How to Get Into Your Dream School (Ivy League, State, or Other)




I got through my four years of high school with considerable stress, confusion and anxiety. Yes, I did work my butt off, but I did get into my dream school. Here is a four year game plan for those who know what school they want to shoot for.

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Step 1: Research!!!

Where do you want to go? Harvard? University of Florida? Ohio Community college?
Here is some honest advice: ONLY WORK AS HARD AS YOU HAVE TO!!!! Many state schools are great and practical choices for state residents: they are inexpensive, local and a great way to find what you want to do for a living without spending much cash. If you do not have the means to go to school out of state, don't worry about it. Just don't work super hard to get into a school that you can't afford and then end up going to a state school and resenting others who didn't do as much work as you.
Go to prospective school's website and

1. Find out what classes they expect you to take (standard, honors, AP)
2. Find out what standardized test scores they expect (SAT, SAT II and ACT)
3. Find out what they value- Are they focused on sustainable living for the near future and a cleaner America? Or do they specialize in bringing finer arts to life? This will help you shape your high school schedule as well as extracurriculars, and also tell you what to emphasize in the admissions process.

NOTE: If you end up taking more challenging classes then you need to, try not to worry about it. Education will come back and benefit you even if the result is not immediately apparent.

Step 2: Plan Your Schedule

From here on out, I'm going to write this assuming that you're trying to get into to a highly selective school. This means you'll be trying to appear well-rounded as well as intent on challenging yourself, serving the community, and leading your peers.

As far as what classes to take, you have an IB schedule, you have the equilvalent of all AP classes. If you can survive this rigorous schedule, you're lucky. Many of these schools are well known by the Ivy Leagues and their reputation precedes them. I went to a public school that had many AP classes available. Some good guidelines to follow :

1. Make sure to take AT LEAST one AP class in at least these areas: English, Math, Science, History, and Language.
2. Take upper level classes that are known to be easy and/or have fun teachers. You may not have an immediate interest in environmental science, but you'll thank me when you're doing homework from other classes during a video.
3. Do not take lower than an honors level class during your junior and senior year. I know some required classes are standard credit only, and it hurts your GPA, but these are good to get out of the way early.
4. NEVER take less AP classes than the year before. You take more, or the same amount. It builds the perception of progress and shows colleges that you're not slacking off senior year (god forbid)
My AP class schedule from sophomore year on went thusly 2, 4, 5
5. Play to your strengths without overloading yourself. If you love English, take Lang and Lit. If math is for you, take Calc and Statistics. Science has even more options (chem, bio, psych, physics, env)
NOTE: Three years of a language looks good. Four is more impressive, if you can swing it.

Step 3: Extracurriculars, Sports, Band, and More

There are certain organizations at your school that are easy to excel in, sound impressive, and don't take up a lot of your time. Yes, join all the BS honor societies you want, but there are others, oh yes, there are others. For example, BPA, the Business Professionals of America, basically takes students to conventions where they can take multiple choice tests. Because these are the staple of public schools, I was easily able to claim 1st place in one or two categories and brought home a rather nice plaque.
The point is, find one or two clubs like that. Colleges don't know you showed up one hour a month and then went to the state convention to get free food (You're a Business Professional of America, darn it!).
Play to your strengths in the clubs you choose as well. If you dig English, work on the newspaper, or join the writing club.
When it comes to sports, I must be brutally honest. Unless you are skilled enough to have a sure shot at team captain, are dependent on said sport for a scholarship, or cannot imagine life without it, think seriously on not participating. Sports are extremely time intensive, and can be very frustrating if one has an incompetent coach (I know from experience). They cut in to study time, job time, or that spare ten seconds you have to yourself. Again, you know what's best for your situation.

To Band, the Flag team, dance, etc. the same applies. Unless you love it to death or think you can get a scholarship from the activity, your time might be better spent elsewhere.

You don't have to abandon music or sports entirely if you forsake them in school. Volunteer to coach a soccer team or play in the orchestra at church. It's just extremely hard to structure your time around these activities. They are potentially fun and enriching, but know what you are giving up in order to partake in them.
Volunteering is wonderful as well, especially if it is tailored to your interests. The point in all these activities is to give the colleges and idea of you as a person-- your passions, strengths and interests.
NOTE: Score extra points by creating your own club. This shows initiative and a willingness to lead. I created a club based on nerd culture and was asked about it in EVERY INTERVIEW.
*I am not trying to insult the fine establishment of BPA in any way. I found my experiences with the club to be extremely rewarding...

