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Articles / Applying to College / Ivy League "Scholarships"

April 3, 2003

Ivy League "Scholarships"

Question: I am in 9th grade and wondering what Ivy League schools look for when they give out scholarships? Do sports and other extracurricular activities count as much as grades and test scores?

The first thing you need to know is that all scholarships awarded by the Ivy League are “need based.” That means that the only students who receive Ivy League financial aid are those whose families cannot afford to pay full freight. However, even many students from “comfortable” middle-class homes receive some sort of scholarship assistance due to the high price tag attached to these schools.


The way Ivy League colleges operate is that they first evaluate their applicants based on their qualifications. In order to pass muster with an Ivy League college you have to maintain tip-top grades (usually close to a straight-A average), with the vast majority of your classes selected from the toughest ones available to you. (Admission officials don’t penalize you if your school doesn’t offer any AP or even honors classes, but they do like it when you turn to a local community college or find other enrichment opportunities, if your own school isn’t very challenging.)

Your SAT I and II scores are also very importantâ€"probably more important than most admission folks are willing to admit. In fact, College Confidential offers an “Academic Index” calculator that is similar to the system that Ivies uses to compare candidates. You can read more about this at Academic Index, but as a freshman you probably don’t have test scores yet and won’t be able to try it.

Finally, your essay(s), recommendations, and extracurricular activities are all evaluated from a more subjective standpoint (i.e. no formulas used here). Not surprisingly, the Ivies receive stacks of applications from amazing students who excel in a wide range of areas. Typically, an Ivy applicant has to be more than a French Club president or yearbook business manager. The Ivies are looking for student government presidents and yearbook editors-in-chief. Moreover, they’re also seeking students with unusual accomplishmentsâ€"not just the same old, familiar high school stuff, however impressive it may be. Thus, applicants who have published books, danced on Broadway, or founded a national charity may get extra attention at decision time, even if their grades and SATs aren’t quite up to snuff. (They still have to be good, of course.) Not surprisingly, recruited athletes also get special attention (and some slack) when it comes to transcripts and test scores.

Applicants are never evaluated in a vacuum, either. That is, admission officials pay close attention to such factors as socioeconomic background and a range of other extenuating circumstances that a student has had to face.

Now, to get back to your original question … once admission officers have “graded” a student, they put together the final list of those they wish to admit. In most cases, each of these admitted students is then awarded what that college believes is enough financial aid to attend. For some students, this will be the entire cost of tuition, room and board, and perhaps even money for transportation and books. For others, it will be nothing. The strongest candidates don’t get more dough than the more borderline ones. It’s all based on family finances.

There are some variations to this system. For instance, a college that is not “need blind" will make some “fine tuning” decisions about candidates based on their ability to pay, but that doesn’t happen until the very end of the evaluation process, and a very strong applicantâ€"however poorâ€"will most likely be admitted and receive a generous scholarship. Some colleges are "need blind" for U.S. citizens and permanent residents but not for international students.

Thus, the only way to win a scholarship from an Ivy League college is to get yourself admitted. This means being an exceptional student with an exceptional list of accomplishments as well. Even then, there is a certain element of luck involved. Many highly qualified candidates are turned away each year, often with no apparent reason. You also have to come from a family with “demonstrated need.” Thus, the bad news: No matter how smart or talented you are, you will not get a scholarship from the Ivy League if your parents can afford to pay your way. The good news, however, is that–if admittedâ€"you should not have to pass up an Ivy education for financial reasons, because the colleges promise to meet your monetary need, no matter how high.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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