Quora: How can I develop a "spike" to get into Harvard?

For anyone interested in attending Harvard — or any other elite university — the question of developing a so-called spike is a good one.

The starting point should probably be understanding the context. Admissions offices at elite schools are inundated with applications from what I call “high numbers students,” by which I mean students with GPAs north of 4.0 and sky high test scores: 34+ ACT and 1500+ SAT. Even after adding a pile of AP classes to the mix, admissions officers are swamped with academic superstars. At some point they have no way to distinguish applicants based on numbers.

To differentiate, admissions officers turn to a student’s non-academic areas. Here they find more accomplishments. They see sports captains, debate champions, and orchestra leaders. All awesome stuff. But, again, there are lots of them, which makes it hard to identify the standout student.

The “spike” is the activity that no other high school student has done. Clearly, it helps to be the daughter of a President. An Olympic medal never hurts. Examples among my own college essay students include publishing a book of poetry, starting a non-profit to create awareness of the environment, and creating a consortium of musicians to nurture appreciation of classical music. And, yes, I even had a student who went to climb Mount Everest.

How do you create your own spike?

The starting point may be to think outside of the school “box”; if it happens in a high school then it is likely to be something that others have done. In other words, originality counts.

Try to think in terms of starting something. Admissions officers are looking for students who will enhance their school, so a student with a record of taking initiative will have an edge.

And start early. The bias in admissions is for depth over breadth. They would rather see a couple activities done over three or four years instead of a half dozen clubs joined junior year. The longer you have done something the more substantial is will appear. There is no faking a “spike.” It either is original and substantial or it isn’t.

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