Top Colleges

Dartmouth or The Dartboard: Targeting Top Colleges

By Dave Berry

Ivy Passion, Ivy Pride

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

These questions seem reasonable in light of the spiraling number of applications that 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.

A Long Time Ago, in a High School Far Away

In my experience helping high schoolers and families with the 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.")  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."

Michael Jordan’s Cocktail Party 

I’ve often wondered what fueled my Ivy passion.  Now, from my present-day vantage point of accumulated knowledge and experience, I think it was a case of acute "brand awareness."  If you know anything about marketing, you may understand that certain products have become icons in our culture (for better or worse) because of the public’s perception about them.  In the high-end world of personal "stuff," you have BMW, Mercedes Benz, Gucci, Rolex, and so on.  Just the mention of those names commands immediate attention and envious interest.  So too is the world of higher education. 

Maybe it’s just human nature; we all want what we think is "the best" for ourselves and especially our kids.  I couldn’t talk about Ivy passion, though, without addressing, at least fleetingly, the issue of snob appeal (also known euphemistically as "cachet").  Some higher education observers believe that Ivy passion is an irrational pursuit of one-upmanship.  They indignantly accuse anyone who aspires to the consensus "top" colleges as being an uppity snob who is seeking selfish social status.  They point the finger at us parents and prophesy that we want our kids to go Ivy so that we can deviously drop The Name on unwitting party guests or anyone else who will listen. 

Observe the care with which such drops can be made (putting many skilled bombardiers to shame).  This particular gambit is know as "The 360-Degree Behind-the-Back Slam Dunk": 

UNWITTING PARTY GUEST (boisterously): Hey, Pete!  How ya been? 

PETE (half-enthusiastically): Hey, Bob (shaking hands).  Good, good.  You? 

UPG: Great.  How are those two kids? 

PETE: Super, thanks.  Mary’s working as an editor and Bill’s still in college.  What about your Sarah and Ben? 

UPG: Well, Sarah’s in her third year of college and Ben is a junior in high school. 

PETE (sipping his drink): Where’s Sarah going to college?  [Heard faintly in the background, the imaginary voice of an excited sports announcer over a roaring crowd: "Jordan makes the steal at mid-court!"]

UPG (proudly): Slippery Rock.

PETE: What’s her major?  ["He leaps from the foul line!"

UPG (proudly): Elementary Ed.  How ’bout Bill?  Where’s he? 

PETE (dryly): He’s in electrical engineering at a small private university in New Jersey.  ["He’s turning around in mid-air!"

UPG (knowingly smug, tossing back his remaining martini): Drew? 

PETE (flatly): Princeton.  ["Jordan slams it through BEHIND HIS HEAD!"

UPG (quietly half-choking, with raised eyebrows): Oh.  ["Incredible!!  The crowd is going CRAZY!!"]

Well, in cases like this, the critics are right.  Parents like this should come under fire.  This is elitism at its worst.  Believe it or not, I have seen parents behave this way.

And Now, Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Program 

Elitist parental snobs aside, however, 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 I get from others, 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.  So, I took the one and only offer that came my way: an invitation to play tennis for a non-elite college.  I was blinded by the delusion that I was "an athlete," so I left my MIT dreams in the closet, along with my baseball glove. 

Loud Angry Voice from Offstage: "What is the point of this moving and heartwarming reminiscence, already!?"  Okay, so you lusted for MIT, couldn’t swing it (not that you could have gotten in anyway), and went somewhere else.  Spare us the nostalgia.  Get to the point!"

The Point 

Okay, okay.  Sorry for the digression and indigestion.  The issue, as I see it, is: It’s okay to want to go Ivy, but you better be able to justify your desires.  Parents, don’t fall into Ivy lust on behalf of your kids.  Don’t influence them to go to Columbia (if they can get in) just so you can half-seriously quip to a friend, whose daughter was just accepted at Bucknell, "What’s the matter?  Couldn’t she get into a good school?"  At the same time, don’t dismiss the "Ivy" because "they’re overrated and you can get just as good of an education anywhere else."  This is the reciprocal of the "Couldn’t she get into a good school?" thinking.  Counter-elitism is fraught with the same intellectual perils as affirmative elitism. 

