Ivy Lust? One Guy’s Perspective

As a co-founder of College Confidential back in the late summer of 2001, I have watched with interest over the past 14 years the types of students and parents whom CC has attracted. While the many articles, features, and resources CC offers can help high schoolers and their families seeking any level of college, the clear majority of site visitors and participants are those seeking admission (or transfer) to the Ivy League and other so-called elite colleges and universities.

The reality of the challenge of gaining admission to these exclusive schools is easy to discern. The statistics are plentiful. One of these schools, Stanford University, for example, currently denies 95% of its undergraduate applicants. For those of you non-mathematicians, that’s a 5% acceptance rate. Most of the Ivies are in the single-digit acceptance rate category. Even the top non-Ivy schools are in the teens-or-tougher acceptance rate category.

Maybe you or your parents are swept up in the frenzy to “get in.” Let’s look a little deeper.

Princeton in Autumn

What is it with all this Ivy League ranting and raving? Where does it come from? What perpetuates it? What should we do about it?

These questions seem reasonable in light of the spiraling number of applications the eight official Ivy League schools receive every year. Of course, there are other “Ivy” schools out there too. Just peruse the top 25 U.S. News national universities and liberal arts colleges lists. There you will find the other “elite” schools.

This issue of Ivy lust has always intrigued me and I must admit that I too have been smitten by it. How can I ever forget May 1, 1990? That’s the day that my wife and I first set foot on the gloriously Gothic campus of Princeton University. We had just driven to Princeton from Carlisle, a small town near Harrisburg, just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Carlisle is home to Dickinson College, another national liberal arts college.

Perhaps if you will indulge some of my personal reflection here, it will help you understand the strange alluring power of these campuses. You may have even experienced this yourself or, at some point in your college process (as an applicant or a parent), you will come under the almost magical spell they can generate.

Those first two days of May in the Northeast that long-ago year were almost as memorable for me because of the weather as they were for the glorious state of the Princeton campus. To this day, my wife still refers to “a Princeton sky” on particularly clear sunny days. Thus, the stage was set as we headed north out of Trenton toward the Princeton campus.

Now you have to understand that by that time in my era of college knowledge I had “done the tour” of guide books, viewbooks, pictures, and any other source of college information available to me. However, the Day of the Internet had not yet dawned in my life, so I had not experienced virtual tours, streaming video, or any other digitized sensorial stimuli. My main primer on Princeton came from the standard college trade literature and a few “inside” sources. Through the kindness of a Princeton-alumni friend of mine, I was able to luxuriate in the glossy glories of Robert Gambee’s coffee-table book Princeton, which is, in my view, the greatest pictorial tribute ever given to Old Nassau. My friend also faithfully supplied me with piles of his old Princeton Alumni Weekly (”PAW”—as in Princeton Tigers) magazines.

I had practically memorized Gambee’s book. Silly as it sounds (but if you’re reading this book, you’ll probably understand), my wife and I would play this little game with Gambee’s book. I would hold up a particularly dazzling page, such as the night shots of Princeton’s Holder Courtyard and ask her to guess what it was. I’d insist that she return the challenge, which she did obediently if not somewhat sheepishly. Yeah, we were smitten and we talked longingly about the day that we could go to Princeton and see these beautiful buildings and grounds in person. We were properly primed and there we were on Route 1 North, headed out of Trenton toward what we would come to call later The Magic Kingdom.

One of Princeton University’s signature structures is the graduate school’s Cleveland Tower. Its gothic spires dominate the landscape on one extreme end of university grounds. Gambee’s book featured it prominently and I was psyched to see it. That particular afternoon, as we approached Washington Road, the main entrance to Princeton from Route 1, traffic was in its usual mad-dash, bumper-to-bumper frenzy. I was concentrating on watching for the Washington Road turn sign when I happened to glance to my left, and what to my wandering eyes should appear but a miniature sleigh … (oops, wrong image) … Cleveland Tower, standing tall and magnificent in the distance. I almost rear-ended a frozen-fish truck! I was in awe (and my wife was duly impressed too).

