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Advice from Inside the Ivy Admissions Committees

Most Ivy League consultants have merely attended a top US university. At ITS, our expertise comes from inside the admissions committee. Dr. Richards leads our Ivy Candidates Program with his insight from nine years on various Harvard Admissions Committees. He also guides student writing based on tutorial models he used as an English professor at Harvard. Our Ivy Candidates Program is a comprehensive dual-counsellor program with over a decade of  experience helping students into the top universities in the US.

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Thomas Richards
Dr. Richards
Ph.D. English Stanford
ex-Harvard Professor of English
ex-Harvard Admissions Committee member
Michael Li
Mr. Michael Li
(B.A.) Mathematics and Economics
IB Examiner (Math)
ITS Director of US Admissions

How We Help

SAT/ACT/SAT II Optimization

Students arrive withAdvice from Inside the Ivy Admissions Committees a baseline capability. Through building fundamentals and test strategies, our ivy candidates strive for the perfection on all required standardized tests.

Academic Profiling and Transcript Review

Counselors monitor student grades to stay abreast of student performance. If a student needs a subject teacher, we provide only teachers who are currently teaching in secondary schools, graduates of the subject they teach, and/or IB examiners.

Extracurricular Advice

Students need to stay active and engaged in their community, but not in menial positions of mere participation. We help students find activities that might precipitate meaningful experiences.

Passion Project Guidance

This is the most bespoke aspect of our service. A student who follows an academic or artistic curiosity towards hard-earned knowledge can become an irresistible university candidate.

Portfolio Building

For students interested in arts, counsellors provide a sounding board for investing meaning into practice, technique, and execution.

University Selection

This often coincides with a student’s foray deeper into their true passions and subsequent rationale for going to university. The intended course of study dictates the ideal palette of university applications.

Recommendation Bolstering

Helping students get the most out of their relationships with mentors and teachers who might be targets for letters of recommendation.

Essay Writing

The process of writing is not one of recording and observing. It is instead one of discovery, a continual and iterative process that elicits insights unique to each student. This is the most essential aspect of the entire application process. We like to see students spend at least 10 months focusing intensively on their self-awareness and self-expression.

Application Expertise

Many parents are going through the process for the first (and sometimes) only time. Work with those who have gone through dozens of application cycles with students of all variety of background and interest.

Interview Preparation

This plays only a minor role in the US undergraduate admissions systems. However, we prepare our students for the semi-informal chats that us Americans love to have.


Frequently Asked Questions

I first teach my students how to write with care and craft. Only through their writing can students move toward thinking their own thoughts, becoming, intellectually, as deeply themselves as they can.

Academic culture is a culture of words. Americans often have a great casualness about language, a sloppiness of expression. The great universities and colleges do not. The degree of precision, accuracy, and elegance commensurate with these schools is rarely broached at high school.

Only in the most general sense. They may read Elizabeth Bishop’s essays, or Guy Davenport’s, or Richard Rodriguez’s. Virginia Woolf’s Diary or John Cheever’s Journals. But what they take away is their own. Reading these writers goes toward developing a trust ofwhat is going on in your own mind, and building a confidence that you can represent it in your own way.

High grades and scores certainly are one indicator of intelligence. But even more, they are an indicator ofthe willingness ofa student to please teachers. The great universities see themselves as places for disturbing the universe. They are looking for people whose locus of evaluation exists primarily within themselves, people who not not necessarily lookto others for approval or disapproval. A good application should give you a feeling of looking in on a very interesting life, a self-chosen life undertaken for its own sake.

It varies. Some students I start working with in the tenth or eleventh grade. The emphasis there is in finding an academic direction and beginning to follow it. I also work with twelfth-graders who are well along in this process but still need to find the right degree ofemphasis in presenting themselves.

The answer is in the word "usual".The usual activities are dependent rather than independent undertakings. Gradually, of course, one can begin to distinguish oneselfwithin them, but as such they often offer little discretion for students to find their own way outside of preconceived channels and categories.

Anyone with good powers of concentration knows that those powers, though extensive, are limited. Nobody can stay at full focus all the time. I encourage my students to work effectively, which includes knowing when they work best, just how much they can take on, and when to stop working. I think it’sjust fine for students to work harder for some courses than for others. A perfect record is in some ways a red flag to admissions committees, a sign that a student is so focused on pleasing adults that he or she lacks a sense of inner direction. Who among us can really be good at everything?

The schools themselves are looking for an incipient intellectual maturity, an open awareness of ideas and their shaping power. They are also looking for students whose beliefs are not rigid, who have a high tolerance for ambiguity. And they are seeking students who have an openness to specifically intellectual experience. In this sense simply telling your own story in an application essay is not enough.There has to be an intellectual tilt to what you are saying about yourself, and that is where I come in. It takes a lot of work-a lot of reading and a lot ofwriting-to know what you are thinking about things, to see where your thoughts come from, and to experience your own thoughts as uniquely yours. Part of Harvard’s success resides in the personal emphasis of its tutorial system in teaching students how to think and write. I try to bring this to every student I work with.

