Do SW Florida Students get into Ivy Leagues? It Could be You! Part 2

Continued from Part 1:  Do SW Florida Students get into Ivy Leagues? It Could be You! Part 1

To repeat, to get in, you need to bring more than just good grades to the table.  What do I mean by “more?”   Well, for starters, teacher and counselor recommendations that say, “my/our best student in the last 10/20/40 years,” or “the best all-around student in the school,” tend to be accorded special favor (Jim Cramer, the Mad Money TV stock analyst, terms a stock that ranks above others in its size and risk class as “the best in show.”  The same applies here).  It also helps if you have accomplished something meaningful -- inside or outside the classroom.  Maybe something athletic:* one of Dick Taliaferro’s kids finished in the top quarter of his class -- a good though not great showing, and ordinarily not enough to merit a second glance from an ultra-selective college -- but he still ended up at Harvard.  Why?  He set the state record for the most career dual meet wins by a Virginia high school wrestler; his wrestling coaches still call him the best high school wrestler they ever coached -- or ever saw.   Hey!  Wait a minute.  You’re telling me that some kid with less than stellar grades got into Harvard just because he’s a jock?  I have better grades, but my chances of getting into HYP&S are still slim.  That’s not fair!  You’re right.  Nobody said the selection process is fair.  Recall, please, my assertion from an earlier post that the admission playing field for selective colleges, especially the Ivies, is tilted.  Recall, also, Dick Taliaferro’s salad bar and reread his wisdom from above.  Also consider that the wrestler in question was no mere letterman, but a highly accomplished athlete; he probably would not be expected to graduate summa cum laude, but if he ended up wrestling in the Olympics, he would carry Harvard’s name, its Veritas imprimatur, on his rock hard gluteus maximus -- which is why it chose to admit him.


Music can also provide a ticket to an ultra selective school:  15 years ago, I interviewed one of the two top high school harpists in the Middle Atlantic states.  She went to Chicago.  In academics, going beyond the textbook can also help:  In a BC calculus class, a sophomore math whiz spontaneously came up with a 5-minute proof that was far more elegant than the convoluted 50-minute proof employed by the teacher, who instantly -- and gratefully -- appropriated it and incorporated it into his course syllabus.  The math whiz not only got into Chicago, but also Caltech, MIT, Princeton and Rice.  Two years ago, regarding an applicant from Bradenton, I wrote, “She is one of the two or three best pure intellects I’ve encountered in 35 years of interviewing,” (in her admissions essay, she revealed, she played with language the way Nabokov does in Lolita).  She got in.  My brother, the college guidance director for a Virginia boarding school, related that his school’s TV quiz show team, which included his school’s brightest and best students, was utterly and singlehandedly destroyed by a single kid from little known E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, VA.  The E.C. Glass student would go on to be named a presidential scholar and ended up at Princeton.  Overcoming a major adversity can give an applicant a strong playing card:  ten years ago, the gang leader former boyfriend of a young lady from Chicago’s South Side showed his disenchantment over being informed that she preferred her studies to his company by dousing her face with lighter fluid and then lighting her on fire.  Despite her lengthy ensuing hospital stay, this tough, gritty lady retained her Number 1 class rank in high school and got admitted to the U of C.  Demonstrated ability and talent outside school can also help:  another of Dick Taliaferro’s charges worked over the summer between his junior and senior years at a Northern Virginia auto dealership.  Starting out as a go-fer -- assistant to the general sales manager -- the kid, by summer’s end, had advanced to assistant general sales manager, wore a three-piece suit to work, and was even issued his own business cards.  One of his college recommendations was written by the dealership’s general sales manager.  The kid went to Princeton.  And finally, there’s a family name:  one occasionally reads of a Kennedy at Harvard -- as though that were a birthright -- or Rockefellers anywhere.  (Speaking of birthrights, I read years ago that Harvard still so valued its ties to the Pilgrims that it reserved places for the sons and daughters of Back Bay and Beacon Hill Boston alumni whose ancestors came over on -- or at least not too long after -- the Mayflower (by this measure, the Kennedys are mere come-latelies).  Whether this clearly incestuous, inbred relationship holds today, I cannot say, although I rather suspect it does.  Before you decry Harvard’s seeming Brahmin bias, recall that those offered entry through this portal are exceedingly talented and capable -- dumbos need not apply -- and would be admissible anywhere, including even to (ugh!) Yale.  Moreover, theirs are the families who over the centuries built the university into what it is today, something Harvard is unlikely to soon forget.)  I could go on, but I hope these glimpses of “that something extra” convey some notion of what selective colleges not only hope for in the applicants they admit, but have come to expect.

