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Colleges that are Great Beyond the Famous Eight: How Success and Achievement Exist outside the Ivy League, Too

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There is an unsettling belief rooted firmly in the minds of many college applicants these days: that the college application process should be, first and foremost, an exercise in gaming the system. Wrongly, many students’ end-goal is to win an offer of admission at a school with as low an acceptance rate as possible. What should be a careful search to find a school that will provide each individual with four years of growth and learning turns into an ugly show of one-upmanship among student applicants. And the eight schools that compose the Ivy League—with their low acceptance rates and high level of celebrity—seem to be many students’ schools of choice.


This, though,  can be problematic. Sure, attending an Ivy League university is an impressive feat. But many students forget that the Ivy League represents only eight of the thousands of colleges in America. More specifically, it only represents eight of the thousands of fantastic schools in America.


The point being that the schools in the Ivy League, while certainly fantastic, are at their core quite similar to hundreds of other schools across the country that receive less press and thus enjoy less fame. Whether you’re preparing your college list or preparing to go to a non-Ivy school, read on if you find yourself believing that the Ivies are the only good schools in the country. On the contrary, they are only some of many.


College Cachet: Why the Ivies Seem Untouchable


While it used to be that a degree from an Ivy League institution unlocked doors that remained closed to the rest of the world, this simply isn’t the case today. The metaphorical locks on those doors—which can lead you to fantastic career, networking, and travel opportunities, among other things—can now be opened by myriad other institutions’ diplomas.


Truthfully, one of the reasons why the Ivy League schools boast such low admissions rates is that they receive many times more than other institutions. For example, while Harvard received 37,307 applications in the 2014-application cycle while Gettysburg received only 6,386.


The eight included universities—namely Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—are each fantastic institutions that sponsor stunning research, produce important work, and educate wildly intelligent people. That said, their decades of prominence and prestige have garnered them large endowments with which to make this work possible. This means that there are plenty of other universities that do just as exciting work, provide equally rigorous education, and produce students destined for similar greatness as Ivy League schools.


 Who Are These Students that are “Destined for Greatness”?


Before we can make any comparisons between the Ivy League colleges and the many others in the country, let’s establish what it is these schools are looking for in a successful applicant.


Yale describes its search for the perfect applicant as “a combination of looking for those who would make the most of the extraordinary resources assembled here, those with a zest to stretch the limits of their talents, and those with an outstanding public motivation – in other words, applicants with a concern for something larger than themselves.” Later, they explain that they’re looking for “students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.


Similarly, Cornell’s adcom cares about its students’ “intellectual potential,” “character,” “involvement,” and reasons for choosing the school. Basically, they’re looking at applicants in the same holistic way that Yale does.


Meanwhile, Harvard similarly claims that it wants “students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.”  


In sum, it seems that the Ivy League schools approach the admissions process in much the same way. They promise to read applications “holistically,” looking for students who are genuinely curious about the world, interested in learning new things, passionate about the activities they already do, and looking to be “leaders” in whatever projects they eventually pursue.


Now that we have a better understanding of how the Ivy League proposes to build classes of engaging intellectuals, successful entrepreneurs, and future leaders, we can better compare the Ivy Leagues to other schools.


What Every Other College Looks For in Applicants


No surprise here: the adcoms at most universities look for exactly the same type of hard-working, driven, curious, proactive, and forward-thinking students that the Ivy League wants to enroll. The fact of the matter is that only 65.9% of Americans matriculate to college after high school, and even less graduate. In this light, your plans to pursue higher education already set you apart from the majority of the world.


What’s more, these institutions of higher learning are committed to the exact same goals as the schools in the Ivy League. This becomes blatantly clear when we analyze their admissions websites, because virtually every adcom describes a similar holistic approach to reading applications and desires the same type of student—that is, someone dedicated, interested, and curious. Below, a random sampling of colleges (listed in alphabetical order) that are not a part of the Ivy League and receive significantly less press, but which are stellar institutions committed to excellence:


At SUNY Albany, “the rigor of your high school academic program, your academic record, your standardized test scores, your potential for leadership and your extracurricular interests,  and your potential for success at the University at Albany” all contribute to your ultimate acceptance to the school.


Boston College’s adcom selects students who have “demonstrated evidence of academic ability, intellectual curiosity, strength of character, motivation, creativity, energy, and promise for personal growth and development”


Bucknell, which is in search of “students who are daring, who will contribute to the world in thoughtful, bold and compassionate ways. So if you’re a learner and a leader, we hope you will consider Bucknell.”


