class of 2020--a jab at the increasing “elitism” and incomprehensible low acceptance rate of the institution. Well, in the 2020-2021 application season, due to test-optional policy, that satire became pretty close to reality when HYPMS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford) all accepted LESS than 4% of applicants. Crazy, right? Now, imagine that figure slashed in half when it comes to international students' acceptance rates and we are pretty close to 0.

Every single year, these schools receive thousands of applications with perfect SAT / ACT and 4.0 from class presidents and valedictorians--but not all of them are accepted. So how do admitted applicants stand out? The answer is: by having an application spike.

Important disclaimer: We don’t encourage making attending any particular institution your life goal, because you are worth so much more than a brand of a school. The most important aspects when picking schools are: cultural fit, strength of desired program, academic and financial feasibility. There are literally hundreds of phenomenal schools worth attending that are not in the “top 20”--whatever that “top X” even means. However, we advise our students the following because it’s helpful not just in college admissions, but alsoleading a purpose-driven life.

The following is extracted from the article “How to get into Harvard and the Ivy League, by a Harvard alum,” by Allen Cheng, Harvard alum and co-founder of PrepScholar:

“Most students aiming for top schools make the huge mistake of trying to be "well rounded."

The typical student who wants to be well rounded will try to demonstrate some competency in a variety of skills. She'll learn an instrument, play a JV sport, aim for straight As, score highly on tests, volunteer for dozens of hours at a hospital, and participate in a few clubs.

In these students' minds, they're telling their schools, "I can do everything! Whatever I set my mind to, I can learn to do a pretty good job. This means I'll be successful in the future!"

This is wrong.The world doesn't see it this way, colleges like Yale and MIT generally don't see it this way, and far too many students waste thousands of hours in their lives pursuing this.

To put it bluntly, "well rounded" means "mediocre at everything." Jack of all trades, master of none.

Schools are looking for two main qualities in applicants:

  • Students who are going to accomplish world-changing things.
  • Students who are going to contribute positively to their communities while in college and help other students accomplish great things as well.


This, of course, is hard to predict when you're just 17 years old. You've barely developed, you don't know exactly what you want to do with your life, and you have a lot of room to grow. But the college application process, as it's designed now, is the best way that colleges have to predict which students are going to accomplish great things.

Your job is to convince the school that you're that person. You need to prove that you're capable of deep accomplishment in a field. This is what your application ultimately must convey: that you are world class in something you care deeply about.

In other words, forget well rounded—what you need to do is develop a huge spike.”

So what is an application spike?

In simple terms, a spike is a demonstrated deep interest. If you’re an aspiring Entrepreneur, that can mean having your own business that brings in several thousand dollars in annual profits. If you’re an aspiring Diplomat, that can mean being on the national debate team and winner of dozens of national and international debate competitions. If you want to be a Scientist, that can mean participating in research opportunities with real college professors and being listed as a co-author on research papers.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “That’s impossible,” we’re here to guarantee you that these endeavors are completely within your reach; because they are our students’ real activities! We also guarantee that these opportunities didn’t just fall into their laps. In fact, they had to hustle for YEARS and faced 5-10 failures for every 1 achievement.

What if I’m applying soon and don’t have a spike?

Firstly, list out everything you have been involved in since Grade 9: from school clubs, competitions, community events, personal projects to hobbies and seek out a common THEME. For example, if you find yourself as the Content & PR person for multiple organizations, it’s probably natural to assume you have an interest in Marketing, PR or Communications--that’s your theme!

Secondly, now that you have identified the theme or themes, do yourself a favor and cut out anything that takes up a lot of time but doesn’t have any meaningful progress. If you want to be a Data Analyst but are devoting hours every week to Model United Nations because all your friends are doing it, that’s probably not the best use of time. Consider investing that time into completing a relevant and accredited professional certification, such as the IBM Data Science one. It’s never too late to improve yourself and learn new knowledge. We always tell our students: we will never judge you based on where you go to school, but always on your work ethic and desire to learn.

Finally, putting everything together on your Activities Profile: On the Common Application, you have 10 slots for activities and 150 characters to describe them. Make sure to use strong action verbs and be precise. The truth is Admissions Officers only spend 6 minutes to read a complete application: from your activities, essays, transcripts, test scores to letters of recommendation. If your activities profile doesn’t tie in with the rest of your application and desired field of study, schools will find it hard to define your brand and decide if you’d be a good fit.

Final Words

Where you go is not who you’ll be, but we hope the above guide has proven some useful insights to help you navigate the increasingly confusing and competitive college admissions landscape.

To receive additional help, don’t hesitate to reach out to us via our Facebook page and; or better yet, join our 3-workshop series designed to get you started on the US college application process, including: the activities profile, personal statement, and building a successful schools list. Spots are limited to make sure to secure yours today!

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