Chasing the Clean Sweep: Princeton University

Long-term US News ranking favorite, Princeton is a small school with a low acceptance rate, a laundry list of accomplished alumni, and an enormous endowment. Princeton, on the surface, combines some of best qualities found in other Ivies to create a campus uniquely its own. By offering students world class faculty and copious amounts of endowment money, Princeton is similar Harvard in terms of research quality, with most professors regularly leading ground-breaking efforts in their disciplines. Its small size rings similar to that of Dartmouth, allowing the school to prioritize discussion-based courses and strong student-professor relationships. Utilizing a residential system built around small “house” communities instead of individual dorms, students enjoy a sense of community with their house peers similar to the closeness often lauded by students at Yale under the Yale house system. It seems students at Princeton are able to enjoy the best the Ivies have to offer, further cementing its position at the top of the ranks.

However, no school is perfect for everyone, and what makes Princeton distinct defines its students and their experience. Princeton is notoriously less diverse than the other Ivies, historically similar to Yale and Harvard in its overwhelming catering to the progeny of the highest, and usually Northeastern, elite. Like Harvard and more recently Yale, admissions at the university is working on programs to increase socioeconomic diversity, achieving much success and applause in their endeavor. However, despite its success and a change in policy to admit more socioeconomically diverse students, the campus is still one of the most elite and exclusive in the country, and students from more diverse, less privileged backgrounds may face a great deal of culture shock. Moreover, those who want a balance of upperclassman and underclassman would be left wanting at Princeton, where the house system ensures that class years are largely kept separate.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania, commonly referred to as UPenn, is a large research-oriented university in a large city, similar to Harvard and Columbia. However, it distinguishes itself from Harvard with its small class sizes and close student to professor relationships, and unlike Columbia’s Core Curriculum, UPenn’s programs seem to contain “undercurrents” of pre-professionalism. For those who are looking to achieve intimate faculty relationships without attending a liberal arts school or adhering to a liberal arts curriculum, UPenn strikes an unusual balance, offering the advantages of a large research university while maintaining the tight-knit community and professor relationships found at smaller colleges.

In addition to its tight-knit community and pre-professional slant, UPenn is known as the “Happy Ivy,” offering the same level of academic rigor as the other Ivies without the same level of stress and competition that plague top-tier schools. This is not to say students at UPenn are not stressed or competitive, but rather that there is a greater work-life balance at UPenn than there is at peer institutions. This work-life balance encourages students to be more social and take advantage of opportunities to blow off steam and alleviate stress. Students participate in a vibrant Greek life culture, attend football games, and adopt a “work hard, play hard” philosophy that separates social weekends from coursework-filled weekdays. Those who desire a challenging, Ivy League education without being confined to the library for days on end will find in UPenn an oasis of balance greater than that found at other Leaguers.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Harvard University

Harvard is one of the most well-known universities in the world, possessing name recognition only matched by Oxford or Cambridge; however, despite its fame, many know very little about the university itself or its students. Often lambasted for its professors’ overwhelming focus on research and graduate school teaching, Harvard is not the school for those who require individual attention or daily access to professors. For many students, the most rewarding form of instruction is the sophomore and junior tutorial, a small-group directed study in a student’s field of concentration that is required in most departments within the humanities and social sciences. However, the tutorial opportunity is an exception to the norm, as most courses outside of higher level seminars are taught by both professors and graduate students in larger lecture halls.

For students who are highly motivated and ambitious, the lack of classroom interaction with faculty is no hindrance, as they are able to benefit from participating in the ground breaking research that otherwise occupies their professors’ time. Furthermore, the widely acknowledged (and debated) grade inflation policy enables students to focus on growing academically without strictly focusing on academic performance and GPA. Being located in the most active academic and social hub in the US, students at Harvard have a front row seat to the wealth of opportunities and activities found in Boston and Cambridge, benefiting from the other 250,000 students and hundreds of internships that call the revolutionary city home. It might be easy to get lost in such a large school in a large area, but for those who are independent and self-motivated, Harvard provides opportunity, money, and resources unparalleled by any other school, within or outside of the Ivy League.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Dartmouth College

Dartmouth is the only Ivy to call itself a college, and this distinction in title encompasses the differences between Dartmouth and its fellow League members. Dartmouth is the smallest school in the League with 4,000 undergrads and 1,600 graduate students. This is a stark contrast to the other Ivies, which enroll anywhere from 3,000 to 19,000 graduate students in addition to the standard 5,000+ undergrads. Utilizing its small size, Dartmouth students not only enjoy small, discussion-based courses from freshman year onward, but also have the opportunity to develop close relationships with professors and advisors. While larger Ivies might have 25% or more of their courses clocking in at 50+ students, over 60% of Dartmouth’s courses have fewer than 20 students, and only 9% of courses have 50+ students. For students who require smaller classes and frequent access to professors, Dartmouth provides a reprieve from the lecture halls common at its larger peer institutions.

