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How to Use ECs to Impress the Ivies

Everyone wants to know what ECs they need to participate in to get into Harvard. Should I be a world champion fencer and a concert violinist and volunteer for 100+ hours every year and make every national science Olympiad team? Obviously those things don’t hurt, but you don’t need them! Let me repeat that: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE WORLD-REKNOWNED AT 16 TO GET INTO HARVARD! What you do need is a plan.

You don’t want to waste your free time doing things you don’t like and that aren’t helping you get into Harvard. I want you to spend 2X the focused effort to 10X your chances at getting into your dream school. It’s hard work, but if you don’t like hard work you really shouldn’t go to Harvard. Isn’t it easier to commit to hard work when you have a system, though?

Here’s the system:

You need to pick one or two things that you love. Things you could do every day and they’re not a chore because you have so much fun doing them. Let’s call it the base of your pyramid. Maybe it’s STEM. Maybe it’s politics. Maybe it’s art. Whatever it is, you want to build your other ECs on that. You want your activity pyramid to tell your story. I’ll give examples later on about how to achieve this.

It’s also a good idea to play a sport or a musical instrument. As you can imagine, most kids who get into Harvard do one of these things. This is a great way to complement your activity pyramid. If you are world-class or even state-class in two sports/instruments, this can be the base of your pyramid. Even if you’re not going to be winning state competitions in either, you can still exhibit commitment (think all 4 years if not longer) and leadership (think team captain or section leader). Sports and music are also great ways to demonstrate entrepreneurship through lessons or starting your own band that gets paid to play. Your activity pyramid should look something like this:


Now you’re probably thinking, “OK, Jessica, this all sounds great, but how do I actually do it?”

I’ll give you an example pyramid:

Base: STEM
Related ECs:
Academic-math team: team captain (leadership), state and national awards (academic excellence)
Charity-organize science fair for local underfunded middle school: chair/creator (leadership), volunteer hours (character)
Club-start a STEM club (leadership) *Only do this if you have a unique idea for a club, e.g., Coding Club where students discuss programming, iOS Club where students collaborate on app ideas and development.
Work-start a tutoring business in math and science (entrepreneurship)

Sample Pyramid

The important thing is not to overwhelm yourself. Quality over quantity. Depth over breadth.

Sport/Music: tennis
Leadership- team captain junior and senior year
Varsity letter all four years (There are sports where this is easier than others. Check the requirements. I got four varsity letters in tennis even though I was always toward the bottom of the team. All we had to do to win a letter was win one varsity game. This was easy because there was always one or two high schools with truly horrible teams where our JV played their varsity and usually won. Ask the sophomores on the team what’s required.)

My advice for your music/sport is to pick something unique to your demographics. Now if you already love a sport or instrument, stick with what you love. But if you’re up for trying something new think about what you could do that most people in your demographics don’t do. If you’re a black kid from the inner city, join the golf (if there is one) or swim team or play a string instrument. If you’re a girl, join the wrestling team or play the saxophone. If you’re an Asian kid from the west coast, join the basketball or soccer team or play the drums. NEVER DO SOMETHING YOU HATE JUST TO LOOK GOOD FOR COLLEGES. This never works out. You’re just not going to excel at something you hate for four years. Even if you’re not the best, though, you can still be a leader. Team captain is usually not the best player, but rather the player everyone likes and is the most dedicated. While you can’t make yourself be the best player, you can be nice to everyone and work harder than everyone. Focus on what you have control over.

Call to Action:

  1. Decide on your pyramid base.
  2. Leave a reply with your pyramid base and four additional ECs you are going to participate in that build on that base.

That’s it. I read every comment!

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