My advice to high schoolers is related to my parental advice: Don’t let your parents do your college selection for you.  Think for yourself.  Beyond that, don’t target an Ivy college for the wrong reasons, such as "Brown is where so-and-so from Friends went" or "I read this really cool story about the crazy parties at Haverford."  And on into the night.  Sure, it’s cool to apply to HYPSM (for the uninitiated, that abbreviation stands for "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and (sigh) MIT).  However, it could even be cooler if you applied to a different HYPSM (Hamilton, Yeshiva, Pomona, Scripps, and Macalester) for the right reasons.

The Ivy Mystique

I searched the Web trying to find a good definition of what "Ivy League" really means.  Oh yeah, I know all about the sports league thing, its roots, and all that.  What I’m talking about is the almost mesmerizing power of the term itself.  I wanted to know why so many high schoolers out there set their crosshairs on those eight schools and their equally "prestigious" (whatever that means) peer institutions every year. 

I found one description in an anonymous statement that references the Ivy League schools’ "relatively small undergraduate populations, large endowments, prestigious academic reputations, and consistent ranking among the top 15 U.S. universities."  That’s an impressive combination of ingredients.  Lots of schools could qualify on that first count.  The second one cuts down the field considerably.  The Big Three, HYP, each have endowments in the double-digit billions of dollars.  A billion is a thousand million.  That impresses me. 

When we talk about schools with "prestigious academic reputations," the field widens considerably.  Quite a few colleges and universities have departments, faculty, programs, or accomplishments that in some manner may be regarded as "prestigious."  Even the Big Three have weaknesses in certain areas, so no one school and especially no one group of schools has a lock on across-the-board prestige.  Accordingly, I’m not as impressed by that qualification. 

The final aspect of that simple definition, a "consistent ranking among the top 15 U.S. universities" is a heavyweight.  Of course, you may be asking, "What ranking?"  That’s a legitimate question, the answer to which almost certainly has to be-for better or worse-the annual U.S. News rankings.  Assuming for a moment that the U.S. News methodology is reasonably accurate (and that is a big assumption), the fact that the eight true Ivies can hang out at that altitude is a convincing testimony of sorts. 

However, my personal opinion is that "Ivy mystique" has more to do with non-quantifiable issues.  You can count endowment dollars, student body size, and assign a numerical ranking, but you can’t measure some of the more spiritual aspects these great schools possess. 

We have a photograph posted on our refrigerator.  I took the picture during one of our many visits to Princeton during our son’s years there.  It is an inscription, engraved in stone, above the entrance doors to one of Princeton’s lecture halls.  It says: 

"Here we were taught by men and gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die." 

Today’s Politically Correct Police Force will attack this magnificent statement immediately by shrieking about its "sexist religious content."  However, I choose to look beyond political correctness and focus on the spirit embodied within those words.  These are capital-"I" Ideals, indeed. 

If I may editorialize here a bit, I’d have to note that, for whatever reason, the spiritual aspects of a college-those "unseen things"-have the most powerful effect on us.  Look at the history of the Ivy League schools and a number of the other oldest top colleges.  Their founders established them mainly as an expression of religious freedom.  Therefore, the foundations of these institutions were laid with spiritual motivations.  Like it or not, the remnants of those motivations linger (some very strongly) even today. 

You may find it ironic that schools where spiritual issues were once central can today entertain wide arenas of liberal thought.  I often wonder what would happen if Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, could return to encounter the full spectrum of political correctness and extremist politics that pervade many of today’s top colleges.  In any event, the ideals these men cemented into the cornerstones of their respective Old Mains have endured, much like America’s Constitution.  Their longevity is a tribute to their universality. 

Our daughter spent her junior college year in England at the University of East Anglia in Norwich as part of Dickinson College’s superb study-abroad program, one of the most comprehensive in the nation.  During one of her breaks that year, she visited two of the original Ivy universities at Oxford and Cambridge.  She mentioned this same mystical quality about those legendary institutions.  It’s as if when they built the world’s great colleges and universities, the stone masons mixed mystique in with the mortar.  I propose that some intrepid psychologist reading my words here undertake a formal study of what projects Ivy Mystique and why some of us are so susceptible to its influence.  It might make a good Ph.D. thesis.  I know that I’d read it.

