Over the past year I have read and responded to many questions from bright, eager high school students who want to know if they have what it takes to get in to their dream schools. Usually, their inquiries go something like this: “These are my grades, these are my test scores, these are my extracurricular activities, etc. Do I have what it takes to get in?” or “I’ve been doing really well, but I have this one problem. Can I still get in?” The answer of course is always some variation on “it depends.” I always give the most helpful, specific advice I can, but in the end, even if you do everything right, elite college admissions always involves an element of luck. Thousands of kids apply to these elite colleges every year, and even though 15 to 20% may have what it takes, in the end only 5 to 10% will be admitted. There are simply fewer spots than qualified applicants, so you could do everything right, and still not get in.
This inherent uncertainty seems to be behind the underlying anxiety expressed in many of the comments left on these blog posts, an anxiety that reflects what I believe has become an unhealthy obsession with getting into certain elite American colleges. Admittedly, in writing these articles, I have been exploiting those anxieties and in some ways I may even be contributing to our country’s fixation on the Ivy League. However, after a year of being able to respond to my readers and reflect on my own life experiences, I feel there are some things I should share with you that might help you calm down and relax a bit.
The picture of the perfect Ivy League applicant that I provide here in this blog series is an ideal to strive for, and if you don’t quite fit it, that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong – it is possible. Thousands of kids manage to do everything I recommend every year, and I’m sure that if any of you start preparing early enough and work really hard, you can do just as well. But maybe you didn’t start taking high school seriously until junior year, or maybe you had a bunch of stuff going on in your life one semester and your grades suffered, or maybe your high school doesn’t send kids to Harvard and Yale every year, or maybe you just didn’t realize what it takes to get in until it was too late. What I want you to realize is that even if you’re not going to be able to check off every item in the checklist I gave you, the closer you come to this ideal picture, the more desirable you are to any college, not just Ivy League colleges.
So if you have a few grades that aren’t up to snuff, or if you didn’t seriously pursue any extracurricular activities, you may not get into the Ivy League, but if you have everything else, then you will still be an extremely competitive applicant to just about every other school in the country. Furthermore, many of these schools can provide you with just as good an education as an Ivy League school can (and often at a fraction of the cost). Also, remember that not getting into your dream school straight out of high school doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. If you get stellar grades during your undergrad years, you can always go to the Ivy League for grad school – and if you go to grad school, no one is going to care where you went for undergrad anyway.
You might even be able to transfer to your dream school during undergrad. Let me tell you a story: in high school, I had a friend who was very bright, but she didn’t quite have the application she needed in order to get into the Ivy League. Instead, she applied to and got into NYU – an excellent but slightly less competitive school. She worked really hard her freshman year, made straight As, and applied to Columbia (my alma mater) as a transfer student. She was accepted, and when she graduated from Columbia, her diploma was exactly the same as mine.
Another thing you need to realize is that an Ivy League education may not even be necessary for you to achieve your goals. You can still go to med school, law school, business school, etc., even if you don’t go to an Ivy League college (in fact, it may be easier to stand out in terms of class rank if you don’t). If you want to work for a great company and make lots of money, you can also do that without an Ivy League education. A friend of mine from high school went to the honors college at the University of Houston and majored in Accounting. She worked really hard and got an internship at Deloitte (one of the top accounting firms in the country), and at the end of the internship she was offered a full time (and well remunerated) position.
If you don’t care about money and just want to live the life of the mind, well, you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school for that, either. As proof, just research where current Ivy League professors went to school for their undergraduate degrees (this information is usually listed on a university’s faculty webpages). Most of them did not start out at the Ivy League, even if now they’re running the show there. If you want to triple major and take five years to graduate, a non-Ivy League school might be a better choice for you as well, since Ivy League schools tend to be pretty strict about making sure all students graduate within four years (the expense might also be prohibitive).
I know what you’re thinking – “But if I go to a non-Ivy League school, my professors won’t be as good and my peers won’t be as smart.” Again, it ain’t necessarily so. There are good and bad professors at every school, even at Ivy League universities. I guarantee you that whatever school you go to, your multivariable calculus teacher will probably be a grad student who speaks broken English and doesn’t really care about undergrads.
As for your peers, let me tell you another story. When I was researching colleges in high school, I visited the University of Texas at Austin because I was interested in their Plan II Honors program. As part of the tour, we got to sit in on an undergraduate “Great Books” class. The professor was supposed to be leading his students in a discussion of the Oresteia, but, as it was a Monday morning, most of the students appeared to be either asleep, hung over, or both. There was one kid who was actually discussing the book with the professor. Needless to say, this wasn’t the collegiate learning environment I had imagined for myself. I thought to myself, “If I go to an Ivy League school, this won’t happen. All of my fellow students will be intellectually curious and engaged and passionate and excited to discuss the Great Thoughts of the past!” Well, at Columbia, guess what my Literature Humanities class looked like on Monday mornings? Pretty much exactly the same as the class at UT, except it was more than twice as expensive.