*I say little about athletic accomplishment because selective schools compete at different athletic levels, and these varied levels of competition bring with them a sliding scale of desirability regarding the admission of jocks.  Duke, Northwestern and Stanford compete in NCAA Division I sports, and thus, leave themselves a little more, umm, leeway in choosing their athletes because they seek to wind up in the Final Four or the Rose Bowl.  So, while their team SAT scores run higher than those of other Division I programs (they tower over all SEC schools save Vanderbilt), we’ll just say that their athletes are expected to perform in the classroom; otherwise, they’re benched!  The Ivies also love athletes, but do not offer athletic scholarships, and their athletes are likewise expected to remain in good academic standing.  Still, they might bend the normal admissions guidelines if a kid can help them beat Yale.  Chicago, which competes at the Division III level, offers no athletic scholarships, but it does field basketball, football and other athletic teams.  Naturally, its coaches try to find suitable athletes to populate their squads, but they know that any candidates they find had better be able to do the classwork; otherwise, they won’t get admitted.

                        This is a good place to pause and ask ourselves, What, exactly, is the Ivy League?  It sounds like more like an athletic conference than a collection of colleges and universities.  Which it is.  Strictly speaking, the Ivy League is composed of eight member institutions (for the record, Brown University in Providence, RI; Columbia University in New York City; Cornell University of Ithaca, NY; Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH; Harvard University in Cambridge, MA; the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Princeton University in Princeton, NJ, and; Yale University in New Haven, CT) that play each other in sports, just as member schools do in the ACC and SEC and Big 10.  With one partial exception, the Ivies are private, the outlier being Cornell, which, as we explained earlier, is partly private and partly state supported -- there’s no other university quite like it.  But unlike, say, the SEC, whose makeup and public persona seem 99 percent motivated by maximizing public exposure and, especially, revenue from football operations (We have football players!  Students?  Academics?  Who and what are they?),* the Ivies seem motivated first, by academic excellence and, just barely second, by their continued attempts to convince the public that a degree from one of their schools carries an academic and social cachet that cannot be replicated by a degree from an outside institution (Take that, Stanford!).  For academic excellence, they slowly seem to be losing their once-iron grip;** for the latter, they’ve successfully retained their monopoly and pursue it with an intensity comparable to that with which the Mafia safeguards its franchise -- “this thing of ours.”  With each school featuring its own distinct personality, individual Ivies are as different from one another as chalk from cheese.  And with three exceptions, they were founded to train ministers, so, no surprise, most of them boast church-affiliated roots:  Harvard and Yale were Congregational; Columbia was Anglican; Brown, Baptist, and; Princeton, Presbyterian.  Penn, founded by that most famous of Philadelphians, Benjamin Franklin, to prepare men (co-education lay more than a century over the horizon) for careers in commerce, boasts a Quaker affiliation.  Dartmouth was founded to educate Indians, and before the debatable virtues of political correctness set it, its athletic teams were known as the Dartmouth Indians; today, consciously or otherwise evoking their North Woods home -- or maybe its implied ecological connection -- Dartmouth’s teams are known as the Big Green.  In contrast, the Big Red, a/k/a Cornell, is by far the youngest Ivy and at its founding was by far the most radical; it began life co-ed and nonsectarian, characteristics other Ivies would take on a century later.  Following the Civil War, as the nation industrialized and wealth began to accumulate, especially in the Northeast, most Ivies morphed into glorified finishing schools for the sons of the well-to-do.  Most weren’t all that hot, academically.  In fact, it wasn’t until the 1920s when, influenced competition from by new, upcoming research universities like Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, they began to hone their focus on rigorous academics and serious research.  Long ago, they played big time sports, just as Duke, Northwestern and Stanford do today (so once did Chicago), but in the early 1950s, perhaps influenced by the U of C, which ten years before had with great fanfare dropped big-time football and out of the Big 10, they decided by mutual agreement to tone down their own athletics and concentrate on academics and research -- except Dartmouth, which is a late comer to the research university ranks.  (The one Ivy that really got snakebit by the de-emphasis in athletics was Penn, which then boasted a Top Five national ranking in football and consistently beat up its sister Ivies as though they were the Little Sisters of the Poor.)  To the general public, by dint of their age, their stature, and (especially) their accumulated wealth, the Ivies have long symbolized the most prestigious destinations for kids heading off to college. 