Separating Dartmouth’s academics from the pack isn’t their liberal arts focus, which more closely resembles Columbia than Brown, but rather its academic calendar, referred to as the “D Plan.” The D Plan is divides the academic year into four 10-week terms, including a 10-week summer block, with the intention of providing students unparalleled flexibility. Freshman and seniors must attend at least three terms on campus, and every sophomore must attend the 10-week summer term. Otherwise, students may choose which 10-week terms to attend, allowing them to take time-off for internships, research, or travel without any penalty. Like Cornell, Dartmouth is also more isolated than its counterparts, but in turn students enjoy a rich landscape and myriad of outdoor activities.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Cornell University

Having introduced two opposing views of the liberal arts, Columbia’s strict curriculum and Brown’s open curriculum, we pivot to Cornell, a league of its own within the Ivies. Cornell is sometimes referred to as a public-private university hybrid, being both an Ivy League institution with rigorous academics and a large land-grant institution with a more pre-professional focus. Applying to Cornell requires choosing a specific college, such as the renowned School for Hotel Administration, and most of the courses students take are within their chosen major/college. This is not to say Cornell is a pre-professional school, but rather, a place where students have the opportunity to apply a pre-professional focus to their liberal arts education. Cornell’s pre-professional outlook allows students the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the select discipline(s) of their choice, and explore other disciplines in a less in-depth manner as they desire.

Also unique to Cornell is its location and size, being the largest Ivy in terms of both undergraduate population and campus acreage. Cornell is also the Ivy located farthest from an urban center, secluded in Upstate New York but in turn also surrounded by natural beauty. Students happily take advantage of their school’s location and large campus by utilizing more than 3,000 acres of woodlands, natural trails, streams, and gorges as spaces for physical exertion and contemplation. Cornell is not for those who desire an urban setting or the intimacy of a smaller school, yet it is ideal for those who want an Ivy League education with professional programs typically exclusive to public universities surrounded by an idyllic wilderness.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Columbia University

For the cosmopolitan who wants a traditional liberal arts curriculum without the “bubble” of a small liberal arts college, there is Columbia University, situated just a few street blocks north of Central Park in New York City. Students at Columbia enjoy complete integration with the city, often citing that their location, being the biggest city in the US, allows them to have “a campus identity” while “living in the real world.” Students longing for a smaller, more isolated campus would feel lost in the sea of 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 1.6 million Manhattan residents; however, students at Columbia are very extroverted. Students traditionally energized by the possibility of new experiences and by meeting new people will find endless opportunities to enjoy and explore Columbia’s and New York’s diversity.

While some Ivies have evolved to embrace a curriculum that prioritizes a pre-professional educational philosophy over the liberal arts, Columbia has retained its liberal arts focus and its “Core Curriculum.” While each student is free to determine what courses they take to fulfill the Core requirements, the Core can occupy up to a third of a student’s first two years. For those who want to be challenged by taking classes across all disciplines and those who want a wider academic focus, the Core is a great mechanism for encouraging exploration and course variety. However, for those who desire a specialized education, only taking courses in engineering and STEM fields for example, Columbia’s distribution requirements might seem cumbersome.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Brown University

Brown University is the Ivy for those who are open-minded and flexible. It’s known for its liberal academic curriculum and even more liberal student body. Brown embraces a far more open curriculum compared to other Ivy fellows, allowing each student the opportunity to “choose their own adventure.” With no distribution requirements aside from student-specific major requirements and two writing courses, students are free to pursue all of the liberal arts, or conversely, free to take courses in just two or three departments. Adding even more flexibility to its academics, Brown also offers the option for students to take courses “credit/non.” This provision means that students can elect to take a course on a pass/no pass scale instead of the traditional letter grade scale, making the class exempt from GPA calculation while still receiving credit. Because of the ability to deprioritize GPA, students at Brown are able to prioritize taking the classes they are interested in instead of being confined to courses in which they would earn high marks.

