Each year a handful of our high school students gain entry to some of the world’s top universities. It’s an exclusive, mysterious process - but should it be? Kirsty Johnston looks at what it takes to get in.

Mention the name of an Ivy League school and the assumption about the students who go there is immediate - genius, or rich.

For many of the pupils, that may be true, but a handful of New Zealand teenagers accepted into top universities show that is not always the case and that entry can be more accessible than thought.

Among the students who made it into the schools and that the Herald interviewed, the standout factor, other than academic ability, was dedication.

All the students had packed timetables with study commitments, sport, music, volunteering and leadership - and they had been living like that for their entire high school lives.

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"Spare time?" asked Charlotte Valentine, a former St Cuthbert's College student.

"I tutored kids at the primary across the road with their reading and writing, or coached water polo."

For these bright young people, the main barrier to applying to top schools was accessing information about the "long and arduous" application process.

"I feel there are many students in New Zealand who may not be aware of their potential to get into top universities abroad," said Harvard-bound student Louisa Wang.

"And others who have much motivation and passion but lack a sense of direction."

To help her fellow students, Ms Wang is organising a one-off conference next month.

It is a smaller model of what former King's College student Jamie Beaton has turned into a successful business. Mr Beaton, now at Harvard, battled through the application process himself in 2011 and was eventually accepted to 25 universities, including most of the Ivy League.

He co-founded Crimson Consulting after seeing the gap in the information market. Their client list is now at 300 and Crimson has several million dollars in investments.

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Parents can pay for their children to join - there are a variety of courses - and then get customised mentoring, tutoring and help with shaping their goals. Crimson also speaks at schools. If there are promising students who can't afford the programme, funding is available.

"The reason why we do this is that we really believe all students should have access," Mr Beaton says.

"They leave more committed to their own success, more self-aware and capable as individual learners."

Mr Beaton says Crimson does not mean to imply New Zealand universities are not good, but that some students will benefit from extra opportunities.

"We just want people to know it isn't scary, and there's heaps of support out there."

Secondary Principals' Association president Sandy Pasley said she welcomed more information for students.

"I think it's good that students in New Zealand have the opportunity to do whatever they want to do," she said. "People wrongly assume that NCEA means you can't go overseas, but that's wrong."

Mrs Pasley said the numbers going offshore were still small, with many of the best and brightest going to university here.

Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University Stuart McCutcheon said he was not worried about Crimson assisting students to go overseas - he would only be worried if they didn't return home.

"Like all things it's good in moderation, and it's good for the country to get experience overseas," he said.

"The question for New Zealand is how many are studying away and how many will come back."

Cherie Jia, 17

Cherie Jia. Photo / Nick Reed.
Cherie Jia. Photo / Nick Reed.

A friend's brother with cerebral palsy gave Cherie Jia the idea for her charity - an idea that has seen her accepted into the top-ranked university in the world and inspired her to continue to help others through science.

Cherie, 17, began volunteering at the Auckland Cerebral Palsy School as a primary student. She began a buddy system to help the children interact, and ended up fundraising, including for a girl who had surgery in the US.

"I just thought that these kids might be quite lonely. Some people only see them for their disability and we should see them as our peers," she said.

Cherie, who has also been accepted for the International Biology Olympiad, was top in three subjects at her school. After university she wants to research how drugs can improve wellbeing, inspired by pharmaceutical scientist Sir Ray Avery.

Her parents will pay the US$60,000 ($86,800) per year in fees as she doesn't qualify for financial aid.

Secondary school: Auckland International College.

Studied: International Baccalaureate.

University: Caltech, US.

Course: Biomedical Engineering.

Louisa Wang, 18

Louisa Wang, 18, is off to study at Harvard University. Photo / Dean Purcell
Louisa Wang, 18, is off to study at Harvard University. Photo / Dean Purcell

In her time off, Louisa Wang likes to bake. But in her last years of school, down time didn't happen very often; as well as taking six scholarship subjects (having already passed Level 3 Calculus and Japanese in Year 12) the 18-year-old was a student librarian, a student representative, the president of the Chinese Cultural Association, played violin in the orchestra, did debating and organised an environmental entrepreneurship competition for her fellow students.