Perception is Not Reality (Sometimes) 

Back in the Ancient Eighties, the corporate fight song was Total Quality Management.  One of the primary TQM mantras was "Perception is reality."  This means that, good or bad, right or wrong, whatever your "customers" think you are, you are.  Well, I’m here to tell you that as far as colleges are concerned, especially the elite schools, perception is sometimes not reality.  Whether you’re a high schooler or a parent, you’ve got to be careful about stereotypes and external first impressions.  You must dig deeper to get closer to the truth. 

Let’s consider once again the forces of Ivy passion or, for some of us, Ivy lust.  Perhaps the most appropriate target for this discussion might be the "Harvard or bust!" crowd.  I have to wonder if it’s merely a coincidence that "bust" rhymes with "lust."  Substitute any school’s name for Harvard’s and you’ll see how easily all this might apply to you.  What are your true motivations for preferring a particular college?

College-Pick Logic and Other Mysteries

Most families spend more time selecting their living room furniture than they do evaluating colleges.  High school students are especially elusive in articulating their selection criteria.  They have been known to invoke a few twists. 

Here are 10 reasons why kids pick certain colleges (I’ve heard all of these at one time or another): 

  1. "My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there."
  2. "They had a national championship football/basketball/hockey/etc. team last year."
  3. "It’s close to/far from home."
  4. "There are lots of black/Jewish/Catholic/gay/lesbian/Latin/Asian/etc. students there."
  5. "It’s Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc."
  6. "They offered such a good aid package, my parents could buy me a car."
  7. "My brother/sister/father/mother/grandfather/grandmother/aunt/uncle/etc. went there."
  8. "The guys/girls/buildings/campus/etc. in their viewbook looked so cool."
  9. "I like to ski/surf/climb/swim/hang glide/play Ultimate Frisbee/etc."
  10. "It meets more of my criteria than most other colleges."

Guess which one makes the most sense?  Some of you may answer, "That all depends on your point of view."  I’ve tried to get inside the thinking of students over the years.  That’s a daunting process. 

My point of view tells me that college matching is a matter of blending the right student qualifications with the right personal preferences.  From the list above, you can see a number of irrelevant dynamics at work.  Let’s start with #5: 

"It’s Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc." 

When you consider the fact that there is a good reason these top schools have the performance record and reputations that they do, it’s not hard to understand why a high schooler may develop a passion for one or more of them based solely on anecdotal data and-yes-perception.  As with other consumer goods like TVs and automobiles, choosing a well-known and well-respected brand name is relatively safe, but not entirely free of risk.  There are easy ways to verify the overall quality of a brand-name college if you’re willing to do a little work. 

Two direct methods work best: (1) read the student newspaper and communicate with people there.  Just about every college publishes a student-run newspaper and most are available on the Web.  Student newspapers are famous for telling it like it is, so much so that sometimes college administrators have been known to forbid publication of certain articles or opinion pieces.  They have even been known to go around campus gathering up the offending publications, even burning them-an act that has been taken to court and ruled unconstitutional. 

In any event, if you’re looking to find out what HYPSM (again, that’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT) or any of the other best colleges out there are like, search the Web for "college newspapers" and you’ll be pleased to find long listings of links to everything from The Harvard Crimson to The Yale Daily News to The Daily Princetonian.  Read them carefully and try to infer and intuit information as you read.  Most college newspapers include the email addresses of their staff writers and contributors.  This leads to the second source of first-hand information about your dream school: (2) students who go there. 

There was a famous, albeit now seemingly sexist, automobile advertising slogan back in the middle of the first half of the last century that declared: "Ask the man who owns one."  Let me amend that a bit and make it college-research specific: "Ask a student who goes there." 

I get tons of inquiries asking me for my opinion on this or that aspect of certain colleges.  My standard response is twofold.  First, I direct the inquirer to search Web and guidebook sources for subjective opinions.  By "subjective," I mean "personal."  Those great big Manhattan-telephone-book-sized almanacs of college listings and data are fine for The Facts, but I want The Opinions.  In that regard, I must put in my personal, professional, and wholly uncompensated plug for The Princeton Review’s Best 366 Colleges book.  Of all the many books that litter my office, I keep this one unburied and close at hand.  It’s loaded with the opinions of thousands of students who have responded to Princeton Review surveys.  The student responses are compiled and excerpted and provide a wonderfully opinionated glance at the best colleges’ pros and cons.  I heartily recommend that you get your hands on this book and study up on your favorite Ivy or other top choice. 

