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.