Advice for Ivy League Hopefuls

Olympic medalists.  Concert pianists.  Teenage mathematicians who enjoy pointing out the inherent limitations of calculus.   Ivy League applicant pools are chock full of these students.  But there’s one trait those students who are ultimately admitted all have in common; something that when coupled with their perfect GPAs, top test scores and multiple Nobel Prizes makes them that much more appealing to Ivy League admissions officers.

Most of them never said the words, “I want to go to an Ivy League school.” 

The “Ivy League” (there are eight schools in the Ivy League—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale) is not a label that was bestowed upon colleges that were somehow recognized as the best; the term actually refers to an athletic conference.  In the 1940s, eight schools agreed to standardize their athletic eligibility requirements and financial aid practices for athletes.   That’s about all that the Ivy League schools have in common (well, that and the fact that Ohio State would beat the snot out of any of them in a football game). 

A student who says, “I want to go to an Ivy League school” is really just revealing that he cares more about how famous a college is than he does about what the unique learning environment will be like.   He’s showing symptoms of a bad case of name-brand envy.  That’s not a student that’s going to get an Ivy acceptance.      

Highly selective colleges like those in the Ivy League don’t want name-brand seekers.  They want ambitious, passionate, intellectually curious students who want to make valuable contributions in and out of the classrooms.  And more importantly, they want students who are confident enough to select each particular school based on fit, regardless of the school’s inclusion in the Ivy League athletic conference.

The fact that Brown University (a school that puts the liberal in “liberal arts”) is in the Ivy League isn’t what draws students who are ultimately accepted there.  They apply because they want to embrace the academic freedom Brown offers to explore a wide range of intellectual interests.  Accepted students talk about how they want to create their own major that combines music and physics (you can do it at Brown), how frustrating it was that their high school didn’t offer German as a foreign language option, and how they’d love to try a few anthropology courses using Brown’s “Pass/No Pass” option.  They appreciate the uniqueness that is Brown.

We’re not suggesting that you should pick an Ivy League school and then attempt to reverse engineer yourself to fit that school’s mission.  You are a not a widget—don’t act like one.  You need to find the colleges that fit you, not fit yourself to the colleges. 

If you really want to attend a highly-selective college like an Ivy League school, show them that you’re mature and confident enough to care more about what you’ll experience in college than you do about how famous a college’s name is.  Find the schools that fit you best.  And when you’re asked, “Why do you want to attend this college?” have a better answer than, “It’s a great school” (they hate that answer, by the way).

If some of the Ivy League schools end up on your list, great.  But if they don’t, that’s OK.  There are plenty of other leagues out there for you.