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The Unexpected Key to Elite College Admissions Success

Listen to find out why curiosity is so critical to elite admissions success, and how you can cultivate and document the kind of curiosity that will actually make you stand out when you apply.

“The key to standing out is not so much to be impressive or even better qualified. The key is to be interesting. You’ll appear to be very uninteresting in your application if you do the same things everyone else is doing.”

Observing my peers at Harvard, interviewing and guiding outstanding successful applicants at many other amazing universities, I can say there is one thread that is    nearly universal among these people. And it's not what you think.


  • One student’s story of getting rejected from all schools, and why
  • A different, more effective strategy which is also way more fun
  • Why curiosity is so critical to your elite admissions success
  • How to cultivate–and document–the kind of curiosity that will make you stand out
  • The 3 steps that you can start taking today to become more interesting

     And so much more.


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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

So I've been an educator for a long time, for many years. I've worked with teenagers for a really long time, and I've helped a lot of people get admitted to their dream university. And after working with so many people for so long, there's an unexpected key to elite college admissions that I want to talk about today.

It absolutely is the thread that links the vast majority of the successful applicants to these top, top schools. Let me introduce this idea by introducing a fictional character. We'll call her Sarah.

All right. Sarah has top grades in all of the hardest classes that her school offers. She plays varsity softball, and she's worked really hard.

Now she's become a captain, and she's played bassoon in the band or some other instrument. Even though she resented it, she didn't really enjoy it. She doesn't want to be seen as a quitter, though, so she sticks with it.

She's a member of six clubs. She's an officer of, say, two of them. She volunteers at the local fill in the blank.

Okay? Her strategy was the most common strategy that there is as far as college admissions is concerned, and that is do the same things everyone else is doing, but quote unquote, stand out by doing them better than everyone else. And just like most people who follow her strategy, she was rejected from all of her reach schools, including her dream school. And as you can imagine, Sarah was devastated.

But the outcome is pretty obvious if you take the time to think about it. I mean, how are you going to stand out in a pool of applicants who all do everything better than their peers if you also do the same things as everyone else but just do them better? If that's your strategy, it's important for you to know ahead of time that 30,000 other students applying to the same school as you are following that same strategy. If most valedictorians who apply to Harvard or Princeton are rejected, what are your chances, do you think, if this is your strategy, but you're not valedictorian? What if you're simply one of the top 5% of your class? Obviously, this is a losing strategy, but what can you do instead? The more effective strategy is much more fun, allows you to get enough sleep, and, most importantly, allows you to explore your values, build real friendships that mean more to you, and have more fun and, amazingly, actually learn more, too.

There's a reason why curiosity comes up in pillars two, three, and four of the Ivy League challenge. Curiosity is the best admissions strategy. The key to standing out is not so much to be impressive or even qualified.

The key is to be interesting. You will appear to be very uninteresting in your application if your argument is that you did the same thing as everyone else. But look, you're really impressive because you did them better.

Imagine reading through 40 applications today, and all of them are people who are really, really impressive students, who got excellent grades, who worked really hard, who did sports and did music and did something else and volunteered at some community center of some kind. Every single application looks the same. How are you going to stand out? Instead, here are three steps that you can follow to become more interesting.

Step number one do an Average Joe activity audit. Take all of the activities that you are involved in right now. Stop this recording and write them down.

There's probably twelve to 18 if you're the average ambitious student, and we're talking about everything from Sunday to Saturday, all of your activities, everything that takes your time. Now, after you've written down all of them, go through and mark the ones that the average Joe student could do. The average student, if they decided to work at it, they could do it.

Or if they had enough money to sign up, they could do it. In other words, the only real skill or the only real talent that is involved in participating in this is that you commit your time and some attention, maybe some effort, or you commit money or some combination of the two. It doesn't require expertise.

It doesn't require you to be phenomenal, to be you. Now look at the list that you have in front of you. All of the activities that are marked as Average Joe activities are activities that will not help you earn admittance to a top tier school.

All right? It has never worked for anyone to say, look at how hard working I am, look at how well I multitask, and then have an admissions officer at an elite university accept them into that school because of their work ethic or because of their ability to multitask, to juggle so many things at the same time. That's not the goal. The goal is to go deep enough that the admissions officer says, what? Who is this person? How did they do this in high school? All right, it's not about doing more.

It's about doing less, but doing it better. So anything that is marked as an Average Joe activity is something that's not going to help you get into university. That does not mean that you need to drop it.

If you love that activity, even if it's just an Average Joe activity, you should keep doing it. If you love it, you want to do it, go for it. Alternatively, if you really enjoy spending that time with friends or someone that you have a crush on is in that club, and this is the only time that you can spend time with them, whatever.

There are lots of reasons for you to stay involved in an activity, even though it won't help you get into university, no problem. Stay involved in those activities. Absolutely.

But if you are signing up for these activities because you think that doing more of them will give you a leg up when you apply to university, I just want to dispel that myth right here, right now. It will not help you. It might hurt you, it really might.

