Looking Beyond Ivy League Schools

Sometimes it feels as if there are far too few colleges out there to meet the demand of the growing pool of industrious students and their parents. Tens of thousands of students and their families put a tremendous amount of energy and hope into getting not just into college, but getting into a ‘good’ college. Despite excellent academic performance and dedication to meaningful activities, years of tutoring, music lessons, arts classes, summer programs and internships, months of SAT and ACT practice and indeterminable hours writing essays, tens of thousands of the best prepared and brightest young people are denied Ivy League, Oxford and Cambridge admissions each year.

It is difficult for many to accept, but there are a lot of fabulously smart, driven kids out there and, despite their valiant efforts, there are simply not enough seats to accommodate all of them. Any student who applied to the Ivy Leagues for 2014 fall admission was one among over 253,400 applicants who held hopes of entering the gates of these legendary institutions. Of those, just over 22,000 students received acceptances (8.7%). Chances at gaining admission to Oxbridge are only slightly better – last year over 34,000 students applied for just 6,400 places (18.8%).

The hordes of top-notch hopefuls rejected from the Ivies and Oxbridge are no less worthy than those selected. As I have written in several previous articles, ultimately FIT is the final determinate and this lies solidly in the realm of elite college admissions boards in the US, and professors and department heads in the case of Oxford and Cambridge. The current competitive situation is set to grow. Each year more students, driven by their own passion for learning, desire to succeed. The perception is that only top universities can ensure future success, and so they apply to the world’s top schools.

With FIT being the central issue, the best way students can enhance their chances of gaining acceptance to the world’s most selective schools is to spend significant time learning about themselves and equal amounts of time researching colleges to learn what the top universities and colleges are really all about. Specifically, students need to understand WHO it is that the college is looking for. Why? Because well over 85% of the students applying have the same excellent grades, the same outstanding test scores, equal slews of awards, accolades and teacher praise. At the very top level of students, selection is NOT based on academic performance. Student brilliance is a foregone conclusion. Institutions are looking for who they think will make up the best combination of students to form an incredible class.

Students who truly wish to improve their chances of admission would be wise to dig down deeper than the shiny surface to figure out how they think they fit into their dream school. Admissions officers will be doing the exact same thing – the difference is, they know what they are looking for. So, the student, who has little idea of who she is or what key information she wants to communicate to the university is at a severe disadvantage in the process.

Good fit questions to think about go way beyond, “What is my dream?” Students would be best served by knowing themselves well. What are their strengths, what is most important to them and what do they bring are among the most important questions to be able to answer well. Framing those answers in a relevant and personal way is the key. The best way to do this is to understand what makes a particular set of colleges truly excellent. While every outstanding college will share some general characteristics of excellence, many colleges and universities offer some uniquely exciting programs that are found only there. What makes an institution truly excellent is also dependent on the needs and the interests of the seeker. However, only the seeker who takes the time to understand the institution can identify why he or she belongs there in a relevant way.

So, the real key to selective college acceptance is research and the development of a framework in which to understand what is being learned. Such research is vital for another reason. Once a student knows what he or she wants in a college, it can be looked for in the many other colleges and universities where excellence exists. Many of the best students seek guidance in expanding their searches as they find that it can be overwhelming to sort through the hundreds of college options available in the US alone, not to mention the 125 universities in the UK and a myriad of outstanding institutions in the rest of the world. A well-experienced counselor will know that there are dozens of excellent colleges beyond the Ivies, Oxbridge and the like. They will also know that these are equal in many ways to the better-known institutions and provide outstanding undergraduate academic and personal educations. Colleges such as Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore and Pomona are well known to provide the best that post-secondary institutions have to offer in the US, and while their admissions rates at 11%-14% are better than those of the Ivies, they are just as selective as these institutions. There are many more excellent colleges beyond these that provide students with the key components of a great education: broad and varied academic departments in both the humanities and the sciences, excellent, dedicated and accessible professors at the top of their fields, top quality and accessible research, world class laboratories, vast libraries, music programs, world-renowned speakers, and breathtaking campuses and facilities. Students may be surprised to find a great diversity of unique programs that would draw them to these institutions, even over the Ivies, if they only took the time to look.

It is important to know that more favorable admissions rates in no way indicate a lesser college. It is much more likely that the institution is lesser known, attracts a more self-selecting student or offers specialties that appeal to a select market. In addition to offering academic excellence, many highly selective and selective, but lesser known, institutions hold top programs in many fields and offer a high level of personal attention that develops students into standouts that shine with the same brightness as their Ivy League colleagues. It is well worth the research time to find these fantastic gems and know that the students lucky enough to be accepted will receive the best educations that can be had.

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Tess Robinson