We’ll start by giving a description of each batch or group of colleges. We think that this grouping will be helpful in framing your college application strategy, specifically with regards to reach, match, and safety schools. Of course, these groupings are my opinion only and are subject to debate. However, I believe that most of this is accurate and will continue to be true for the foreseeable future.
Group 1: Community Colleges + Second Tier Public Universities (like Cal States)
Most likely if you’re reading this guide, you most likely don’t plan to go here. Sorry if
that comment seemed a little elitist, but … sorry!
How to get in: just pay the money and get decent grades (C’s and B’s). Any grades/SAT
actually if you plan to go to a community college. However, some public universities (like Cal State San Luis Obispo) are strong to be considered a part of Group 2.
Your intended major as listed on your application will also play a factor. If you are applying for an impacted major at a Cal State, for example CS at Cal State SLO, then it will be harder to get in compared to a non impacted major. For Cal State specifically, to find out which campuses and programs are impacted, go here:
If your program or campus isn’t impacted, then as long as you’re a California resident with a high school GPA above 3.0 you will qualify automatically for admission (3.61 minimum GPA for non-California residents). To calculate your own eligibility index score, see this calculator or this table for all admissible GPA/SAT/ACT score combinations.
Group 2: Top Public Universities (UC’s) and Strong Private Colleges (ie. USC)
First, I will focus on the UC’s, which is short for University of California system. But,
the UCs can be divided even further, as some UCs are simply way stronger than others (Cal Berkeley >
Merced). Overall, we can say that UCs are GPA/SAT based, despite how much Cal and UCLA
want to try to deny it and state that they emulate the Ivy-style of college decisions. UC’s are a
point system – they award you for how much you fill out on their application and what scores
you have received, not necessarily what things you have done. It’s as objective as possible, to the
point of number-crunching. If you don’t believe me, here are the demographic breakdowns for UC Berkeley. As you can see, almost 20% of the undergraduate class at Berkeley is just Chinese (not including other types of Asians), and if you include all Asians, that percentage jumps to 42.4% (not including international students, a large percentage of which will also be from Asia) which is much higher than Ivy Leagues which have total Asian enrollment at around ~20%. It is well known that Asians have higher SAT/ACT scores which again points to the objective, number-crunching decision making process of UCs. In fact, some UCs are eliminating recommendations to save time in reading/processing applications.
Also don’t worry about the fact that UCLA and Cal are posting record low acceptance rates year after year. The total high school population has slowed its growth and is only projected to grow by 2% between 2016 and 2026 (source). Yields are also low for UCLA and Cal which means if you are a strong student you will most likely get in. UCLA and Cal in particular lose a lot of students each year to Ivy Leagues and other colleges in the higher groups.
Therefore we come to the conclusion:
GPA: varies. Aim for mainly A’s (3/4 for Cal and around 60% A’s for UCI, use the rankings for other UCs to get an idea of what you need)
SAT: 1800+ for UCI and 2100+ for Cal, LA, SD (on the new SAT scale this is
Extracurriculars: They don’t need to be spectacular, just fillers.
Essays: Again, they just want to know you’re not a nutcase.
Group 3: Liberal Arts Colleges
I would say that they vary. A lot of people think they’re super hard to get into and very
competitive. I honestly don’t know. I got in easily to Williams and Amherst early. My friend
got into Amherst without submitting essays. My essays for both Williams and Amherst were
written in under half an hour. They seem easy to me. But perhaps it’s because we were strong
candidates. Others I know dream of going to Williams (the mini-Ivy, as it gets SOOOO many
people into Ivy graduate schools) and ultimately are rejected, even though their “stats” (GPA,
SAT, numeral statistics) are just slightly lower.
Honestly, I’d like to point out that you shouldn’t take Williams nor Amherst lightly –
both, especially Williams, have extremely high percentages of their undergraduates move on to
the best graduate schools in the nation, even more so than the “lower Ivies”. However, the fact that these colleges are less well known than the national universities and mostly concentrated in the Northeast means that the applicant pool is less varied and weaker as a whole. There is simply less competition to get in because fewer people apply. However, class size is usually smaller which counteracts this to a degree.
So I’d have to say:
GPA: Strong. Especially for Williams and Amherst
SAT: This varies. For lower ranking ones, you might only need around an 1800 to 2000.
But to be competitive for top-tier liberal arts colleges, I’d have to say 2100+ is necessary.
Extracurriculars: Average. Probably above a UC, but less than an Ivy. But once again, the
schools range in difficulty. This is an inherent problem when categorizing them (similar to how we categorized the UCs).
