True Story: I Went to an Ivy League College

This is just one of many fascinating interviews that make up the True Story family.
This is the one girl’s tale of studying at one of America’s most prestigious schools.

Tell us which schools you went to
I went to Yale. Later I went on to go to other classically prestigious schools, but Yale is the only Ivy I’ve attended.What made you decide that you wanted to go to an ivy league school?
Part of it was the prestige. I’m very aware now that there are equally academically rigorous schools that are not Ivies, but I grew up as the child of immigrants, who really had no idea that there were schools outside of the Ivy League worth a damn. My father, for example, threw a fit when I said that I wanted to go to Brown — which is actually an Ivy, but was not, in his mind, a “real Ivy.”

Another part of it was wanting to get away from my home life, which was a mess at the time; I wanted to get away from a traumatic graduation year in my hometown. I was running away from a lot, including an abusive relationship and a sexual assault, and going to a place where I could (allegedly) use my brain in exciting ways and meet interesting people was extremely appealing. This doesn’t answer your question about “why an Ivy,” but it does answer a question about “why Yale” — Yale is known as one of the more liberal, artsy Ivies, and that completely appealed to me.

Can you tell us about the application process?

Paper applications and an interview. I didn’t stress out too much about it — I get the feeling that overachieving high school students these days are much more on edge about the whole process. The essay that I wrote, which was indirectly about the abusive relationship, caused some trouble in my AP English class; the teacher told me that colleges didn’t want to read about relationships. But I managed to get into all of the schools that I applied to, so figs to her, I suppose.What was the student body like?The student body at Yale was, when I went, much more racially and socioeconomically diverse than one might think — there were certainly a lot of East Coast prep-school graduates (mostly from Exeter and Andover), but one of my closest friends was from rural Appalachia and I knew a lot of people on scholarship from urban areas. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a thriving avant-garde, artistic community; for every legacy (a student whose family lineage goes back multiple generations in any given school) with a head full of bricks, there are students who have written a series of plays based on the Western Canon or made some amazing scientific breakthrough or, in my case, published essays with a major publishing house.

And because pretty much everyone was phenomenally well-accomplished, very few people felt the urge to brag about this or that. So if you got a 1570 on your SATs, it wasn’t really worth talking about because you were likely to be speaking to someone who had not only gotten a 1600, but had also made some innovation regarding brain waves and robot arms.

I suppose I can’t speak about going to Yale without addressing the wealth and status of a lot of the student population. It wasn’t until I went to Yale, for example, that I met someone who introduced me to goat cheese for the first time; I had a roommate with a celebrity mother; I discovered, to my utter shock, that there were such things as $600 boots. Not everyone was like that, of course, but I will always remember the first trip I took to New York, and entering a brownstone with a doorman.

How do you think your college experience compared to those of your friends’ who went to state schools?I can’t really say for sure. I did go to a state school for graduate school, and it was a very good state school for the subject that I studied there. But there’s definitely a difference between the resources one can receive at an Ivy — or at least, at Yale — and the resources one can receive at a state school, if only because of the sheer differences in the size of the student body, money for equipment and visiting faculty, and personal attention from professors and deans.

How did you finance your education?
I’m one of those lucky people who didn’t wind up with student loans. I financed my education with a combination of scholarships, family donations, work that I did in high school and money that my parents had saved for me. Like I said, I was very lucky in that regard.

Did having these schools on your resume/transcript open doors for you?
I’m on the job market right now, and the fact that I haven’t been able to find a job might speak to this. I’m not saying that it hasn’t been at all advantageous to my goals, but there are limitations; having an Ivy on your resume might catch someone’s attention, but it’s what you do with that education that really matters, as corny as that sounds.

Would you recommend an ivy league school?I guess that I feel like this question is sort of like asking someone, “Would you recommend pickles?” All Ivies are different, for one. Yale is very different from Harvard or, say, Princeton, not to mention Brown or Dartmouth or Columbia. I’d say that what’s more important is to look very carefully past the Ivy label and at what you (the proverbial college applicant) are looking for in a college/university.

There are fabulous liberal arts colleges out there that are completely outside of the Ivy League bubble. I know people who went to Reed or Swarthmore who had a much more intellectually stimulating (and personally tailored) education than I did at Yale.

Any advice for other students looking to go ivy?
This is mostly advice for people who’ve decided that they do want to go to a particular Ivy, whether it’s because they love the Egyptology program at Brown or want to study at Yale with Harold Bloom (which is really difficult to do, by the way). It’s getting harder and harder to get into an Ivy, but I also feel that people — both parents and students — go about it the wrong way. I get so frustrated when I see parents pushing their kids to start practicing the SATs in seventh grade, or hire extremely expensive private tutors, or push their kids into speech and debate or various other clubs because they think that it will pad their applications.

