The Ultimate Do’s & Don’ts for Getting Accepted Into Your Dream Ivy League & Top-tier College (Without Feeling Overwhelmed and Confused)

We often look to our parents for advice. As an immigrant family, however, there was one life experience my parents couldn’t advise me on: the college admissions process.

When I started looking for ways to stand out on my college applications my junior year of high school, I was completely clueless about where to start.

So, I took the advice everyone gives: “Get involved!”

Boy, was I involved. I was an active member of many extracurricular clubs and activities, while trying to stay on top of my AP coursework and study for my upcoming SAT exams.

I was completely burnt out, and what’s worse, I had convinced myself that I was proud of being burnt out. Like it was what I should be doing as a high school student. Like getting minimal sleep and filling all my free time was an accomplishment of some sort.

And it felt that way, until I got really sick. So sick that I couldn’t show up for ANY of my finals that first semester of my junior year, which didn’t do wonders for my GPA. And for what? Sure, I had a full resume, but so did every other student applying to my dream schools. All my participation made me busy, but it wouldn’t make me stand out.

All this made me realize that I needed to take control of my own path again. I needed to cut out any extracurricular activities and efforts that did not exactly align with my passion, and find one thing that did. I started to volunteer at a local elementary school. There, I created my first passion project — a program that focused on helping low-income students master math and literacy.

From then on, I focused on what I was truly passionate about. I wrote compelling essays about this passion project, and I reached out to professors about it. (And I started going to bed at a reasonable hour.)

I didn’t have a bunch of extracurriculars. I didn’t attend any summer programs. I didn’t do what everyone else was doing.

Instead, I demonstrated that I was an action-taker. I got accepted into USC and Harvard without the best GPA, because I showed them that I could take initiative and was determined to grow. My passion project said more about me than 100 extracurriculars or a 4.0 ever could.

It’s tempting to try to stand out by “getting involved” like I did, but TRUST ME, every student has the ability to demonstrate that same achievement WITHOUT burning you out!

All it takes is one Passion Project to show your dream Ivy League & Top-tier colleges who you really are.

If you’re new to college admissions like I was, it’s easy to make mistakes in the process of trying to get into your dream school. But you only have three years of high school to demonstrate to college admissions officers who you really are, so there’s no time to waste!

To maximize your time and stand out on college applications, here are some major Dos & Don’ts:

DON’T: Try to become a “well-rounded” student

This might sound crazy, but colleges aren’t necessarily looking for the traditional well-rounded student anymore — they’re looking for a well-rounded class. What they want from you is diversity. They are looking for a student who is unique in their own ways, highlighting what their interests are, what their values are, what their passion is.

While participating in a variety of clubs and activities is impressive, it doesn’t give college admissions officers a sense of who you are. It’s hard to demonstrate your own personality through what everyone else is already participating in.

DON’T: Try to show that you’re hardworking by doing as much as possible

That means trying to get a lot of awards, a lot of certificates, a lot of clubs, a lot of extracurriculars, a lot of this and that. This was my big mistake.

College admissions officers are never going to say, “Let’s accept this student because they’re so good at multitasking!” They’re going to accept a student based on how they demonstrate their passions, not based on how many they have!

DON’T: Attend university summer camps & programs in hopes that you will stand out

Many colleges offer summer camps and programs. So if your dream school offers a program, you might be thinking, “Great! If they see that I attended a program at their own school, that should help my chances of getting in! Right?”

The short answer is no. Odds are, the majority of students aiming for that dream school are attending these programs, too. Not only are you losing the opportunity to stand out by joining a summer-long program that so many other students are attending, you’re also losing time that could be spent on what’s actually going to set you apart.

DO: Find the one thing you’re passionate about, and create a project/participate in activities that align with it!

Cutting down your commitments and embarking on a passion project might seem daunting at first. But I can promise you that working toward one thing you are truly passionate about will showcase more of who you are, and give college admissions officers actual, concrete evidence of your character and accomplishments.

Developing a passion project will showcase your personality, interests, and initiative without spreading you too thin

To develop your own passion project, follow these steps:

1. Strategize

First, you’ll want to pick a theme to align your academic career and with. What are you passionate about? What are your interests? Now, what academic area can best fit those interests? Having a clear theme will give you a clear sense of direction when creating a project. 

2. Brainstorm

Start brainstorming passion projects that could align with the theme you strategized. You could create an informational platform/website, start a research assistant position, even start a service-based organization/program like I did! Having a passion project that aligns with your theme can give colleges clear evidence all of the things are looking for from you: your talents and abilities, personal qualities, and your fit for the school.

3. Execute

A passion project that stops in the ideation phase is just that — an idea. Now you’ll need to take action steps to make the project a reality. An important part of this phase is staying consistent. For instance, if you want to start a podcast about political science-related topics, you’ll want to regularly publish episodes. If you’re starting an after-school educational program for middle schoolers, meet with them regularly. Consistency makes it evident that you are passionate and hardworking — and gives more experience to write about in your application.

4. Scale

Finally, it’s time to take your project to the next level. Scaling your project is all about getting it out into the public sphere. You can do this in a number of ways: get published in a newspaper or magazine, collaborate with like-minded organizations, maybe even organize an event. The fact that you, your messaging and your passion project are in the public eye gives you immense credibility in the eyes of colleges.

As with many things in life, colleges are looking for quality over quantity. As soon as you stop over-committing yourself and hone in on what activities actually, clearly demonstrate your passions and abilities, you’ll gain one of the most valuable things a student can have — more time.

More time to study for the SAT or ACT exams. More time to work on your passion project. More time to network with counselors, college admissions officers, and professors and get awesome recommendation letters.

You will feel more energized and motivated because you’re focusing on quality versus quantity. And that is what’s really going to make a difference in your application.

Are you ready to brainstorm and execute your Passion Project?

If your answer is YES, click here to watch my free masterclass on how to stand out doing what you love.


Want to know the “exact” framework my students used to receive acceptance letters from Princeton, Duke, U of Michigan, Rice, Columbia, and so many more Ivy League & Top-tier colleges? Click here!


By Julie Kim Ed.M Harvard University