Article: What Ivy League students are reading that you aren't (Great reading list for IVY League candidates)

All the big schools want students who will contribute to the school community while they are there and will then go on to have an impact in the world. That could be anything from the obvious such as becoming an influential person such as a political, community or business leader through to contributing something meaningful to human culture to perhaps being the best parent you can be an influencing children who will have an impact. When applying, the trick is to get the message across. The colleges have carefully designed their admissions process to try and predict who will be an achiever. That’s why you need to put your resources into the application.

Sometimes the old rules withstand the test of time for good reason. And this is the answer. Your past achievements are a great indicator of your potential. Not the be all and end all but very useful. And the best way to indicate potential success is to really focus on one particular characteristic of your profile that you really excel at and use that to convince them you can be even better.

Not really. The problem with being well-rounded is that you are less likely to excel at any one thing. How are you going to change the world if you’re not all that good at anything? Generally the modern world has become so specialised that it is your focus that counts. Of course you will have other activities that show you do relax and are likely to have good mental health, but the big schools want people who are really good at particular things and that usually requires that you will have devoted large amounts of effort to it already.

Not really. Again, you need some perspective. How big is your high-school year? 200 people maybe? Where do they come from? Within Hong Kong. How likely is it that this pool of people will rule the world in 20 years? Not likely. We never realise until we leave high-school just how small a world we were in. There are many thousands of highly talented people out there and you are competing with them, not your high-school buddies.

Yes. This shows excellence. You may not want to have a career linked to that. That is fine. Right now you are just trying to demonstrate excellence as an indicator of continued and future excellence. Also, remember the US degree system allows you flexibility to change subject focus as you go.

Well you need something truly impressive (for a teen student). It needs to be difficult to do and needs deep, consistent commitment to achieve. You need to demonstrate your passion. This is true for all top schools in the world. Heard of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK? They are the same – they only want the top students who have a fierce passion for one subject and can demonstrate it. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT in the US are all the same. Top schools are top because they get the top people. Top people are really good at something.

Of course. It does not matter where you are from or where you are at school. It matters whether you stand out to the schools you apply to. Hong Kong has alumni societies for all the top schools. There is the Yale Club of Hong Kong, Harvard Club of Hong Kong, Brown University Alumni Association, The Cornell Club of Hong Kong, Penn Club of Hong Kong, Dartmouth Club of Hong Kong, The Princeton Club of Hong Kong and The Columbia University Alumni Association – so all the Ivy League schools. There is the MIT Club and the Stanford Club and many other from all the best US schools. What is important is that you present your application in the right way.

Yes and no. Remember you are applying to one of the top universities in the world and you are competing against thousands of others to get a place. If you are hugely successful already at something then you are actually only competing with a few hundred and as that is less than the intake you should get in easily as long as you do not have any huge negatives to your profile. But even then, you need strong academics, you need to score well on your GPA and SAT/ACT and so on. Here’s a hint: if you can’t do those things very easily then you are not top school material. Even if you won a place there in a fantasy lottery you wouldn’t be happy.

YES. This is where you will probably stand out. Most applicants have all the same applications for the school stuff. Your extra-curricular could be subject related e.g. a physicist who spends time at the Hong Kong Observatory, or a musician playing for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, or it could be less direct such as being in the Hong Kong Olympic Development squad.

It’s decision time. Either give up dreaming of the top US schools or set yourself to work. You can achieve an awful lot in a relatively short time. If applications are next month, you already missed this year. But if you have a year, then think about it. You have 40 hours a week or so for school. You should sleep 8 hours a night and you need a couple of hours a day for family and just functioning. So 110 hours a week are taken. How do you use the other 58? Over the year you also have 14 weeks off school. If you had 4 weeks real holiday you would still have 10 weeks with 98 hours spare. So you basically have over 3000 hours a year to devote to other activities. If you want to go to a top school, devote 1000 of them to ONE activity. And think big. You still need to stand out. Play on a top level team and captain it. Start a You Tube channel and get a 100k subscribers. Volunteer and convince the organisation to implement your solution to a problem. Etc etc. But stay true to yourself. If you don’t have the passion it will all be a waste and a miserable waste.

Interviews are sometimes required and you should ask your application counsellor about which schools might interview you anyhow to prepare.

You could say the possibilities are endless.

Does your academic history so far reflect the type of student you will be if you attend here?
If you could change one thing about your past education so far, what would it be and why?
What activities do you hope to be involved in outside of the classroom?
If you win a place here, how will that help you achieve your academic or career goals?
What do you hope to get from your college experience?
What is most important to you in deciding where to attend college?
What do you think are the benefits of attending this college?

Contact us at [email protected] for more information.

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