While it is true that just about all students who go to Ivy League schools get great grades and test scores in high school, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a love of learning. No matter how many essays they make you write, college admissions officers will never be able to tell who actually has these qualities and who doesn’t from what’s written down on paper. Some Ivy League students are simply raised from birth to do all the stuff on my checklist, and oftentimes these students have been so busy living up to their parents’ expectations that they haven’t had a chance to actually form their own opinions or figure out what they care about themselves.
While these kids may have huge advantages when it comes to getting into the Ivy League, it isn’t surprising that they sometimes lack the insatiable curiosity, passion, and independent thinking that many people assume our country’s best and brightest possess. Of course, there are many excellent professors and bright, passionate students at Ivy League schools, but it’s important to keep in mind that they exist elsewhere, too. Remember those kids who did everything right but didn’t get into Harvard? You can find them at schools ranked just below the Ivy League or in the honors programs at top public universities, and I promise they are just as smart as Ivy League students.
So, what is actually different about Ivy League schools? What’s all the hype about? In short, money. Ivy League schools are rolling in tons of money. The enormous wealth of these institutions allows them to buy glamour and prestige, and probably accounts for much of their “elite” status. Consider a few examples: at the end of my orientation week, Columbia rented out Ellis Island so the new freshman could have a party there; the students at Barnard, the all-female sister school of Columbia College, had Meryl Streep speak at their graduation, and the next year they had Barak Obama; my friend at Yale got to study medieval architecture in Paris one summer (and everything was included with tuition and his financial aid package); the list of extravagances goes on.
This money also allows Ivy League schools to hire faculties smattered with “rock star” professors and Nobel Prize winners who are some of the most celebrated names in their fields. For my international economics class, we had guest speakers that included Jeffrey Sachs (who, among other things, was an architect of Bolivia’s economic “shock therapy” policy in the 1980s and of Russia’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s) and Glen Hubbard (George W. Bush’s economics advisor). This class was also taught by Sunil Gulati (besides being an economics professor, he is also the president of the United States Soccer Federation). Another star at Columbia was theoretical physicist Brian Greene, author of “The Elegant Universe” and host of the eponymous PBS series (and whom most undergrads never saw). Columbia also currently lists eight Nobel Prize winners as faculty members. However, these “rock star” professors may or may not be accessible to undergrads, and they may or may not be good teachers.
Not only are the institutions themselves rich; these schools also tend to attract the wealthiest students as well. You know, the sorts of people you’ve read about in books and seen in movies, but never actually thought existed in real life (if you’ve seen the show Gossip Girl, yes, there are some kids just like that at Ivy League schools). And these affluent students aren’t just from the United States – they come from all over the world. A smattering of movie stars or their progeny is also usually to be expected. Not all students at Ivy League schools are rich, of course; I also knew lots of kids who paid a fraction of the sticker price or even nothing for their educations because they qualified for financial aid. But all this money sloshing around can make for a college experience that occasionally slips into the surreal.
What advantages do all these things actually give you? While going to a well-funded university definitely has some perks, unless you believe that money and glamour are the most important qualities in an undergraduate education, they probably won’t make much of a difference. While getting to work as a tech in cutting edge research labs can be a definite plus, at the undergraduate level, you are mostly just learning the basics of your field, and you quite frankly don’t need the fanciest new scientific instruments or rock star professors to teach you that stuff (if those professors even teach undergrads at all, which they often don’t). In terms of your future career, while alumni networks can potentially help you find internships and jobs (if you’re looking in the right field) and while having an Ivy League school on your resume is always a plus, what you choose to major in is probably more important: a Bachelors’ in Computer Science from the University of Houston is going to open up more employment opportunities than a B.A. in Music from Columbia (believe me).
The only fields where an Ivy League education can give you a definite advantage would be finance (investment banks and hedge funds recruit like crazy from Ivy League schools – it’s still kind of a good old boys club), or possibly the public sector (if you dream of being a bureaucrat in the federal government, or even a politician, Ivy League credentials seem to carry some weight in Washington D.C.). If you plan to go to graduate school of some kind (and most good jobs these days require some grad school), then where you go for your undergraduate degree is less important than where you go for graduate school. An Ivy League degree can potentially help you get into a better graduate program, but only if you meet minimum GPA requirements, and in many cases you will probably be a more attractive candidate if you graduate at the top of your class from a less competitive school than from the bottom of your class at an Ivy League school.
The point is that while an Ivy League education definitely does have some advantages, they aren’t as big and important as you might think, and getting into one of these elite schools is not going to make the difference between success and failure in your life. With education, you generally get out of it what you put into it, so make sure you always do your very best. Even if your application isn’t perfect, don’t give up! Keep working hard, and push yourself to work harder than you ever have before. Wherever you go to school, know that you are the one who will determine what your future will be, and if you work hard and plan ahead, you can achieve your dreams. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include: