Every April, the media celebrates the novelty of those rare students who gain offers of admission to every Ivy League institution. As a result, most students and families assume that by applying broadly, they will improve their overall odds of attending one of the best colleges. It doesn’t work that way. Students who view elite schools as interchangeable suffer from flawed assumptions.
Technically, the Ivy League is merely an athletic conference of eight colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. Although all of these schools have well-deserved reputations for academic excellence, they are dissimilar. Each school has a different attitude about the amount and type of guidance eighteen year-olds require.
Penn and Cornell ask students to apply to a particular school within their university. The others don’t ask their students to pick their academic direction for two years. Princeton focuses its underclassmen on preparing to complete independent research, requiring them to sample from a broad curriculum during the first two years before working closely under an advisor’s tutelage as upperclassmen. Similarly, Harvard and Yale begin their students with liberal arts (general education) curricula. Columbia, however, utilizes a Core curriculum, narrowly defining the range of courses that students may take during their first two years. Brown employs an Open curriculum and does not require any specific courses (or even grades) during the first two years. Dartmouth uses a quarter system, not semesters.
Add in the differences beyond the classroom – living in Manhattan is not the same as living in Providence, or Hanover, or Ithaca – and one should easily see that believing every Ivy League college to be a “perfect fit” for any student is pure nonsense.
Rather than focus on rankings and reputation, students and parents should examine four elements that make up the “education” of college: academics, on-campus life, off-campus assets and influences, and the social architecture of the university.
Campus life comprises the types of activities in which students will engage. If chess is a passion, does the school’s chess club compete against other schools, or is it just a fun intramural pursuit? As a performer, will you spend most of your time working with professionals or in productions thrown together by students? Will there by new activities to inspire you?
Off-campus, there are influences and assets that will mold students. Do you want to live in the heart of a city, in the suburbs, or in the country? Do you like what the environs surrounding a college have to offer? Is there convenient transportation to allow you to get to these places?
Most importantly, we ask students to consider the social architecture of the university. How do the students gather, and around what? Do students usually socialize at fraternities and sororities, do they frequent local bars and coffee shops, or does the university provide spaces where humans actually interact? What are the major traditions of the school – do you care about them? How easy is it to meet people?
Because admissions officers at highly-selective universities consider many holistic factors to identify applicants who will fit well into their school’s culture, a student who applies to a college that is a bad fit is likely to be rejected. Although it might seem crushing, rejection might be the lucky outcome; failure and depression are dangerous bedfellows. The best thing a student can do is find a school where he or she has the best chance to succeed: academically, socially, physically and psychologically. Lush ivy growing on old buildings doesn’t guarantee a great undergraduate experience. Success – in admissions, college and life – should not be measured by name brand.