Essays: Since the liberal arts schools focus more on the humanities than normal
universities, I would expect them to analyze your style (not really the content) of writing. I heard
that they do this. However, my friend’s early acceptance, despite his lack of essays, makes me
wonder what they are looking for. Fit will probably also be more important here since the schools are smaller, usually in isolated rural areas, and need to make sure that the class is both diverse and well represented (if they need more tuba players that year for their marching band, and you just happen to be a tuba player, great!).
Group 4: “Lower Ivies” and comparable colleges
Not to be blunt or anything (or again, elitist), but there are definitely some Ivies and
private schools that fall short of making the hot stuff list. Here’s just a few of them – you can
probably think of more:
● University of Chicago
● University of Pennsylvania
But don’t limit it to just these, as I’m sure there are much more! Now, as you probably
know, these schools aren’t as tough to get into as schools like HYPSM – realistically, no kid
dreams, “WOW I REALLY HOPE TO GO TO CORNELL!” (If you were one of those children,
I apologize once again)
Because of this fact, it’s difficult to determine what you really need to become accepted
into these colleges. I’ve heard many rumors and studies made by HYPSM students that there is
a significant increase in your percentage of acceptance if your statistics are slightly worse than
the average HYPSM student. This is because Group 4 schools understand that many people will
choose HYPSM over their school – therefore, they have to choose the best students possible that
will matriculate to their school.
Nonetheless, most of these colleges have great, competitive programs that you can apply
to besides normal admission. For example, UPenn’s Wharton School is probably equivalent or
harder to get into than Harvard. Other examples include Brown’s PLME and Northwestern’s
HPME medical programs that guarantee a 7 to 8-year education all the way through medical
school. These programs are extremely difficult to get into, as they choose perhaps double-digit
numbers out of a huge applicant pool.
The verdict is:
Normal Group 4 (non-special programs)
GPA: High. Mostly A’s with few B’s.
Extracurriculars: Strong. We’re not talking about kid stuff here. They actually look at
Essays: Strong. They still have to differentiate you from among the thousands of
For simplicity I will throw in the specific-program Group 4 with Group 5.
Group 5: The Big Kahunas – Top-notch Ivies and Similar Institutions
Let’s start off. We know these are your dream schools – the ones you’ve been hoping to
get in all your life. And we all pretty much know what these schools are:
● Group 4 specific programs (UPenn Wharton, Brown PLME, Northwestern
Before delving into what you need to get into these colleges, let’s begin the college
profile to understand what these colleges are all about. However, these are just brief summaries
and introductions to the colleges – you should really research more into them and find out which
one is the best fit for you.
HARVARD – THE BIG FISH
Harvard is pretty much the epitome of a dream school for every kid, as it is the most
famous of all universities worldwide. A Harvard degree means that you’re something special.
You’re with the cream of the crop, a bunch of individuals just as talented and motivated as you
are and aren’t afraid to show their competitive drive (this doesn’t automatically make you better
than your peers at Yale and Stanford etc. however). At Harvard, they want people who aren’t
there for the name (although it IS a draw). However, they want to instill the spirit that Harvard
alumni are those who can still succeed and be the best without the Harvard name. You will be
able to drop the “H-Bomb” in your resume for the rest of your life, but keep in mind that after
graduation, name isn’t everything.
Although highly competitive, I hear that Harvard’s grade inflation is pretty high.
However, when grouped with cutthroat individuals, it may not seem like it. Classes typically are
curved with the median set at around a B+ (with A’s and A-’s requiring near superhuman effort). There are also many clubs and extracurricular activities to partake in at Harvard. Many people actually spend more time on these than on classwork, with the understanding that the connections you make and who you know will be more important after graduation than the actual knowledge gained from class.
Still, a perk is seeing the beautiful Charles River right out your dorm window and knowing the
vast opportunities that lie within Boston. Winters can be quite cold though with massive snowstorms that shut down campus for days not uncommon.
YALE – HARVARD’S RIVAL
What differentiates Yale is its beautiful campus and its focus on the arts. Don’t get me
wrong, its sciences are still among the strongest in the world and as an undergraduate you should
still be able to find a place in any scientific field that interests you. Its residential college system
is said to be more cohesive than that of Harvard’s and fosters a strong sense of school spirit. Oh
and it’s located in New Haven, which is similar to Berkeley (not a great area). But to be honest,
New Haven isn’t that bad (maybe not as nice as Boston)… you’ll probably just stay on campus
the majority of your time.
