Myths and Truths About Applying to Ivy League Schools

Today’s article was written by Erica Cirino.

When it comes to applying to college, there’s no one-size-fits all formula. Because every student is different, colleges weigh each student’s application differently. Further, some colleges place more weight on certain aspects of students’ applications, such as the admissions essay or standardized test scores.

Applying to Ivy League schools—a group of eight elite private institutions in the Northeast U.S.: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Yale University—can be even trickier than applying to less selective colleges. These schools have among the lowest admissions rates, a slim 5.2 to 13.96 percent, making them among the most competitive colleges in the country to get into.

Surrounding Ivy League admissions are application myths. Knowing what information to believe and what to ignore can be confusing, even to high school students who have done their application research. Here we separate truth from fiction:

Myth: My family can’t afford to send me to an Ivy League School, so I shouldn’t apply.

Truth: Ivy League schools offer some of the best scholarship packages (even free rides) to deserving students in need of financial help.

If money is a concern, be sure you apply for scholarships and make your need for aid known. Besides applying to scholarships offered by your high school, apply for federal aid by completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid by June 30. Additionally, you may qualify for scholarship money if you agree to join a collegiate sports team or take part in a work-study program.

Private colleges other than Ivy Leagues also typically offer financial aid, and state colleges have reduced tuition rates for in-state residents. So, in short, don’t let sticker price be a deterrent from applying to the colleges you’d like to attend. If application fees are difficult for you to afford, you can pursue fee waivers by contacting prospective colleges.

While the price of attending an Ivy League school shouldn’t deter you from applying, you should make sure you’re well versed in financial aid lingo. Financial aid doesn’t always mean grants and scholarships—i.e. free money—it usually means loans that need to be paid back. Don’t be fooled by generous financial aid offers that are giving you less than they seem, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, college advice expert, author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price,” and blogger at The College Solution.

“Obfuscation is an effective way to keep parents off balance,” O’Shaughnessy says. So, when evaluating any financial aid offers, it’s essential to read the fine print carefully. Understand that loans have varying interest rates that accumulate over the course of a student’s college career, and that defaulting on loans after graduation can wreck a student’s (and/or parent’s) credit score.

Myth: It looks better to Ivy League colleges if I get an A in my regular high-school level courses rather than Bs or Cs in AP, IB or Honors courses.

Truth: Ivy League schools don’t just care about grades—they also want to see that you tried challenging yourself in high school.

According to James Keipp, director of UCLA’s AP Readiness Program, which offers free support courses to local college students, AP classes are significantly more difficult than other high school courses. “It’s at least 30 percent more [work] than another class,” Keipp says.

If you’re confident you can keep up, don’t hesitate to enroll in an AP, IB or Honors course. Taking more challenging high school classes shows colleges you have confidence and are willing to work hard academically. According to O’Shaughnessy, the more elite the school, the more challenging courses you should plan on taking.

Academics play a very large role in college admissions, especially at Ivy League schools. Doing well in advanced courses will help you stand out to Ivy League admissions counselors. If you enroll in an advanced class, make sure you’re serious about studying and putting in the effort required for success.

Myth: I have perfect standardized test scores so I’ll definitely get into the Ivy League(s) of my choice.

Truth: Outstanding standardized test scores are only one factor Ivy League schools weigh when deciding whether or not to admit students.

There’s no debating standardized test scores play a role in most colleges’ admissions processes, however SAT and ACT scores are not the sole deciding factor of whether or not you’re accepted by a college, especially an Ivy League school.

All of the Ivy League universities accept both the ACT and SAT, and according to experts, it doesn’t matter which you choose to take. “Since it’s a choice you make, it has the feeling of being a significant choice, fraught with implication, but I don’t think it does matter,” says Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard University. “Either is fine with us, and we don’t have a feeling that either favors students with any particular profile.”

That said, you could take both admissions tests and send only that on which you scored highest, or, take both tests and send both scores. More important to Ivy Leagues is that you appear to be a well-rounded student. Did you take challenging high school courses? Did you participate meaningfully in a few extracurricular activities? Did you write a profound college essay? Ask yourself these questions when putting together your college applications.

Myth: I’ve taken a virtual “tour” online, liked the school’s Facebook page, and followed it on Twitter, so I don’t need to visit before applying.

Truth: The more interest you show in a school, the better, and that means visiting … and more.

Showing your interest in a school takes effort. While it’s time consuming to schedule college visits, call up admissions counselors, and send emails inquiring about attending, doing so is well worth it. Besides looking good to admissions counselors, visits and other contact with a college—especially if it’s an Ivy League school—can give you material to use in your “Why I Want to Attend This College” essay, a part of most colleges’ application requirements.

While most students visit colleges during the summer, if possible you should visit during the academic year so you can get a real taste of college life. What’s more, visiting when classes are in session gives you the opportunity to connect with students and staff. “Colleges tend to favor strong applicants who make the most contacts with a school,” says Daniel Golden, Pulitzer-Prize winning education and investigative journalist.

Another way to increase your contact is to take part in an alumni interview, where you meet with an alumna or alumnus of the college you’re interested in. He or she can answer your questions about the school, but they also might take notes on your conversation and report back to admissions staff. So, if you make a good impression, an interview is a great opportunity to boost your chances of getting accepted.

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Erica Cirino is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.