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Articles / Applying to College / What Are the Ivy League Colleges, And Are They Actually Better?

What Are the Ivy League Colleges, And Are They Actually Better?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Feb. 10, 2020
What Are the Ivy League Colleges, And Are They Actually Better?

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I am wondering which colleges are Ivy League schools. I have heard there are eight, but I've also heard there are 12. I've heard MIT is one, then I've heard that MIT isn't but Stanford is. Anyway, can you tell me what the Ivy League schools are, what that means specifically, and if they are actually better than other schools? I am confused about the meaning and purpose of the classification.


There are eight Ivy League schools: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania (known as "Penn" but not to be confused with "Penn State") and Yale. Like all of the Ivies, MIT and Stanford are both hyper-selective institutions with miniscule acceptance rates. So, in that respect, they are in the "same league" as the Ivies but, in the literal sense, they are not.

The Ivy League, as the name suggests, actually began as an athletic conference. If you're interested in this history, you can read about it here. Even before this league was officially created, its members were hailed as "elite," but today, attending an Ivy has become such a status symbol that some parents are known for choosing preschools that they believe might position their progeny for Ivy admission! And "The Dean" routinely hears from students still in elementary school who are convinced that an Ivy acceptance is imperative, regardless of their academic abilities, interests or long-term goals.

Although the Ivy institutions certainly offer world-class faculties and facilities, and the opportunity to share classrooms with some of the brightest, most ambitious students in the world, they aren't the right choice for all students ... even top-notch ones. While Ivy grads work in every conceivable field, if you research majors at these eight schools, you'll find that these lists are often top-heavy with liberal arts offerings. Majors that are closely linked to specific post-college jobs (Advertising, Aviation, Public Relations, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, Accounting, Journalism, Special Education, Supply Chain Management and many more ... ) are harder to find at the Ivies. Thus, teenagers who are eager to specialize in college may find their needs better met outside of the Ivy League.

Moreover, high school students who are accustomed to being at the top of the class — whether through hard work, natural abilities or both — can be flummoxed when they get to an Ivy institution and discover that almost everyone around is equally able— and equally used to being number one. When I counsel high schoolers about their college choices, I always ask, "Do you think you do your best work when you're among comparable peers or when you're the star?" For those who respond with the latter, I suggest that an Ivy — or any other uber-selective college — might not be the best match.

In addition, thousands of students who aspire to the vaunted Ivies — and who are fully qualified for acceptance due to outstanding grades, test scores and extracurricular achievements — still receive bad news every year. There are not nearly enough spaces in these mere eight institutions to accommodate all of the eager and able applicants who flood their admission offices with applications.

Over the eons, The Dean has heard countless stories of exceptional students who were turned down by all of the Ivies but who found happiness and success elsewhere ... often insisting afterward that this is where they were "meant to be" all along. I've also encountered plenty of students who did make it into an Ivy and then questioned why they were there, wondering if they'd been too hasty to weight prestige — or the opinions of others — more heavily than their own needs.

So if you're interested in possibly attending an Ivy, be sure to ask questions — just as you're doing now — to make sure you're not being swayed by the allure of their reputations and that, instead, you're finding the right fit for you.

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About the Ask the Dean column: Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please send it along here.

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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