Well, to cut this babbling mercifully short (“and not a second too soon, we might add,” all my readers say), we did the Grand Tour over two perfect days and saw all the sights on our own, saving the official Princeton Orange Key-led walk-through for four years later with our son. It was an unforgettable weekend. Our two dazzling days at Princeton may mirror a visit you’ve already had, or they may inspire you to plan a trip of your own to any of America’s great colleges or universities. The magic of college campuses seems to transcend even the elements.

It doesn’t have to be clear and sunny with temperatures in the high 60s and low humidity in order to be impressed with these places. We also did a late-Spring tour of Swarthmore College in the pouring rain with our son. The only thing the rain did was to accent the lush lawns and verdant canopy of trees that Swarthmore’s on-site arboretum provided. It also brought out an endless procession of perfume-like smells from the recently blossomed flowers that abound there. It was quite a sensory field day. Of course, many other campuses offer similar kinds of impressions, but the sheer history (Princeton celebrated its 250th anniversary during our son’s years there) and long legacy of great minds associated with these institutions can be very impressive. Once the Ivy bug bites, it can linger for decades.

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In analyzing my passion for helping high schoolers and families with their college process, I realize that the genesis of my fervor comes from my own disjointed, ill-informed, and largely ignored process when I was in high school in the mid-1960s. (“Yikes! This guy is old.” mutter all the high schoolers reading this far). I recall clearly that my earliest college aspirations were to go to MIT and be “a nuclear physicist,” as I once proudly declared to my best friend’s mother one day when I was in 7th grade. I have no idea where such a lofty goal came from, but at least I had a lofty goal.

I nurtured that ambition and in 10th grade, I even wrote to MIT admissions for an application package, pretending that I was a senior. I just had to possess their materials. When I got them, I devoured the contents, reading — almost memorizing — every word in their (by today’s standards) modest brochures and pamphlets. The only real image promoted in their package was that wonderful signature dome-and-columns building (Barker Library) facing the Charles River. I envisioned myself walking there on a crisp autumn day, physics books in tow. My mind created a truly stereotypical cinematic storyboard, with full color, sound, and effects. I daydreamed a lot about my forthcoming college life back then. I was psyched for “Ivy.”

From the most objective view I can muster, I can honestly say that there are legitimate and honorable motivations for preferring “Ivy.” Returning to my point about my own Ivy dreams in high school, I must add that I got absolutely no help, inspiration, or advocacy in this area from the so-called “guidance” department in my high school. From the reports my student clients give me every fall, it looks like the situation hasn’t improved much, in general, anywhere else in the years since I graduated.

My guidance counselor contacts were so memorable that I had to dig out my high school yearbook the other night and look up exactly who my guidance counselors were. When I saw their names and pictures, all I could mutter to myself was, “These people were my guidance counselors?” I knew them only as attendance directors and baseball coaches. The most “guidance” I ever got from them was “Don’t cut class!” and, on the last day of baseball tryouts, “Sorry, Berry, but we had to cut the roster down. You’re out. Have you ever tried tennis?”

Actually, I did try tennis and it turned out to be my ticket to college. Back in those days, need-based financial aid wasn’t what it is today. My MIT dreams never materialized because my parents were in no way capable of mustering the funds needed to underwrite my plans of pioneering cold-fusion technology in one of those nondescript labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So, I took the one and only offer that came my way: an invitation to play tennis for a small, private, liberal-arts college in Central Pennsylvania. In my hometown during the mid-Sixties, tennis scholarships were unheard of. I was blinded by the delusion that I was “an athlete,” so I was off to the races at a college I had heard practically nothing about. I left my MIT dreams in my closet, along with my baseball glove …

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[I’ve decided to make this a cliffhanger, so stay tuned for the rest of my musings about Ivy lust in coming posts. Keep in mind, though, the kind of caveat that appears at the beginning of most reality TV shows these days: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of College Confidential or its participants.

Okay? So, see you next post.]

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Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.