*Vanderbilt University, a fine private research university in Nashville, TN, provides an exception so conspicuous that I often wonder why it remains in the SEC.  Incidentally, at a post season bowl game a few years ago, at which Northwestern was (predictably) getting whomped by an SEC opponent (Auburn or Tennessee, I forget which), the SEC fans began pridefully chanting, “S..E..C!  S..E..C!.”  The Northwestern stands’ rejoinder was intellectually devastating enough to make up for the score, “S..A..T!   S..A..T!”   

**One can argue that the Ivies, strong as they are, by no means monopolize the best academics among private universities.  Consider a “league” of schools constructed from among MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and perhaps Washington University in St. Louis and Carnegie Mellon.  Plus, NYU and USC are coming on today like Seabiscuit at Santa Anita.  There also exists the little known “Ivy-Plus” consortium of schools that co-operate and pool scholarly resources.  Composed of the eight Ivies plus MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago, by its mere existence, the Ivies tacitly admit that a few other schools possess academics and scholarly resources equal to their own.

                        All this leads me to what I’ve said before:  if you’re a fine student and want to shoot for the best, there’s no good reason to let cynics, doubters and naysayers quash your dreams.  If a college admissions department closes a door in your face, fine, because you’ve given the application your best effort.  But why slam the door in your own face?  Also, listen to your advisor:  if you want to study, say, science or engineering at MIT or Stanford, and carry B+ grades in math and the sciences, your counselor may dissuade you from applying -- and with good reason; your chances of getting admitted to these schools are exceedingly slim.  But if that same advisor believes you have “the right stuff” and encourages you to try for them, by doing so he or she that signals that he/she likes what you’ve done and will put in strong words on your behalf.  If this happens, then what can you lose by applying?  Keep uppermost in mind that, ultimately, talent and performance win out.


                Searching for/investigating schools:   Only you know what you want out of college; only you know what sort of school you want to attend, and where you’d like to spend your four college years.  Would you stay in Florida or do you want to experience other parts of the country?  Do you need to remain close to Mom and Dad, or do you want to stretch your wings?  Do you want an urban school, a suburban school, or a school out in the boondocks?  The seashore or the mountains?  Liberal arts or science-and-engineering?  Do you want to study, would you spend four years engaging in social protest, or do you prize big time sports and partying?  In answering these questions, the ball lies solely in your court.  A good way to start is to ask, what subjects do I enjoy?  What do I want to do in life?  My one piece of advice:  look for what you enjoy, something that brings you pleasure and fulfillment, not for something that promises only to earn you money (incidentally, some observers, Forbes Magazine in particular, strongly disagree).  For this search, college guidance counselors can be a wonderful resource.  They may suggest fine schools or programs you might never otherwise consider, and they can help you realistically determine reaches, likely schools and safeties.  Ideally, your family should be made part of this process.  College guide books can be of great help, and can be found in Lee County libraries and in many college guidance offices.  These guides provide treasure troves of useful information, especially regarding the hard numbers associated with the colleges they cover, such as enrollment, number of applicants, percent accepted, yield, SAT/ACT test score ranges, price range, and in one or two cases, overlaps -- schools to which students applying to College X also apply in the greatest numbers.  The best guides also offer up equally useful “soft” information about such topics as the quality of life, the social scene, what the students are like, what the college town or school neighborhood is like, and much more.