Step 4: Standardized Tests

So you're required to take the SAT/ACT and probably some SAT II's. Heed my advice, younglings. Start studying EARLY. Start studying FRESHMEN YEAR. Get yourself a review book for each test you plan to take, like the one pictured below.
Find out what test works for you. Some who score low on the SAT do very well on the ACT, and vice versa. If a prep course is available for cheap at or near your school, take it. If you can find a study partner who is willing to take practice tests with you at Borders, go for it.
Brush up on your vocab. At the back of Princeton Review Word Smart there is a so called "hit list." you don't need to buy the book to find these words and the definitions. Do you know what meticulous means? Find out.

Free Rice is another good resource. It is the most enjoyable way to learn vocab I have found to date. free rice

On test day, eat a good breakfast, not a Grand Slam, and bring a banana as a snack. Use a WOOD #2 PENCIL, NEVER MECHANICAL. There are actually studies that have been done showing that a slightly dull wood pencil saves you time. No, I did not conduct these studies myself.

As for SAT II's, you have a little more leeway. Take the tests the summer after you take a class with pertinent subject matter, while everything is fresh in your head. A review book might help for these as well, though you know your study habits best.

Step 5: Jobs and Working

Ideally, we would all be able to focus purely on our studies, activities, and having fun. I know this is not an option for many of us.

If you must work, work on the weekends. If you must work during the week, work extreme part time (four hour shifts max). Fortunately, many states have laws that are extremely protective of minors, requiring half hour paid breaks every four hours or so (grumble).
Local jobs are best. Who has time to commute? Also, is there a job you can find where it is possible to do homework during slow times (such as a fast food drive through)?

Note: If you can get a job suited to your interests, such as an internship or assisting a professor, you will own the admissions committee. Absolutely own them. They will frolic before you scattering rose petals before your feet, singing of your victory. O.k, that's an exaggeration, but only slightly.

Step 6: The Application Process

This is the most annoying part of getting into college and can make or break your senior year. Start apply in the summer after junior year, if possible, to lighten the load. Make sure to ask for recommendation letters early in the year from teachers in upper level classes who like you. Or have "Dr." in front of their names (actually, many members of these admission committees have PhDs and will not be impressed).

You will want to apply to approximately

3 ideal/dream schools (you would go there in a second)

2 safety schools (you would be content to go there, and you would get a better scholarship)

1 state school (inexpensive and close to home)

This ratio can be played with, but if you narrow it down to five or less you are golden. Don't be afraid to apply to more, but applications are expensive and quite a lot of work. The Common Application comes in handy here. Please don't apply to more than ten schools. You will hate life, join a cult and become the shame of your family.

Note: These rules may not be best for everybody. I know someone who applied to fifteen colleges, and ended up with a full ride to one of them. Even so, know your limits when it comes to monotonous drudgery.

Step 7: Good Luck!!!

Send in your applications and enjoy the rest of senior year. Don't slack off but don't worry too much either. I know this is a difficult balance to achieve. I've been there.

I know high school is a tremendously stressful time. Your time is not your own, and you have to become someone who looks attractive to colleges while staying true to yourself. A lot of it is BS and a lot of it is stressful. Spend time with your friends, and stop wondering if all the hard work will be worth it. It will.

Good luck in the years ahead. If you do make it into your dream school, try not to become too pretentious. A little bit is fine. And if it's and Ivy League school you're after, stock up on argyle. :)

Comments and advice on on what worked for you are more than welcome.

