SPARTA, NJ -Quiet but quite remarkable.  Sparta High School senior Simon Levien found himself with a big decision to make: Harvard or Stanford or one of 17 others schools.. Ivy League School acceptance day was something of an event for the senior with six Ivy League acceptances and waitlist at two others. 

“This really has been surreal, almost dream-like,” Levien said. “This is an outcome I could never have imagined.”

He took time out from studying for his AP’s to talk with TAPinto Sparta about the college process.  For students aiming for elite colleges, Levien suggests staying focused on what matters.  "Find your niche and once you’ve found it, dig in. Don’t spread yourself too thin or pursue activities just because you think they’ll help you get into college.”

Sign Up for E-News

This is advice Levien followed.  Throughout his high school career, Levien sought opportunities to hone his writing skills, typically on scientific and technology topics.  He has been winning contests and awards based on his writings and scholarship for years. He has had his essays published in journals and in the New York Times. 

This student did not wait for opportunities to come to him.  He went out and found them.

Levien and Will Theilacker with biology teacher Ken Scognamiglio wrote a grant to the Sparta Education Foundation to bring CRISPR/Cas9 Classroom kits to the school.  He had written an essay for the New Jersey Science Teachers Association publication on the topic making a case for including CRIPSR in the classroom. 

He also advises not to overstress about grades and scores.  “Harvard rejects thousands of perfect scorers… so hone your subjective side.  Be genuine, shine as weird and uniquely you as you are in your essay,” Levien said.

This is not to say Levien is not a conscientious student.  He is a member of the first class of the Sparta High School STEM Academy and the Salutatorian of the Class of 2019.  

“The amount of stress is enormous,” his mother Anna Levien said. 

Exhibiting a level of scholarship that sheds light on why so many schools want him on their campus, Levien said, “A few good poems I recommend for students going through the process are ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley or ‘A Dream Deferred’ by Langston Hughes that helped me personally.”

This is the season when many students are checking the mailbox for news and discussing options with family and friends.  The process can be a lot of hurry up, wait and then hurry up again to decide.

“If you don't get into the place you want to be, remember that competitive college admissions is a non-transparent, corrupt process that tries its hardest to masquerade as meritocratic and fair,” Levien said. “So while it's easy to take acceptances/rejections personally, I don't anymore. I consider myself but a lucky survivor in a random-chance lottery.” 

Levien has not yet landed on a major.  He said he “likes molecular biology and writing/journalism, alongside other science-humanities things.” Additionally, Levien has a wide range of interests including linguistics, medieval art/history, topology, environmental studies and “a few other disparate areas.” He hopes to be able to take courses on those topics as well.

He was accepted to nearly every school with three waitlist designations and one rejection.  Levien has his choice of:

  • Harvard University
  • Columbia University,
  • Brown University,
  • Darthmouth College
  • Cornell University,
  • University of Pennsylvania,
  • Cal Tech,
  • University of California Los Angles,
  • University of California Berlekey,
  • University of California Davis,
  • University of California San Diego,
  • Johns Hopkins University,
  • Vanderbilt University,
  • Rochester Polytechnical Institute,
  • Stevens Institute of Technology,
  • Northeastern University,
  • Northwestern University,
  • Washington University,
  • Rutgers University.

He was waitlisted at University of Chicago, Yale University and Princeton University.  Levien’s only rejection was from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Why so many applications?  Levien said he applied to so many colleges “last minute out of a fee-waivered paranoia of not getting in anywhere that I could afford.”

Some statistics to ponder; according to Business Insider for the Class of 2021 there were 39,506 applications to Harvard and 2,092 or 5.2% were accepted, Cornell accepted 6,277 students from 44,966 applications or 13.96%, Dartmouth College accepted 2,092 from 20,034 applicants or 10.4 %, Brown accepted 2,722 from 32,724 applicants or 8.3%, Columbia accepted 2,185 from 37,389 applicants or 5.8% and University of Pennsylvania accepted 3,699 from 40,413 applications or 9.2%.

Looking at that impressive list might give the impression that this student does not have much to worry about.  Levien talks about having the same second thoughts that nearly everyone going through the college acceptance process has.                  

“Many of us spend so much time yearning, wishing we did more to get an edge in college admissions, that we didn't have the opportunities or connections as other applicants did, that we obsess about the cards we've been dealt when so many students around the world cannot even afford to play the game,” Levien said. “Sometimes I wonder if I spent my time in high school right, and while I think I did, I certainly have some regrets. Just remember yourself in this game of admissions. Pick your head up once in a while.”

With College Decision Day looming, this is the season when many students are checking the mailbox for news and discussing options with family and friends.  The process can be a lot of hurry up, wait and then hurry up again to decide.

“If you don't get into the place you want to be, remember that competitive college admissions is a non-transparent, corrupt process that tries its hardest to masquerade as meritocratic and fair,” Levien said. “So while it's easy to take acceptances/rejections personally, I don't anymore. I consider myself but a lucky survivor in a random-chance lottery.” 

When asked about the person who has influenced him Levien said, “I’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate enough to be surrounded by many family, friends and others who have supported or helped me in one way or another through this stressful process. So many have been so gracious to me.”

 “All I can really say is thank you, thank you to all the people who've helped me throughout this experience,” Levien said. “I am eternally grateful.”