College fairs offer wonderful venues in which to learn and explore.  One will be held in Ft. Myers on September 20th.  Here, numerous colleges and universities to be represented, many of them by the reader for your territory, so you may have a chance to meet, introduce yourself and make an impression.  Virtually all Florida colleges will be represented by their admissions officers.  As the proximity of schools represented becomes farther removed from Florida’s borders, expect to encounter more and more alumni substituting for admissions officers -- Hello!  Did I tell you that I represent the U of C at college fairs?   Can’t make it to the fair in Ft. Myers?  No problem, several other college fairs will be held next fall.  There’s an equally good one at Golden Gate High School in Naples the night before and a not-so-good one (fewer out of state schools present) in Punta Gorda the night following.  For the truly adventurous among you, there’s a larger (more schools present than at Ft. Myers, including the most selective ones) college fair scheduled for Sarasota on September 8th at the Robarts Arena (take I-75 to the Fruitville Road exit, head west and the Arena will pop up on the left side of the road).  Yes, it’s 80-90 miles distant, but opportunity-wise, this -- for my money -- is the best college fair south of Tampa.  If you know about these and have lots of questions and choose not to avail yourself of the chance to attend one, you should be hit over the head with a hammer! (Well, maybe not…)  Find your schools, walk right up to the table and ask, ask, ask.  If there’s a large crowd at the table, come back later after it has thinned out.  By the way, this is the appropriate place to inquire about numbers of applicants, students enrolled, percent accepted, SAT scores and GPAs -- in short, the perfect venue for asking questions about schools you don’t know, and the reps all expect these questions.  (Occasionally I get asked, “Do you offer cosmetology?  Communications?  Criminal justice?  Hair dresser?”  My unvarying response, “We love you, but we can’t help you.” Often I get asked, “What’re your school’s average GPA/test scores?” and the response, if the questioners’ own numbers fall within the stated range, invariably brings a visible look or sigh of relief, as though that alone will get them in.  If only they knew!).  Most reps have a 2-3 minute spiel that describes the basics of their school while still trying to perk the interest of kids for whom their school might be a good match* -- I employ one -- and then open the discussion up for questions.

*At the Naples college fair last fall, while I described the intellectual side of Chicago, a young lady clutching the brochure of a prominent Ivy abruptly turned on her heel and walked off.  What she couldn’t know:  her pronounced lack of interest in Chicago academics probably meant that the Ivy whose brochure she held would be unlikely to view her interest with favor.

                        College fairs also offer great starting points in the college search for sophomores, even for freshmen.


Regarding minority applications:  I’m a minority student.  What are my chances of getting into the schools you describe?   If you have performed well academically, and if you bring interesting, meaningful extra-curricular activities to the table, the chances for some minority applicants are very good.  Why?   Because colleges, both selective and otherwise, have come to view education as the path out of poverty and want, and they are determined to do their bit to help out.  For this reason, they’ll bend over backwards to attract promising minority -- black and Latino -- candidates.  From college admissions posts on the internet over the last two years, reports of applicants being accepted at all eight Ivies -- a rare feat -- are limited to such students.  Moreover, the constraints that restrict the numbers of other candidates offered admission may be relaxed for minority applicants in order to let them in (recall Dick Taliaferro’s salad bar, mentioned in an earlier post).  And yes, if you are a minority applicant you are a commodity, too, but don’t let that, or lack of family funds, deter you from applying.  This desire to attract minority students is a good thing, and given that all good things, such as relaxed admissions standards, eventually come to an end, ride the tide for as long and as far as you can.

I specified “some” minority candidates, though not all.  For Asians, who constitute a separate block of minority applicants, the deck is stacked in the other direction.  Because they outperform other ethnic groups in standardized tests and academics, Asians would seem to deserve preferential treatment, too, by being awarded more places than they receive.  Yet they tend not to be admitted in numbers proportional to their GPA and test scores.  This situation is much like the one that confronted Jews a century ago when they applied to the Ivies, at which they were rewarded for outperforming their goyishe peers by being under-admitted, a disgraceful condition that took far too long to get corrected.  Given that colleges have, implicitly or implicitly, set up racial and ethnic quotas for the admission of blacks and Latinos who underperform other applicants on standardized tests, it should have come as no surprise that a coalition of Asian students has recently sued Yale for racial discrimination -- they want more Asians in Yale -- and it seems highly likely that additional lawsuits may be forthcoming.  How this matter will get resolved only time will tell.  Speaking personally, I would note that through several decades of explicitly reserving places for blacks and then Latinos, it should have come as no surprise that Asians would eventually band together to demand equal even handed treatment, and I’m astonished that it has taken so long for such a suit to be filed.  In that sense, Yale and other colleges are hoist on their own petard.

The Asian students’ lawsuit also serves to underscore the competition for places at the most selective colleges and universities -- nobody is bringing suit over admission to Tijuana Tech -- which brings us back to the notion of selectivity:  the more selective the college, the more subjective the selection process.

That’s probably enough to chew over for the moment.  I’ll return in late summer to discuss applications and interviews.  Until then, enjoy the summer.



--Bill Parker