Similarly, Georgetown seeks students who can boast superior academic achievement, but also “accomplishments outside of the classroom, demonstrated commitment to the broader community, and personal qualities such as resilience, motivation and ambition…an individual and someone who will uniquely add to – and benefit from – the Georgetown University community.”


Gettysburg is “very interested in individuals of character who will make positive contributions to the campus community and beyond.


Tulane’s extremely competitive admission is based upon both “high levels of academic and extracurricular achievement.”


And finally, only students “who are incredibly bright, engaged, and passionate,” who “have challenged themselves and those around them to make a difference in the world,” and who plan to do “something extraordinary” or “lead, make discoveries, tackle key issues, gain knowledge, and establish lifelong friendships” are accepted at the University of Wisconsin.


Liberal Arts, Non-Ivy Style


One of the mainstays of an Ivy League education is its liberal arts focus. But as far as a holistic, well-rounded education goes, the Ivy League is not the only place to get it! In fact, there are several liberal arts colleges that closely resemble the Ivy League, not only in their teaching philosophy but also in their prestige, selectiveness and resources. Namely, Amherst, Bowdoin, Carleton, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Haverford, Pomona, Swarthmore, and Williams Colleges are basically on par with Ivies but are simply less well-known.


Proof in the Pudding (and Hollywood, and Literature, and Politics, and the Fortune 500)


Clearly, the students attending the Ivy Leagues and other selective institutions around the country are often cut from the same driven, hard-working, intelligent cloth. Likewise, there are obviously plenty of other schools—granted, less famous ones—that are equipped to give you the same education and look similarly impressive on your resume. But if you still don’t believe us, look to the stars. The celebrities, that is. In virtually every field, there are wildly successful people with illustrious careers who did not study at an Ivy.


Certainly, Hollywood is full of non-Ivy League grads. Bradley Cooper, who has been nominated for four Academy Awards and starred in numerous films,  went to Georgetown. Meanwhile, George Lucas, the creator of the iconic Star Wars series, attended Modesto Junior College, an open-admission community college in California. And Tom Hanks attended Chabot College—a community college in Hayward, CA—after graduating from high school with low grades and SAT scores; today, Hanks boasts 116 nominations and 76 awards—two of which are Academy Awards— for his acting.


As well, famous writers of virtually every genre imaginable—from journalism, to short stories, to poetry—hail from schools that aren’t in the Ivy League. Wildly successful novelist and writer of short stories Jhumpa Lahiri attended Barnard College and Boston University, and Flannery O’Connor studied at the University of Iowa. Activist, poet, and author of the famous novel-turned-film-turned-musical The Color Purple Alice Walker went to college at Sarah Lawrence. And Toni Morrison, who received her undergraduate degree from Howard, finds her novels taught in high schools and universities all over the country. In fact, the Ivy League itself is completely in awe of her intelligence and stunning accomplishments; this past year, she was named this year’s Norton Lecturer at Harvard, one the most distinguished honors and highest compliments the university can give to a scholar.


If you’re interested in entering politics, you’ll find that many of your role models studied at colleges outside of the Ivy League too. Take Joe Biden, who has created a name for himself both as an exemplary member of the Senate and currently as the Vice President of the United States; he attended the University of Delaware and received his law degree from Syracuse, and has even admitted to struggling with his academics at both of these institutions. Dick Cheney is another U.S. Vice President who did not attend an Ivy, in his case by choice. Both his undergraduate and graduate degrees came from University of Wyoming, even though he was accepted to Yale as an undergraduate on a full-ride scholarship. The list of successful politicians from non-Ivies goes on: Barbara Boxer, a Senator from California, attended Brooklyn College. Colin Powell attended the City College of New York; he was the first African American Secretary of State, is so far the only African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and is a retired four-star general in the United States Army.


For the readers who hope to enter business, we’ve also got good news; many of today’s most successful businessmen and women did not go to school at an Ivy. In the 2015 estimation of the Fortune 500 Companies, only one of the top ten companies was led by a CEO who attended an Ivy League as an undergraduate. Moreover, the number of companies whose CEO boasts an Ivy League degree only jumps to two when you include their graduate degrees. Meanwhile, some CEOs obtained no graduate degrees and were even first generation college students, like Larry Merlo of CVS Health, who attended University of Pittsburgh.


So, indeed, the Ivy League is a fantastic place to study. But hopefully, we’ve reminded you that it isn’t the only place to do so. While an Ivy-stamped diploma can open exciting doors for you, so can a degree from countless other schools. Personal drive, motivation, and talent are much  more accurate indicators of future success than the colleges you’ve been accepted to. Not everyone can attend an Ivy, but certainly anyone who wants to can achieve something earth-shattering.


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Lily Calcagnini
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.