Beyond its academic freedom, Brown is known best for its on-campus student activism, often home to student leaders who manage social change and home to student protesters. For those who want the chance to create their own curriculum and those who are interested in hands-on activism, Brown offers a unique campus environment, fueled by student liberty, that is distinct from its peers.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Why You Shouldn’t Apply to All 8 Ivies

Considering the mad frenzy of the modern college application process, there is no greater feat than getting into all eight Ivy League universities. If not for the sheer accomplishment, many students apply to all eight Ivies with a “you just need one yes” outlook. Parents and students alike hope that by applying to all the Ivies, they increase their chances of getting accepted into any single institution. This “just one yes” strategy is common in educational consulting, best exemplified in the “safety/reach” application method. However, when used by educational consultants, this strategy is implemented to help place a student at the most academically rigorous school that the student would thrive in. All Ivies are not created equal, and the vast differences among the campuses ensure that no single student is a good fit for all the schools. In this series, I hope to explain what separates each Ivy from the pack so that your student can save time and energy, applying to their right fit Ivy League school instead of feeling pressure to apply to multiple Ivies. In the case that you find that none of the Ivies seem like a good match for your student, I’ll do a follow-up post listing the top 10 Ivy League alternatives, distinguishing the schools by state and briefly explaining why the League fails to include all equivalent institutions.

Which College Ranking List Should You Use?

Many people don’t know how to navigate college rankings. In the last blog post, we discussed what determines rankings and what makes a college number three on US News and number fifteen on Forbes. This blog post takes our analysis a step further, examining the pros and cons of US News rankings and Forbes rankings and seeing which number may be more significant to you.

US News with the quantitative approach entails some pros and cons. Utilizing a quantitative approach allows prestigious and selective schools to be ranked higher. US News also has regional school rankings and ranks schools based on the quality of specific academic programs, which Forbes does not offer. However, the US News rankings are not the best indicator of student quality of life or the overall worth of a diploma from the institution in the job market. US News is a good way to compare schools if prestige and selectivity are important factors to a student, but not the best way to evaluate schools based on student experience or qualitative factors.

Forbes, with the qualitative approach, has its own advantages and disadvantages. Forbes’s methodology allows for the discovery of lesser known schools with academic merit and notable programs by deemphasizing prestige and selectivity. Forbes is also a good source to discover schools that require less input for a greater output, using alumni salaries and success as one of its main factors. However, Forbes is not the best source when comparing schools based on admissions data or prestige and also uses unreliable sources, such as ratemyprofessor.com, as a factor in their rankings. Forbes is best used as a way to compare the net worth of a school’s education, input vs. output, rather than a way to compare the overall net worth of a school’s reputation.

It is important to keep in mind that one list is not necessarily better than the other, and the only accurate ranking is that of the student themselves, based on fit and factors uniquely important to them. US News rankings focus on comparing schools in terms of academic excellence; meanwhile, Forbes rankings focus on comparing schools in terms of investment required for education in lieu of overall alumni success. The best way to utilize rankings is to compare schools’ placements on both lists, and then think about how much a school is worth to you on the educational and economic level.

The Science Behind College Rankings

College ranking lists are useful tools, providing a way to discover and compare schools on a nationwide scale. Often these lists present data provided by the school, such as ACT score and class size distribution, which can help parents and students determine if the school is a good fit for the prospective college student. However, there are dozens of college ranking sources, all promising that their list is the ultimate reference for prospective college applicants. Determining which rankings are the best reference for you and your student means delving into what makes ranking lists different: methodology. For this post we will focus on the two titans of the college ranking platform: US News and Forbes Magazine.

US News uses a formula dependent on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality. These indicators are divided into seven sectors: undergraduate academic reputation, retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate. US News focuses more on admissions data, making US News rankings a face-value ranking for colleges.

Forbes uses a formula dependent on qualitative measures that economists have deemed indicators of an school’s worth as an investment. Forbes methodology focuses on the college experience at schools and includes various factors that measure return on investment, such as student satisfaction, student debt upon graduation, graduation rate, and post-graduation success. This methodology ensures that Forbes maintains a focus on student quality of life and “input vs. output,” or the worth of a college diploma from an institution in the long term in comparison to the overall cost of education.