Louisa, who won a full scholarship to Harvard, said it had always been a dream of hers to go overseas, and she started preparing for the SAT exams (which you need to get in) around Year 10. Her extensive resume must have impressed, as her interview via Skype was only 10 minutes long.

She is yet to decide what to study, but is excited about the liberal arts course.

"In New Zealand, I feel like you have to think about your career prospects, and worry about a major that will get a job.

"I want to do what I'm passionate about and then create a career from there."

Louisa chose Harvard for its diversity - they have a "need blind" programme, picking students no matter what background they have.

Secondary school: Rangitoto College.

Studied: NCEA and Scholarship.

University: Harvard, US.

Course: Liberal Arts

Charlotte Valentine, 18

Charlotte Valentine is off to Princeton. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Charlotte Valentine is off to Princeton. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Despite getting into two top universities - Princeton and Duke - Charlotte Valentine says she should have studied harder.

"But I just didn't have time," she says. "I also took a month off school last year to go to Spain ... that probably didn't help."

Charlotte, a national water polo player, was training 13 times a week in her final year at school, and still maintained top marks - excellences in everything and scholarship in three subjects.

While Charlotte is a gifted academic, she believes that's not what helped her get in to the top schools.

She was also house captain, tutored other students and coached in her spare time, and with water polo, thinks she had "something just a little bit different".

"They're looking for more than just academics, you need to do something outside of study that is high level."

Charlotte says her main reason for wanting to go overseas is the opportunities. "There was a while when I was thinking, New Zealand has such good universities, why would I want to leave," she says.

"But where you go to university will have a big impact on where your network is, and then the doors that open to you for internships or work might be a bit more interesting."

She chose Princeton as it offers water polo. Her parents will pay the USD$60,000 annually in fees.

Secondary school: St Cuthbert's College.

Studied: NCEA and Scholarship.

University: Princeton, US.

Course: Liberal Arts.

Harrison Fookes, 19

Harrison Fookes is off to Cambridge University. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Harrison Fookes is off to Cambridge University. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Heading overseas to university was such a pipe dream for Harrison Fookes, that he was already part way through his first semester at Victoria in Wellington when he got the call to say he'd been accepted.

Harrison, described as an "exceptionally gifted, multi-talented, natural leader" had won the Girdlers' scholarship to Cambridge University. "

Even getting the interview had exceeded my expectations," he said.

"I looked at the UK but it was so expensive, so I'm really grateful to be getting the opportunity."

Harrison got dux of his school twice - the first time in Year 12 - and also volunteered with the disadvantaged, was a deputy head prefect, rowing captain, coached football and debating, and played the saxophone.

He says while he loves Victoria he thinks Cambridge has a number of differences that will allow him to flourish.

"It's really international, it's more intense. Also I'll be able to travel while I'm there and go to debating tournaments or rowing races and that's hugely exciting."

He says while New Zealand universities are amazing it's important people realise there are a lot of opportunities out there, both in undergraduate and post-grad.

Harrison's three-year tuition will be paid by the scholarship of $50,000 per year.

Secondary school: Sacred Heart College, Auckland.

Studied: NCEA and scholarship.

University: Cambridge, UK.

Course: Law.

Tips from the top

• Start early. The more well-rounded you are, the better. The US universities also look for four years of marks so just picking your act up in Year 13 will not be enough.

• Do extra-curricular activities outside of academic work that are at a high level, such as sport.

• Leadership abilities are important - both picking up roles inside your school, and creating opportunities in the community. Run a charity or join a youth leadership programme.

• You need to show you are good at time management and can balance a heavy schedule.

• Sitting Cambridge exams or International Baccalaureate can help but they aren't compulsory. NCEA is still a way of entry. Most of the universities have regional offices which understand the qualifications.

• But you have to show you have challenged yourself - gone over and above, no matter what your school offers.

• In personal essays, you need to show how you are different and why the school would want you. Remember, being from New Zealand isn't a disadvantage, it is part of what makes you interesting.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-2015

1.

California Institute of Technology

2.

Harvard University

3.

University of Oxford

4.

Stanford University

5.

University of Cambridge

6.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

7.

Princeton University

8.

University of California, Berkeley

9=

Imperial College London

9=

Yale University