Once you have done some browsing about one of your candidate schools, it’s time to make contact.  Be prepared in advance, though.  Don’t just send an email to someone whom you never met and say something like, "Hey, dude, your web page is really cool.  What’s it like at Penn anyway?"  What’s wrong with this picture? 

Well, for starters-besides being pretty dumb-your question is just too broad.  Be specific.  Before you make contact, write down your Top Five list of questions about that school.  You might want to know about a certain major.  You may want to find out about that highly touted "12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio" by asking your newly found student contact if s/he has had many teaching assistants (the dreaded "TA syndrome") in class.  Ask about the food, the computer resources, the dorms, the parties, weekends on campus, the local town or city, available transportation, cost of living, weather, sports (do I have to go on?), but have your five or so questions ready (and in good readable shape) before you write that email. 

The truly surprising thing is that you’ll get an answer from almost every student you contact.  The best part will be getting the ultimate inside scoop on any school your heart desires, from HYPSM on "down" (gotta be careful using directional clichés like that).  You can conduct your own little Princeton Review Best-366 survey.  Yours will probably be a Best-4-or-6 survey, though.  Who knows?  If you end up going to any of the schools where you’ve made student inquiries, you just might have some ready-made friendships waiting for you there. 

Taking this "ask a student" approach one step further, you can pioneer some slightly more exalted ground with an "ask the professor" approach.  The same rules apply except when you approach a faculty member or department chair, you had better look sharp because it’s not entirely impossible that some of your application materials may end up on one or more of these profs’ desks.  You might ask about a specific course, major, or physical resource under that particular person’s care. You might also ask him or her for suggestions on how to find out more about a special area of interest. 

If you’re lucky, perhaps one of the professors will invite you to come and visit him or her for a special tour of their department.  This happened to a couple of my student contacts this past fall.  One young woman was very interested in attending Duke University to study computer science.  She made email contact with the chair of Duke’s computer science department and after a few well-thought-out inquiries she visited Duke and got a royal tour of the CS area with the chair himself.  That’s hard to beat.  Now don’t expect this level of hospitality and warmth everywhere, but I’m certain that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how accommodating faculty can be to prospective students.  After all, if there were no prospective students, there would be no need for professors.  I think they understand this concept.

50 Ways to Pick Your College: Dartboard Optional

Well, not quite 50.  Returning to our 10-reasons list, let’s examine the other nine reasons for picking a college.  In the vast cosmos of why kids want to go to certain colleges, the thinking seems to fall into four general logic pockets.  Remember that some kids make their college picks based on stimuli other than their own head or heart leadings.  Mom and dad might be providing strong input inspired by any number of motivations, selfish or otherwise.  Here are the four general categories: 

  1. Possibly temporal personal reasons:

Just as today’s snowstorm can give way to next month’s flower blossoms, so do attitudes and cyclical fads come and go.  That’s why picking a college based on reasons from this group can be dangerous (and expensive).  As mentioned above, picking a tried-and-true brand-name college can offset much of the negative potential contained in this type of reasoning (the five here are just a sampling; there are other variations).  Think about these for a minute, though: 

"My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there." 

It doesn’t take a lot of insight to see the dangers here.  Today’s boyfriend can be tomorrow’s nemesis.  Breakups can be especially hurtful at smaller colleges where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business.  Negative side effects of breakups include depression, anxiety, damaged academics, transfers, and other less-pleasant realities.  If this is one of your top criteria for picking a college, try to use more imagination. 

"They had a national championship football/basketball/hockey/etc. team last year." 

Ever heard the phrase "from then penthouse to the outhouse"?  This happens in the world of sports-a lot.  It’s easy to be "Notre Dame Proud" when the Irish gridiron squad is 11-1 or 12-0.  How proud will you be after two consecutive .500 or (heaven forbid) losing seasons?  Sure, there are perennial sports powerhouses out there, but their continuing dominance is not a certainty.  Coaches retire, get fired, and have bad recruiting years.  Be certain that you can survive your college’s "outhouse" days, should they occur. 

"It’s close to/far from home."

"I like to ski/surf/climb/swim/hang glide/play Ultimate Frisbee/etc." 

