How can I get my child into an Ivy League (IL) school? I’ve been asked that question over the past three years more times than I can count!
I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of advice people sought from me when my oldest child was accepted into and chose to attend an IL school in 2011. We are from a small town, and no one from our child’s school at that point had ever gotten into an IL school before. I’m not even sure if anyone had ever tried! Two years after our daughter left for college another teenager from our city also got into an IL school. His family and our family are fairly close, and as they were applying to colleges they had many, many questions for us. I think their son would have made it into the IL even without our advice, but their questions helped me to whittle down our thoughts on the subject into a few points that I can offer.
After the eight schools of the Ivy League (an athletic conference designation, like the Big East or the ACC) fill their spots with the children of alumni and government officials, the trust-fund babies, and the offspring of Hollywood types, there are a few spots left for the rest of us. Although the name has become synonymous with a prestigious education, the IL schools are by no means the only great schools in America. I don’t believe attending one of these schools should be something that all parents look at as the ultimate dream/goal for their child(ren). Each child is different with various goals, preferences, and abilities, and to try to define academic success within a limiting framework of eight schools is far too narrow-minded. However, if you are seriously considering any of the Ivies for your child, you probably know this already.
1–A good place to start is for your child to have a good idea of what they want to do in life or at least an idea of something that highly interests them. I wouldn’t say they need to know their entire life’s plan by the age of 12, but they should only be interested in the IL schools if their interests intersect with something they can study at one of these schools. That doesn’t mean their desires won’t change.
My daughter was highly interested in Princeton, Yale, and Cornell because those three schools have strong international affairs programs that related to what she has been interested in doing since she was six: counter-terrorism. What can I say? Too much Jack Bauer in this house. However, now that she’s a junior in college she may end up applying for law school and working for the NFL. She has really taken a liking to sports agency! Getting online and researching the various schools will educate you on where your child’s desires coincide with what those schools offer.
2–Related to getting online and researching the schools is getting onto their mailing lists. I think this is probably the most important thing you can do in the beginning stages, and I would suggest you do this in the ninth or tenth grade year. That being said, we didn’t start thinking about college applications until she was in eleventh grade. Colleges hold interest/recruitment meetings around the country throughout the year, usually in bigger cities, and it is imperative that you get your child to these meetings and meet the people representing the schools. They often travel with other schools, not necessarily IL schools, so you’ll be hearing presentations on several schools at a time. The people running the meetings are from the admissions departments. Your son or daughter has a unique opportunity to have a face to face conversation with the very people who will later be reading his/her application. Don’t miss out on this chance!
Signing up on the school’s website will ensure that you are mailed a postcard whenever a recruiter will be visiting your state. We went to three different meetings across the state in a four-month period and spoke with people from Rice University and the University of Chicago (non-IL schools), Brown, Cornell, Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth. The people from Rice, Brown, Cornell, and Yale were especially nice and helpful.
3–Whenever possible tour the schools. Since they are all in the Northeast it’s a doable trip if you can invest a little bit of time and money. We visited U. Penn, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and Brown in one weekend. We could have easily visited Harvard, but my daughter didn’t want to apply there. Cornell and Dartmouth are a little more difficult to get to, so we decided to forego visiting those schools on that weekend trip. Our tour was well worth the time and trouble. My daughter’s original number one choice ended up being a school she didn’t even apply to because she just didn’t like it when we visited.
I’ve been to all of the IL schools except for Dartmouth (which gives away the fact now that my daughter doesn’t attend Harvard or Dartmouth) and I can tell you that each has its own unique feel. There’s a world of difference, for instance, in the idyllic setting of Princeton versus the hustle and bustle of Morningside Heights and Columbia University. The waterfalls and gorges throughout Cornell University as opposed to a downtown New Haven or Philadelphia or Providence is like being in a different country. Each of these schools will not appeal to your child equally.
4–I think the first thing people tend to assume is that your child’s grades and test scores have to be off the charts. This is not necessarily true. Of course stellar grades never hurt anyone, but the magic is NOT just in the numbers. One look at the message boards on College Confidential will make you feel brain dead in comparison to the grades and test scores those kids are claiming to have. However, not all of them are getting into the schools they want admission into, and they can’t understand why! We heard time and time again (at our meetings I mentioned in point number two!) that these schools want more than good grades. Unlike a public state university, your child will not be primarily competing against people in his/her home state. In the IL schools, as well as all private universities, they will be competing with children from all over the world, and at the IL level it will be against the best in the world. In other words, every person applying will be armed with good grades and test scores.
So what’s the difference? A phrase I kept hearing over and over was “blossom where you’re planted”. No matter where you’re from, what you have, or what classes you’ve taken they want to see that you’ve done the best you can (something in your child’s control) given the circumstances and opportunities you have (something not in your child’s control). They also want to see passion. They don’t want someone who has sat around with his nose in a book his whole life. They want someone who is a citizen of their community who wants to make a difference.
This can take the form of girl with a passion for insects and a desire to discover a heretofore unknown spider one day, a boy with the organizational and fundraising skills to build temporary housing for homeless teens in his city, or a girl with a desire to speak six languages who has two under her belt already from self-study. We were told over and over that they would much rather have an interesting, passionate person with a slightly lower GPA or test scores than a boring person with scores of every kind in the stratosphere.
Further, when they’re sitting around the table discussing different students, you want the people in the admissions department to have a “thing” to remember you by. Hopefully some of them will have met you, but it would be nice if they could say, “Oh, yeah, the insect girl” or “the language girl”. This can be accomplished by what you say to them at the interest meetings you attend or in the last point I will mention.
5–The application will be the final step of the admissions process. The common application makes it simple to apply to many different schools at once, including schools outside of the IL. The individual schools will usually have their own set of requirements in addition to the common application (translation: essay), and it’s important your child uses this to really set himself apart to each school. One school, for instance (and this may change each year for all I know), gave a list of quotes and asked my daughter to write an essay about one of them. One school asked my daughter to write an essay about what she didn’t know. I thought that was very interesting. One just asked for an essay about anything she wanted to tell them about herself. One asked for an essay about a moment of change in her life.
Think carefully before you spend a lot of money on college counseling services. I can’t remember if it’s on the general common application form or on the school-specific forms, but one of the questions asked was something to the effect of “Which college counseling service did you use in preparing your application?” The form provided a drop-down list of about 40 different names of services to choose from, along with “other”. It just so happened that we didn’t use any service. Parents are paying big bucks to professionals who know the ins and outs of the college admissions process, and if you have that kind of money I can’t say I would blame anyone for doing it. However, one admissions person told us in a phone conversation that one thing his particular committee liked so much about our daughter was that it was obvious she had written her own essay.
Your child should use the essay to exhibit a passion they have or perhaps personal growth they have experienced. The essay that ultimately got my daughter accepted into her school was about a split second in time waiting in line for a ride at Disney World. It was a moment she was experiencing prejudice in her heart, but then overcame that due to something my husband said to her. Her college roommate’s essay was about her physician-father’s dirty shoes. The essays don’t have to be about profound accomplishments or profound subjects; a small moment of deep, personal meaning or an expressed passion is enough.
Well, that is enough advice from an American wife for today.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have about your own child applying to schools. I’ve learned a lot more than what I’ve mentioned here!