Be the First to Share


    • Home Decor Contest

      Home Decor Contest
    • Furniture Contest

      Furniture Contest
    • Reuse Contest

      Reuse Contest

    40 Discussions

    In England our universities are so different from the USA. You guys call them colleges, but for us, you can go to either college, or sixth form from the ages of 16-18 (i think that's junior and senior year for you guys) or you can stop your education at 16, however education is still free up until 18, unless you go to a private school. Then at 18 you go to a university for generally three or four years, sometimes more, dependent on courses etc. You an then do a masters degree, pHD, and other extra degrees.
    This was very insightful for american college applicants, and if someone could do one for UK sixth form and Uni, I'd definitely read it :)
    Thanks :D


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Another tip to add in, Atleast in my state(Tennessee) it is thousands of dollars less to go to an in-state college. Some of the ones I"m looking at frop about 10-15 or even 20 thousand dollars! So everyone should definitely look into that

    Also, I got a Magazine/book from US News on the "Best Colleges" It is a MAJOR help. It lists every accredited university/college in the country and plenty of info on each.


    9 years ago on Step 3

    I'm in my high school's band, and i love it to death, it's only bonus that I'll probably get a scholarship from it.


    10 years ago on Introduction



    10 years ago on Introduction

    Good work.

    Ivy leagues were always and will always be the top tier for schools; and so remember, the variables included in acceptance are not really known. Just try to do everything well, and excel in them. And iremember, there's always grad school. (looks even better than a undergrad at xyz school!)

    I went to college about 10 years ago, before even online apps were popular. Now [http://http:/ Online Classes] are more popular, so you can catch up with classes and get recommendations from top schools too.

    Anyways, just things to think about.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    This is really good advice...pretty spot on, actually. A couple of notes to hopefuls:

    We have three kids currently in college (U of Richmond, UVA, and Wake Forest), and one who went to Davidson and will be starting law school next fall. Going through the process is tedious at best, and it doesn't get easier (as the competition just seems to get worse).

    My younger daughter, who is now a freshman at UVA, also applied to and was accepted into William & Mary, Emory (for their very competitive pre-med program), Vanderbilt, U of Richmond's Honors Law program, and Davidson. For those who are worried about not being "privileged" (as many kids at the better schools seem to be), there is hope!She went to a public school and did not participate in any sports. She made excellent grades, however, and she DID spend a lot of time doing extracurricular activities (excelling in two, notably). She did extremely well on the SAT in the verbal and written portions (which she personally attributes to taking four+ years of Latin), and pretty well on the math (not her forte).

    Some keys for her seemed to be the following:

    1) She took several SAT IIs, and of course had numerous APs under her belt.
    2) She stood out by adding some humor to her essays and writing about rather progressive-minded topics.
    3) Finding her school's guidance department woefully inadequate, we hired a one-time college advisor to look over her applications and help her tweak them.
    4) She graduated tenth out of a class of 500.
    5) She applied to several schools. This is essential. According to the college advisor and several Deans of Admissions we've spoken to, gone are the days of applying to two or three schools and expecting to get into them all. Apparently, the first-tier schools are now seeing an increase in applications ten-fold from a decade ago, and the average student applying has also applied to 8-10 other schools. This makes it very difficult because you are competing now with a much larger pool of applicants.

    Also, if you get waitlisted at one school, don't fret. My daughter was initially waitlisted at William & Mary and took it very personally, until she was accepted to UVA, Emory, and Vanderbilt! You have to consider what the ratio of women to men is, the typical student applicant body, etc. W&M has a higher ratio of women to men, and of in-state female applicants, in particular. That worked against my daughter, we suspect. Apparently, they were trying to balance their freshman class, because none of her female friends (all in the top ten of their class) got into W&M at first, either--but a male friend did--AND was offered a $3000 scholarship. He also scored an 800 on his math SAT. But, it shows you there is never a "perfect equation" for getting into any school. It just depends on the needs of that year's class.

    However, following all this advice will surely help you compete with all those other high-achievers, so kudos for offering the info!


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, nice work! I'm in my Junior year of high school right now and plan on going to University of Central Florida (15 minutes away). Thanks for all the tips! For others reading this, noxvox is correct about the sports thing. I wrestled varsity freshman and sophomore year; however, keeping up with sports and academics is tough. School is so much easier now without sports. Also, now I was able to switch out of 1st period wrestling into AP Computer Science. =-)

    8 replies

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    NO! Go far away from home. Don't fall into the trap of living at home. FInd yourself, eat ramen noodles like everyone else, complain of the dining hall food. Just push yourself beyond your comfort zone.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Here's the thing. Florida has a scholarship program called "Bright Futures," which can pay for 75-100% of tuition to a state school for students who meet the requirements. Financially, this is an amazing option for students who do not have the resources to go out of state or have not decided what they want to do yet. You do not want to go to a private school with a $30,000 a year price tag in order to "find yourself" for a couple of years and not end up with a degree. I agree that going to school away from home is the ideal option. The University of Florida is a great state school and is still covered by "Bright Futures." Thank you for the insight about student loans. I neglected to cover paying for college once you got in!