These two stem from the same geographic root.  Remember that great song lyric: "We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do"?  You may feel that way right now and want to get as far away as possible from mom, dad, brother, and sister.  However, as with the other reasons listed here, there is a quality of temporality about them.  They are subject to change.  Consequently, if you live in New Jersey and pick a college in Oregon, you’re going to experience lots of hassles if, after you spend a few weeks away from the old homestead, you find that-surprise-the old fogies and brats back home maybe weren’t all that bad.  On the other hand, maybe those long separations will give both sides a chance to re-establish some calmer perspectives about one another. 

The flip side of this approach is the perceived need to be not that far away from friends and family.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with this approach if you have a binding need to stay close, such as an ill parent or relative who requires your attention.  You might also have a job that you don’t want to leave.  That’s fine.  On the other hand, if you’re loath to leave home, you may be denying yourself an important lesson in maturity and independence.  College is one of those branches in the road where you can steer your life in new directions.  Keep an open mind. 

Picking a college simply because surf’s up, the powder is close to the clam chowder, or whatever, is another of those conditional choices.  Conditions can change.  If you pick a school in the far Northeast for skiing opportunities, and then either lose interest or (ouch) sustain an injury, you could discover just how cold New Hampshire winters are when you’re not shagging down a slalom at full speed.  There are also low-snow winters when the powder is scarce.  Just examine your geographic preferences carefully before committing. 

"The guys/girls/buildings/campus/etc. in their viewbook looked so cool." 

If, like most high school students, you have the usual big green garbage bags full of college catalogs and viewbooks, take a close dispassionate look at them.  See any similarities?  Notice how just about every college looks like Yale somehow with some buildings sporting high Gothic spires and a good dose of ivy growing in all the right places.  The lawns are lush green and the sky is deep blue with just a touch of fluffy white clouds.  There’s usually a lake, beside which a distinguished-looking professor leads his very small class in an animated discussion of some profound topic.  Best of all, the students are so diverse

Wake up and smell the dumpsters, kids.  Viewbooks are marketing pieces, just like those Burger King commercials on television.  When’s the last time you saw a Whopper® coming at you through the drive-up window that looked like a TV Whopper®?  It’s the same thing with viewbooks.  You’ve got to "trod their sod."  Go there and visit these places if they interest you.  Look for that lake.  Is it drained?  Check out those Gothic spires.  Is the building still inhabited by humans?  What about those small classes?  Are they for real?  What’s the statistical breakdown of minorities in the student body?  Maybe they put the entire minority population in that one picture.  A while back, one college recalled its viewbooks when someone discovered that the image of a black student on the cover had been digitally inserted.  That really happened.  Obvious moral: Don’t base your college picks on marketing materials. 

2. Almighty-dollar reasons: 

"They offered such a good aid package, my parents could buy me a car for college." 

As incredible as it may sound, financial considerations shouldn’t always be first on you list.  Many less-than-optimum college experiences have happened and are in progress right now because of money than any other issue.  Don’t let sticker price alone be your criterion. 

3. Personal pride and family-tradition reasons: 

"There are lots of black/Jewish/Catholic/gay/lesbian/Latin/Asian/etc. students there."

"My brother/sister/father/mother/grandfather/grandmother/aunt/uncle/etc. went there." 

Picking a college because others in your family went there or because others "like you" go there may be a perfectly fine idea, but it may also greatly limit your individualism and quest for personal growth.  Even though your relatives may have found one particular school successful in meeting their unique needs, perhaps that school won’t do the same for you.  Likewise, if you want to stay around others whose orientation, in whatever aspect, is the same as your own, then a school with many similar kinds of students should be fine.  Keep in mind, though, that it’s a big world out there and you’ll eventually have to enter the fray.  You’ll more than likely have little control over whom you have to associate with day after day.  That’s why it may be better to consider a broader swath of college demographic options. 

4. The best reasons: 

"It meets more of my criteria than most other colleges." 

There may be other ways of stating it, but this is by far the best approach to picking a college.  It covers all the bases: demographics, location, financial, and so forth.  Approaching college selection with a mind toward balance is similar to a smart investment strategy.  If you spread your investment across a wide enough menu of considerations, an isolated downturn can’t hurt you that badly.   

You’re unique.  Shouldn’t your college choice be unique too?  Try to target the top without that dartboard!