Look: I know from both the admissions side of things and from the college guidance side of things that the kid who gets a perfect score on his/her SAT, wins Nationals in speech and debate, volunteers at the soup kitchen every weekend, and has a 4.0 GPA in high school is one of a very large number of other kids who have similar, if not the exact same, qualifications, and may very well not get into an Ivy at all. Which is not to say that those accomplishments aren’t great, but I sincerely feel that my unique background and accomplishments are what helped get me into Yale and other Ivies in the first place.

Did any of you go to Ivy league schools? Any questions for our Ivy league lass?

photo by sarah ackerman // cc

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  1. Aury

    I loved this post Sarah! I was one of those kids whose parents made them believe an ivy is the be all and end all, but i didn't get into any of them (i hadn't wanted to go to one anyway, i wanted to go to an art school or big university with a good art program). I am now really happy at boston university working on my portfolio through their college of fine arts and being challenged by the economics major classes.

  2. Luana

    I was looking forward to this post! I wish I had read it in my senior year of high school; I had so many classmates who applied to ivy league not for the program they wanted to study but for the prestige of the university.

  3. The Naked Redhead

    "having an Ivy on your resume might catch someone's attention, but it's what you do with that education that really matters, as corny as that sounds."

    SOOooo true…I work in (definitely not Ivy league) education right now, and the kids that get the jobs and keep them are usually the ones that yes, get good grades, but also have an interesting combination of drive, street smarts, and personality.

  4. Francine

    This was an interesting article! Did you notice if Yale students were more "workaholic" types of students that were very stressed out and uptight, compared to those you encountered at the state school? Or is that just a stereotype? Did you get a taste for the "party scene" as well?

  5. Vieve

    I primarily went to what is known as a "southern Ivy", not quite a prestigious as a regular, however still extremely competitive. Do to circumstances I also did a semester at Harvard. I am not going to lie, I really did not find many differences between the intelligence of my classmates or the standards that were required.

    "Which is not to say that those accomplishments aren't great, but I sincerely feel that my unique background and accomplishments are what helped get me into Yale and other Ivies in the first place." I have to agree with this statement, I had good grades in High school, but so did all of my classmates (I went to a prep school). I honestly believe that it was the random activities and interests that made me stand out when applying. I think being true to yourself is much more effective when applying to schools than anything else.

  6. The Curious Cat

    Interesting post…I never really knew much about the Ivy League until recently – having living in England. For us here it is Oxbridge – Cambridge and Oxford. xxx

  7. Jen

    I agree with this Ivy grad: when looking for a college, look at what the school offers you, as an individual. When I was choosing a college, I looked at the best universities with the best communications schools with the best journalism programs — Ivy or not. Ultimately, I chose the top program in the best location for me. I studied with some well-known media professionals as my professors, and I had the benefit of a huge liberal-arts university with such a broad spectrum of secondary classes for me to explore. I think that's the most important thing, getting what you need and want, regardless of how well-known or prestigious the school.

  8. Anonymous

    I agree again with the comments that the program of study and its professors, not the prestige, is ultimately the most important. I got into the Ivy League and turned it down to go to a publicly funded school outside the US that's considered one of the best in the world, and I definitely don't regret my decision – I think it has as much, if not more, to offer to me as a student and a person.

  9. Allie

    I can't describe to you relieved this post made me feel. I'm a junior at a prestigious high school in NYC, and I absolutely know the attitude of "if it's not an ivy it's no good." While searching for the perfect school, I have been avoiding the ivies because of the kids I know who attend them, so it's really refreshing to know that not everyone is like that.

  10. Halley

    How did you go about getting your essays published by a major publishing house? It seems like a rare accomplishment. Would you mind sharing a few tips?
    Thanks for the insights into prestigious education.

  11. Anonymous

    I went to Princeton and while I agree with the writer about some things I actually think her experience sounds much more well-rounded than mine. I went on to the University of Virginia for my masters and I truly wish I had gone there for my undergrad as well. Still a good school but such a healthier environment. I actually had fun at UVA – can't so much say that for Princeton.

  12. screwdestiny

    I enjoyed reading this post. I liked what she said at the end about not pushing students to do all the typical overachiever stuff because every other overachiever out there will be doing the same things. And they can't accept all of them.

  13. Nahl

    What's the ratio of extremely smart kids who are not that rich to extremely smart kids who are cash out of your ass rich?

  14. Emma

    I just got a place at Dartmouth for a semester abroad; I'm from the UK. I don't really have any idea of the fuss that surrounds the Ivy League at all!!

  15. Paige

    I REALLY like this True Story feature.
    Although I'm not looking at Ivies, (too much money), I'm looking at Vanderbilt, Tulane, and Northwestern.

  16. Roryoreo

    What an interesting article! I really appreciate the interviewee's perspective. She is right – students need to spend more time seeing how/whether prospective universities will fit them before figuring out how they can fit themselves into certain universities.

    I was confused by her last sentence, though. She says that her unique background and accomplishments were what helped her get into the Ivies… what does being unique mean, anyway?

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