How to get into an Ivy League school — by someone who got into 6 of them

We’re in the midst of college admissions season, which means a flood of news coverage about how tough it is to get into the nation’s most selective schools and profiles of students who managed to score spots at the most prestigious colleges.

Six years ago, Noam Shapiro was one of those students. An 18-year-old at the time, Shapiro’s ability to net acceptance letters from six out of the eight Ivy League colleges (he only applied to seven of them), in addition to other prestigious schools, like Duke, caught the eye of the New York Daily News. It also helped to establish the trajectory for his post-college life.

“I end up thinking about it a lot,” Shapiro told MarketWatch. Now a college graduate (he chose Yale), Shapiro supplements his income as a theater director by tutoring high-school students and coaching them through the college application and admissions process.

Despite the media’s obsession with them, stories like Shapiro’s are rare. The bulk of American college students don’t attend Ivy League universities or even less-prestigious name-brand schools. Instead, they go to community and regional public colleges and universities. And so while Shapiro supports his students in their efforts to get into Ivy League-caliber colleges, he also pushes them to expand their horizons.

His first piece of advice is, perhaps, surprising. “There are so many incredible colleges in America,” he said. “I encourage students to look beyond the Ivy League and schools that most people know and talk about to find the programs that are right for them.”

But of course, Shapiro has more tangible advice as well

• When it comes to personal essays: “If you’re funny be funny, if you’re not, don’t try to be,” he says. “I often suggest in essays telling a story, starting in the middle of the moment, putting us into your shoes.”

• Do your research. Shapiro sent all of the schools he applied to a personal statement about how his experience studying karate improved his mindfulness and helped him focus. But for college-specific supplemental essays, Shapiro thoroughly researched each school to see which of their particular programs interested him. “Really spend the time reading about the schools, if it’s possible to visit them, visit them. If not, then reach out to faculty and current students as well as alumni.”

• Maybe this goes without saying, but Shapiro says it bears repeating: “Proofread, proofread, proofread,” he said. “The best way to guarantee that you’re not going to get into Harvard is to write in your Harvard essay you want to go Princeton.”

• Be honest on your application. That extends beyond simply avoiding clear-cut lies, Shapiro says. Students shouldn’t pretend they have a certain interest in hopes of getting into a given school. “Just be yourself.”

• Keep perspective: “I encourage students and parents to laugh about the process as much as possible, to recognize how serious and important it is, but to also try and take it as an opportunity to really learn about yourself.”

Even as a high-school student, Shapiro recognized his odds of Ivy League admission were low, despite earning the honor of salutatorian of his class, holding the title of speech team captain and earning a double-black belt in karate, among other accomplishments. That’s part of the reason he applied to so many colleges.

“It was so exciting and also very humbling,” Shapiro said, reflecting on the time when he received many acceptance letters. “I knew so many other students in my grade and students at other schools who were very, very talented and who were either getting in or being wait-listed or were rejected. It’s a competitive and crapshoot process.”

Once Shapiro received all of the happy news, he went about the process of trying to choose a school. A major factor in his choice: finances. Shapiro’s motivation for applying to so many colleges was to get the chance to review a variety of financial aid packages. “Part of my decision was comparing some of the different offers that the schools were able to provide my family with,” he said. Shapiro also visited three of the campuses where he got accepted — an experience he found so valuable that he always advises prospective colleges to do it if they can.

Ultimately Shapiro chose Yale with an eye toward its theater program and liberal arts curriculum, though he intended to pursue a degree and possibly a career in chemistry. But like many college students, he did “kind of a 180” once there, majoring in history and theater studies instead.

Now, in addition to his tutoring business, Noam Shapiro Tutoring, Shapiro is a freelance director and co-founded a theater company, called Lyra Theater, with a classmate from Yale and other friends — a decision he said he wouldn’t have been able to make without support from his family and school.

“Graduating from college, I had a lot of friends who were going into medical school or law school or who were going into consulting firms or banks,” he said. “I have to admit that pursuing theater was seen by some as a risk.”

That experience of support and community that helped him get his theater career off the ground is something Shapiro encourages prospective students to look for when applying to colleges.

The best advice he got? “Find the school where you can see yourself for four years, where you can see yourself as part of a community and where you can see yourself growing as an individual and challenging yourself,” he said. “In the best of situations it’s a community you have for the rest of your life.”

Read an excerpt from the personal statement about karate and mindfulness Shapiro sent to all of the colleges he applied to below:

Kata: A Japanese word describing detailed patterns of movements practiced while attempting to maintain perfect form in the martial arts. The most popular image associated with kata is that of a karate practitioner performing a series of punches and kicks in the air. This is because the practitioner is counseled to visualize the enemy attacks and their responses as if he or she is fighting multiple imaginary opponents.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Open your eyes. Begin.

I’m in a dark alleyway. I hear a sound to my left and see a man rushing toward me. I step to the side, flip the man over, and move on to my next opponent. I keep breathing.

This fight doesn’t really exist. When I finish my kata combinations, my Sensei gives the command and I relax. Sweat drips down my face and onto my neck. “Good,” she says. Her light blue eyes spot me catching my breath. “Now do it again—like your life depends on it.”

It’s Friday afternoon, and after a long week of early mornings and late nights, I cherish the moment when I step into my karate dojo. As I take off my shoes and put on my uniform, my daily concerns fall to the side, giving way to total mindfulness. In these moments of flow, I break free from my routine, shake off any tension, and live in the present.


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