If you confuse the admissions officer about who you are and what your values are and how you impact your community. If you confuse them by doing too many activities that don't add up, then it could work against you. But it certainly won't help you to have all of these Average Joe activities on your resume.

All right? So that's step one. Do an average Joe activity audit. And the reason you do this is to free yourself up for time so that you can do step number two.

Use the extra time that you've just created for yourself to explore your interests with genuine curiosity. All right? So I'll give you just a couple of examples. I had friends at Harvard, for example.

I had a peer who, before they applied to university, had already become somewhat of an expert in oceanic algae. And I didn't spend a lot of time getting to know this student or a lot about algae from them. I didn't know a whole lot about that, and I wasn't all that interested.

But they were interested in oceanic algae to the point that they pursued that interest and actually became a bit of an expert even as a high school student. And because of their expertise, they stood out as being someone very, very interesting and were admitted into Harvard. Another student, another friend of mine that I did know quite a bit better, was an expert baker, and they took baking to the next level seriously.

This student could tell you all about how atmospheric pressure, for example, is going to change the way that your cake bakes. The point is, it's not about becoming an expert in something in the ocean or about baking or anything else. You can become an expert in mushrooms or become an expert on climate change and renewable energy.

The point is not what you become an expert in. It's that you demonstrate enough curiosity and you explore something with enough vigor and enough curiosity and enough zest that you actually become pretty good at that thing. So you can never hope to become an expert in anything if you fill your schedule full of Average Joe activities.

Trust me on this, you can do anything, but you can't do everything well. All right? So step one do an average Joe activity audit. Use that information to clear your schedule.

Then step two, use the extra time to explore your interests with curiosity. Step three, pursue your curiosity like a journalist. All right? When you decide that you're going to be curious about some particular thing.

Rather than sitting down and coming up with your 20 steps to becoming an expert, stop and realize that you don't know what you don't know, right? You know enough to know that you're interested, but you don't know nearly enough to know how to become an expert. And your goal is not to follow your prescribed pathway to become the expert. Your goal at this stage is to demonstrate curiosity.

All right? Demonstrate curiosity and do it by being a journalist. So rather than creating your plan and writing down all the steps that you think you need to do to get there, explore what an actual expert does. Where do these experts meet? What do they do? Who do they talk to? How do they become experts? Just start answering these questions, asking the questions and answering the questions.

Here are just a few ways to pursue curiosity like a journalist. All right? Number one, you can keep a journal, monitor your curiosity and the evolution of that curiosity, all right? I highly recommend you do that even if it's just at a very minor level. Number two, get out into the field.

Don't trust your assumptions. Go and observe, go ask questions, go explore, find the people who are doing amazing things in some arena that you're curious about and go explore those things. Find out more about them.

Third, you can read more about your interest, seek new perspectives, and that's probably one of the first steps that you might think about on your plans, but that's a good one, all right? It's following curiosity and allowing you to pursue curiosity to become more aware of how you actually become an expert. And number four, my fourth piece of advice, to become more curious and to pursue that curiosity like a journalist. Find ways to play with this curiosity, all right? Really, really play that stimulates curiosity and just really activates your brain in amazing ways when you can genuinely play with the thing that you're curious about.

So in the next podcast, in one week, we will go a lot deeper, or I will go a lot deeper into the reciprocal value of curiosity and play. Being curious and then playing on that curiosity and how that leads to so much powerful growth. It really stimulates the brain.

It's wonderful for so many reasons. So we'll talk about that next week. In the meantime, do not fall into the trap that so many people fall into and that is trying the strategy that so many try.

Do everything that everyone else is doing, but just do it better than everyone else. In order to do that well, I'm going to need to work harder than everyone else. I'm going to put in more effort than anyone else, I'm going to be more diligent, more disciplined, I'm going to procrastinate less, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

All of these attributes are wonderful. Please don't get me wrong. Work hard, be diligent, procrastinate less.

However, the strategy is a losing strategy. If you want more information about why that is, check out the Ivy League Challenge. All right.

You can go there easily at tilc to register. Tilc dot t o register. The link is also in the show notes to this podcast and you can follow me on most of the socials right, Instagram and Facebook.

Just look for the handle. The Ivy League challenge. The point is, you can get into a university that is probably well above your weight.

Academically, you can punch above your weight. However, you have to follow a winning strategy. Don't buy into the myth that by working harder and multitasking, you can set yourself apart from a pool of applicants who are just like you, working harder than everyone else, doing everything everyone else is doing, but doing all of it better.

That's a losing strategy. Instead, give yourself the gift of being able to pursue something you are truly interested in with genuine curiosity. Pursue it.

Pursue it. Pursue it. Be curious.

Become a journalist. Explore. And as you do that, you can become an expert.

By becoming an expert, you set yourself apart as someone who is different from the rest of these students who follow the other misguided strategy that we talked about in the introduction to this podcast. There is a better way. Trust me.

It is going to be so much more enjoyable. You can engage in your activities fully when you're pursuing your interests with genuine curiosity. You engage, play, and you live your best life this way.

So I encourage you to adopt this mentality. Reach out to me and let me know how I can help you. Find me at the Ivy Leaguechallenge, register.