The school is known for its law school (never ranked below #1 by US News) and is making great strides to shed its image as a humanities school. Yale is also expanding its class size which will make it easier to get into in the future (very slightly).
PRINCETON – THE UNDERGRADUATE SCHOOL
Since Princeton has no graduate school, all of its funds get funneled into its
undergraduate program, making it ranked as high as Harvard’s. With many outstanding
programs, such as the Woodrow Wilson School for International Affairs, it’s easy to see how
Princeton undergraduates are able to gain a plethora of opportunities to receive one of the best
educations worldwide. However, Princeton is known for its grade deflation, making it extremely
difficult to maintain the GPA that you would have at Stanford or Harvard. How it works is
there’s a committee that has oversight over every teacher’s class. They modify the grades that
the teacher submits to be in accordance with their GPA policy. Thus, in every class, no matter
the difficulty will be curved, resulting in a very fierce competition. Still, Princeton’s campus is
similar to Yale’s – both have that archaic, Gothic look that makes them extremely beautiful. Princeton’s financial aid is also known to be legendary and matched only by Harvard. Lastly, Princeton probably has the best engineering program in the Ivy League aside from Cornell.
STANFORD – THE WEST COAST IVY
Stanford pretty much sums up an ideal California dream – nice weather, a social
gathering, and a great education. The students there are not openly competitive at all – most
keep to themselves. This is probably attributed to Stanford’s great grade inflation – the best in
the United States for these caliber schools. Every class at Stanford maintains a B+/A- average,
so you won’t have a hard time getting the GPA you want if you work for it. Also, Stanford has
a wealth of opportunities that you strive for. Located in Palo Alto, the heart and foundation for
many companies such as HP, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc., there’s no way that you cannot
land a successful internship or career from your roots at Stanford. However, Stanford, although
nicknamed the Ivy of the West, still has some catching up to do with Harvard in how much of an
impact its name gives (and perhaps its lacking in its humanities compared to Yale), especially outside of California and the West coast.
The social aspect of Stanford is one of the best. The Californian weather constantly
hovers around the 60s-80s, making it the perfect weather year-round (with the occasional rain).
Ironically, unlike the rigid competitiveness and blistering cold at the Ivies, Stanford is the
embodiment of social “chillness” contrasted with its warm weather.
COLUMBIA – UNDERAPPRECIATED
Columbia – Barack Obama’s undergraduate school (besides Occidental). It has probably
the best access to a large, bustling city: Manhattan. Due to this, it has the largest applicant pool
and, consequently, one of the lowest acceptance rates. Other than that, it is often categorized as a
significant step below HYPSM (many will state it belongs in Group 4), since those who matriculate
are those who are turned down from those selective institutions (the running gag is Columbia
is made up of everyone who didn’t get into HYPSM). Yet, Columbia has been steadily rising in
the rankings and is proving to output some amazing alumni. In addition, Columbia has recently switched to the common application, like most of the other schools. This year, we saw first-
hand the effects of that move, with the admissions rate plummeting to 6.4%, nearly the same as Harvard’s 6.2%. Thus, in the future, we can expect Columbia’s selectivity to match/surpass the
HYPSM schools, which is why we decided to put Columbia in Group 5. I wouldn’t be surprised
that in the near future, HYPS is turned to CHYPS, with the C being Columbia or UChicago. Columbia is an excellent school if you want to work in finance on Wall Street, and also has a decent engineering program.
MIT/CALTECH – SPECIALIZED SCHOOLS
Honestly, these are specialist schools, specifically in the science and engineering
departments. I don’t expect you to go to these schools if you want to major in Art History. At
MIT, expect a more social environment that promotes innovation and creativity. MIT is also much closer to a generalist school compared to Caltech, with a breadth of course offerings in the liberal arts and a very strong business school that has an undergraduate program (ranked number 2 behind Wharton).
Caltech, on the other hand, is more stringent and focused in its strive for scientific excellence. Regardless
of what these schools are known for, you can find a warm, welcoming environment as well as a
wealth of humanities resources at either school if you look for it. Some would claim that MIT’s
standing would be ever so slightly above Caltech’s, but all-in-all both are probably the most
respected schools for engineering and the sciences. However, it is important to note that MIT is
much more comprehensive than Caltech, with strengths in the social sciences and humanities.
For example, the Sloan School of Business ranks very highly and MIT’s Economics department
has been ranked number one (tied with Harvard, University of Chicago, and Princeton) for many
But, how to do you get into these amazing schools? Let’s simply delve into every aspect
of your college application at a time and assess them critically. Start here: