What's in An Ivy Name?

Over my many years as an independent college admissions counselor, I’ve often wondered about what motivates high schoolers to apply to certain colleges. Certainly, there are practical reasons, like legacy. If Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Auntie, or Uncle Fred went there, then that’s good enough for some, especially if a legacy connection can result in some slack during the admissions process. The so-called “prestige” factor looms large, too, sometimes even more for parents than for the applicants themselves. I recall overhearing one proud parent pull the old bait-and-switch routine one evening at an after-concert reception. Two fathers who hadn’t seen one another in a long time were catching up on family affairs. The one father was obviously proud of his daughter’s collegiate status and boasted, “Oh, yeah, Emily is at Penn State in the Schreyer Honors College! [certainly something to be proud of]. How about your boy?” Like a mountain lion stalking its prey, the other father smiled and quietly answered, “Billy’s very happy at a small private school in New Jersey.” Of course the desired reaction was curiosity. “Great!” responded Penn State Dad, “What school is that?” New Jersey Dad wound up like Nolan Ryan going for a perfect game and calmly answered, “Princeton.” To paraphrase George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf … and that’s how you play Pass the Prestige, Please.

Of course, economic considerations make many college-choice decisions by default. If a “prestigious” school doesn’t offer as much sorely needed financial aid as a decent lesser-known private school, then the decision becomes clear. This happens frequently. Speaking of prestige and the various shadows that the “top” so-called “elite” schools cast (I use quotes a lot because in some cases these “prestigious” schools may not always be thoroughly “prestigious”), I have sometimes pondered the names of colleges, especially the Ivies. So, really, what’s in an Ivy name?


Well, there are The Big Three: Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. When I have thought about the names of the Ivy League schools, various images appear in my brain. Take Princeton, for example. The name oozes royalty: PRINCEton. It kind of rolls off the tongue and that hard “P” demands attention. I’ve even imagined “a ton of princes.” That’s heavy royalty. No wonder that the Princeton Dad I overheard at the reception was so delighted to drop his princely bomb. In a less regal mood, I’ve been known to conjure “Priceton” due to the dollar freight. A princely price comes with the “prestige.”

So what about Harvard? Well, with the way my mind works (who can figure that out?) I sometimes find myself pondering beets. Really. When I was a young boy, my mother would occasionally (far too frequently, unfortunately) proffer Harvard beets for dinner. “They’re good for your blood,” she would rationalize. “So is a transfusion!” I would retaliate. Anyway, my character has been permanently stained with the deep purple (or are they dark blue?) dye of Harvard beets. From a humor standpoint, I’ve fantasized about this headline: Harvard Beets Yale!If that’s been used, I’ve not seen it.

Speaking of Yale, I’ve imagined it as Yell. “Mom! Dad! I’m going to Yell!” Of course, the natural parental comeback would be,”Well, go ahead, but not too loud!” I sometimes see padlocks, too. That’s not entirely inappropriate because that’s pretty much what New Haven’s admission office keeps on their main gate doors. A BIG one. If you’ve seen the admission percentages from recent years, then you’ll know what I mean. Yale also rhymes with “shale.” I’ve thought that the road to Yale is paved with shale. Certainly a sensitive, poetic musing, and most applicants trod that pathway barefoot. Ouch! How about that classic Beatles hit: “She loves you, Yale, Yale, Yale!” Endless (and mindless) cerebral ramblings.

Enough about The Big Three. How about the other Fab Five?

Okay. We have Brown. (No smart remarks!) Brown makes me think of cooking. Yeah, Mom-time again. They say that olfactory memories are our strongest, like when we are out walking and the fragrance of freshly cut grass enters our nostrils. We may be swept back to our days of yore when we watched Dad dutifully marching back and forth behind that heavyweight push mower. Anyway, when I think of Brown, I sometimes smell my mother’s sliced potatoes, browning in the frying pan. I can also hear the sizzle that completes that tableau. (I’m picking up a gastric thread here: Harvard beets, browned potatoes …) Obviously, I can’t resist a football image: the Cleveland Browns. I’d love to see a football game between the Browns and Brown. I can almost hear the announcer now. “It’s halftime, with the score Browns 67, Brown 3.” Sometimes I think of Providence as Browntown. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling all of you what I’m thinking.

I wrote a book once about “elite” college admissions and titled one of the chapters Dartmouth or The Dart Board. That was meant to imply that college applicants can have either a specific school in mind or that they can just leave their college process to chance. I’ve thought about snail darters, too (the Tennessee fish that frustrated the completion of an entire dam). That led to The Fighting Snail Dartmouths. I can see that mascot now. I know some people who have a dart mouth. Some of the things they say can prick your feelings. I also once owned a Dodge Dart. Every year here in our state, we are required to have our cars inspected by an authorized inspection station. When it came time for my beauty’s inspection, I referred to it as Dart Month, inspired by the Hanover Hilton. Of course, when an Ivy aspirant to this particular institution gets his or her denial notice, the term Darkmouth comes to (my) mind. I know, I know. I’m should have gone to Dorkmouth.

Ah, Cornell. You can see it coming, can’t you? For all you vintage Hollywood film folks out there (like me), I keep seeing a bumper sticker: Wild about Cornell! Remember Cornel “One L” Wilde? Or, “I’m itchin’ to go to Ithaca!” Every time I hear about Ithaca, I think of my Dad, who was an avid hunter until I persuaded him that killing animals wasn’t cool. He had an “Ithaca Featherweight” shotgun that was his hunting pride and joy until my animal rights sentiments got through to him. So, to me, Ithaca makes me think of hunting. I also think of musical instruments: the French horn and bells. In symphonic music scores, a French horn is noted as a “corno.” Some works have the solemn knell of orchestral bells. Thus, corno-knell. A mind is a terrible thing to reveal.

Penn. Three guesses. Maybe four. Around these parts of my state, people joke, “He’s not going to Penn State, he’s going to the state pen!” (That’s hardly LOL-worthy.) I know, I know (again). Penn State is not the University of Pennsylvania, even though at one Penn basketball game years ago, the trinket vendors showed up with Penn State wares. Really. As Casey Stengel said, “Look it up!” Being the big movie buff and actor critic that I am, I have to slam my hand in a car door when Ben Franklin’s school makes me think of Madonna’s ex, Sean. In past years, I’ve been tempted to advise an Ivy applicant or two to “Penn” their answer to the famous “Page 216” essay prompt, but reasoned that these kids were already under enough repression. Although I haven’t trod every square foot of campus sod there, I’m sure that somewhere there is a fountain Penn is proud of. Finally, I’ll confess to my wildest mental manglings about this school. This involves revealing a Democratic Party anecdote as part of an application essay response. One would then Penn the tale on the donkey. In conclusion … (remember Bill Clinton introducing the nominee at the Democratic National Convention?) …

Columbia. Yeah, I’ve thought about jelly. [From my junior high school daze]: Columbia, the jam of the ocean. I also imagine this NYC powerhouse to be misspelled and located in South America, and, alternatively, correctly spelled and situated in beautiful South Carolina. I’m a classical music fan and some of my most cherished recordings reside on Columbia Masterworks LPs. That nostalgia inspires my thoughts of Columbia students playing frisbee with the legendary Budapest String Quartet’s interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet #14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. I’ve even had a nasty thought about Columbine. And from the Who The Heck Knows Why We Think The Way We Do? Department, I now and then flash on that crusty but benign detective in his rumpled overcoat, which makes the mental-midget connection to the famous Big Apple crime boss. Guilty as charged.


Now, you can just file all this under Way Too Much Information. Anyhow, my point was to maybe inspire you to think more associatively. One thing can make you think of another, and not just when you think about the Ivy League.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.