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“Don't stop until you're proud.” | A Harvard Alum on Getting into Harvard

We had the privilege of interviewing Taylor Reneau and asked for some experience about: Getting into Harvard

Taylor is:

  • an alum of top private university, Harvard University in Massachusetts.

  • founder of IvyAdvise - an online course to help high school students get into dream schools

  • a YouTuber who speaks on various topics about education

She shares some reflective words:

  • "Focusing on one detail in depth is much better than focusing on three details superficially."

  • "I just put my head down, repressed my emotions for four years, and knew there was light on the other end of the high-school tunnel."

  • "...I didn’t rest until I had completed all of my work to near perfection"

Q: What would you say made you stand out for Harvard, and what advice would you give for anyone who wants to display their ‘unique spike(s)’ to colleges?

A: The unique thing about my profile is that I was the opposite of a “spiky” student; I was a well-rounded student. A true Renaissance woman in academics, arts, and athletics. What helped me stand out, therefore, was the fact that my essays were superb. Pro tip: You can make your writing stand out more by focusing on specifics instead of explaining your whole life. Focusing on one detail in depth is much better than focusing on three details superficially.

Now, I didn’t necessarily do this in my essay, but what I did is I showed how my talents merged to an even greater ambition: creating a charter school for underprivileged students. If you happen to be like me (i.e. not spiky), the essay is what you need to double down on.

Q: What advice would you give to anyone who aspires to get into a top school?

A: 1.) Start early. I’m talking 9th grade or earlier. 2.) Get a perfect on the ACT or SAT. Seriously. It will give you a huge leg up over your competitors. 3.) Try to be as “spiky” of a student as you can be. 4.) Get a college admissions consultant. It will save you time (and it will save you from yourself and making mistakes).

Q: How did you spend your summers, if you could give a percentage of how much you had down time, and how much you worked (Ex: 90% study, 10% play)?

A: In high school, I spent my summers relaxing, reading, swimming, and playing tennis. I probably did about 99% play and 1% work. One summer, though, I did get the amazing opportunity to go to China to learn about the difference between eastern and western medicine! And now that I’m thinking about it… one summer I did get invited to Leadership Camp and Math Camp. It always felt more like fun than learning, though. If I did work, it was always related to some kind of summer schoolwork. I think there was only summer where I did more work than usual, and that was only because I did summer gym that year.

Q: How many leadership positions did you handle while in high school, what kind (ex. President, chair member, captain, etc), and how did you manage to maintain without dropping expectations?

A: The things I did typically didn’t have leaders. I ran really fast for my school’s track team and went to State, but we didn’t have captains. I painted like a fiend, but we didn’t have awards. I out-mathed the mathiest, but there weren’t any accolades for it. I think the only real position I held was treasurer of my school’s NHS… and that was a joke. I will say, however, that the things I focused on took up ALL of my free time. To get through that? Basically I just put my head down, repressed my emotions for four years, and knew there was light on the other end of the high-school tunnel.

Q: How was your college essay structured?

A: Oh gosh. I can’t even begin to explain how I wove it all together. It wasn’t unstructured, but it all fit so well together in the most unexpected of ways. If you want to see it (i.e. the essay that got me into Harvard), you can download it here:

Q: How did you get inspiration to write your college essay in such a way that you made sure it stood out (reading other essays, all the books collectively read over the years, external surroundings)?

A: I was a noob back when I wrote my college essays, which is really ironic, because now, for a living, I run a company called Ivy Advise that helps students get into Ivy League schools. But, back in the day, the only inspiration I used for my essay was the prompt that Berkeley wanted students to respond to. They asked something along the lines of, “How have the experiences in your life shaped what you want to do in the future?”. I took that question and went ham on it.

I also had another essay about seashells that was pretty weak but that I ended up loving. My inspiration for that essay was that I came up with the perfect first line. I wrote, “It was the wrong time of the year for a beach to exist.” I loved that line. Loved it. The artist in me told me that I needed to write an entire essay just so that I could make sure that line would see the light of day. So I did. Again, this is not what I would recommend for students nowadays, but it is what I did back then.

Q: What type of projects did you undertake on your own(experiments, forming a club, nonprofit, research, internships, etc)?

A: Nothing. I undertook nothing on my own. I grew up in the middle of Ohio, and I had no idea that there was life outside of the school and clubs that had already been set up for me. My saving grace was that I was good at the things that were already set up.

Q: Were the opportunities in your high school more or less the reason why you got in, or did you make your own opportunities? If so, how did you accomplish that?

A: Everything I did, I did within the context of school opportunities.

Q: If you had stubborn counselors or teachers in your school, how did you convince them to take an extra load of AP’s or courses that you needed for your dream college?

A: I asked. I simply asked. The hardest schedule I ever had to make work was taking multi-variable calculus classes at my local college. I had to leave my last high-school class 10 minutes early every day, speed across town, and arrive 10 minutes late to my calculus class (just so that I could leave 5 minutes early and be 5 minutes late to track practice). It was insanity, but I made it work. And it worked because I had a good reputation, teachers trusted me, and I asked.

Q: Everyone always has an efficient study routine for them (helps them finish things faster, get high grades with less stress etc.) what would you describe yours to be?

A: My best study routine is as follows: 1.) Pay attention in class, interact, and take solid notes. 2.) Read through all your notes the night(s) before, jot down the hardest-to-remember concepts on a “cheat sheet”. 3.) In the last hours before the test, review your cheat sheet again and again and again. 4.) Put away the cheat sheet and take the test. Bonus: I found that it helps when I cover part of the material with my hand and quiz myself. When I have zero difficulty remembering something, I move on to the next concept.

Q: What would you say played a bigger role in your success? The environment or self-motivation?

A: It was 20/80 for environment/self-motivation. My school had amazing opportunities, no doubt, and I would be nothing without those opportunities. That being said, there were a lot of students who went to my school who didn’t take advantage of everything great it had to offer. One of my greatest strengths was that I didn’t rest until I had completed all of my work to near perfection. I don’t think there was a single student in that school who understood the amount of time I would put into completing assignments. It was silly. It was crazy. But also… it’s a large part of what got me in.

If you want to know more about Taylor, take a look at her LinkedIn, her YouTube Channel YesReneau, and her business, Ivy Advise.


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