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I applied to FAFSA and got a full ride grant. The university also gave me a SMART grant (its an acronym, Science math and something or other) so I actually got payed $1700 to go to school this semester! The 3.79 GPA and student activities helped, and I'm 27 and don't have to put my parents income on my grant applications like most students. Plus I showed a loss on my taxes for last year so that helped. LOL according to the IRS, I'm sub-poverty. I have been broke as crap, for real though. : /


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I am aware of Bright Futures. I am from Florida, and UF is a good school. I went to USF for my degrees, then to Europe for others. That said, there is a reason for alumni networks. They are like clubs. Graduate of the military academies wear their rings for life. Part of it is for pride. The other part is for identification of each other. Americans love name brands. They are impressed when people have expensive things, irrespective of their functionality. I could tell you that I went to the University of York in England. That would draw a blank. However, I could then tell you I had the option of Oxford but York Uni had a better program for my career. Would you know that? Most likely not (it was for social work.) As an American, would you really care? Again, most likely not. Human Resource drones will see the words "Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, etc..." and their eyes will bulge out. Oh, as far as cost, Harvard has a great deal of grants available to its students. This is true for most of the Ivies. I'm not promoting elitism, but for career reasons name recognition is a god send. Also, if you are talented, it is good to be around others like yourself. You'll feel more at home and be more likely to push yourself harder. Best O' Luck!

    Stercus FitDorkfish92

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Not like all schools don't have their problems, but avoid UCF if you can unless you're going into one of their specialty programs (engineering, education, business, or forensic science). Other schools have better education, better classes, and aren't called U CANT FINISH. Not to mention better advisers, people who care, etc. Take it from a 5th year UCF student, this is not where you want to be if it can be helped. If you insist on this option, consider going to community college for 2 years, it really helps speed up graduation (only 4 years this way), gives you better classes, and costs a whole lot less. Plus you're more likely to get into the FL 4 year school of your choice. Bright Futures isn't all it's cracked up to be either. It doesn't include the extra boat-load of fees they added on this year and most of the people I know lost it because of one bad semester. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the FL education system or their budget cuts. And by the way: all of my friends who lived at home when they started college moved out. Why? You experience new freedom in college and your parents don't give you that same freedom. I don't mean to sound so negative, but UCF isn't so hot. I love college and the people I've met here, but the education isn't as nice as if I had gone elsewhere. UCF doesn't have my program (decided at the end of my junior year), isn't helping me with classes that could be useful in my future, and is thus spoiling my chances of good grad schools. Pooey! As much as it sucks, I say look out of state. Some schools (Olin, in Ohio, for example) pay tuition and books for engineers, or so I've heard. Some NY schools cost just as much as FL in-state tuition, depending on the program. If you do your research right, you may find a better opportunity elsewhere.

    Dorkfish92Stercus Fit

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Yea, I do realize that Bright Futures isn't AMAZING; however, it is still A LOT of money that I would have to spend otherwise. My sister has it and she wouldn't be able to afford college without it. Anyways, I plan on doing an engineering program. I'll probably stay home my first 2 years until I have some money.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I'm in my Junior year of high school right now and plan on going to University of Central Florida (15 minutes away)

    Cool! That's not too far from where I am! (about 1-1/2hrs)

    I live about 10 minutes from FIT, though. I might end up going to a state college; I think I want to go to Florida State...


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    5% Percentage of high school athletes who go on to compete in college SOURCES: Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association; NCAA I found this at Thanks for the comments!


    I would also recommend that you do something that you're passionate about and let that show through in your application as well. Some admission people want to see your personality beyond a list of college-aimed accomplishments.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Hehe... An Instructable for dealing with poison ivy is in the "related" column on the right... Also great Instructable! Five points for Gryffindor!