There’s a saying in high school (usually said with a look of disgust), that everyone wants to go to an Ivy League. While this might seem true in top-performing school districts, last year approximately 287711 people applied to Ivy League schools, including people from other countries. This means that out of the approximately 3.6 million high school seniors in the United States last year, less than 8 percent of students wanted to attend Ivy League schools.
The reality is that kids who aim for America’s most elite schools are often treated like unicorns or goblins; in our society, they are either put on a pedestal or treated with disdain.
During a group meeting online, I facilitated a roundtable with three of my friends who are high school upperclassmen: Alexandria, a junior who wants to major in international relations whose dreams schools are Yale, Harvard, and Georgetown; Shannon, a senior thinking of majoring in philosophy whose dream schools are Stanford, Yale, and Rice; and Sofia, a senior planning to major somewhere in the humanities — maybe philosophy — whose dream schools are the University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, and Brown. We had talked about their high school experiences as Ivy or Ivy Plus hopefuls. For all of us, dubbed “#prestigiouscollegekids” by Shannon, it was a cleansing hour and a half dedicated to talking their motivations to go to certain prestigious schools, their social lives, and their personal stories, allowing them to relate to each other on some topics and hear completely different perspectives. The goal of this roundtable was to help them break free of the stereotypes that surround them and show them as real, fully formed people.
While lots of people might assume that most high schoolers only want to name-brand schools for their names, each of the three girls I spoke to had different reasons. Alexandria cited personal pride a well as a need to prove her worth. She explained, “A lot of my time being homeschooled, I got made fun of for it and people would assume I wasn’t that smart and treat me like I was less. Because of that, I always felt like I needed to go to a prestigious school to prove that I was more than they thought that I was.” Shannon said that her motivations were mostly to get a great education, but also that she wants to, “be around people who like school and like learning and going to an elite school is the best way to guarantee that community.” Sofia took the focus on education a bit further pointed out teaching styles matter to her. “I find that I gravitate towards a particular learning style that you can find at the schools that I’m specifically looking at, like UChicago,” she said, adding, “I don’t want to be a kid in a lecture hall that has hundreds of people in freshman classes.” I personally resonated with what each person had to say, which I think speaks to how common these specific reasons are.
While lots of people might assume that most high schoolers only want to name-brand schools for their names, each of the three girls I spoke to had different reasons.
As a homeschooler myself I’ve had an opposite experience from Alexandria, yet one that leads to the same result. Often, people treat me like a supergenius, and while this is probably preferable to being treated like an idiot, it’s definitely given me the mentality that I need to go to an upper echelon to live up to their expectations.
I also want the best possible education for myself and agree that I would get swamped in massive halls. Community also plays a major part in my interest. I was lucky enough to be able to spend lots of time in Cambridge, MA my sophomore year of high school, so I met a lot of Harvard students. They always seemed like they had a joy for learning about them, and I would think, “Wow, that’s what I aspire to and how I want my whole social group to be.” It would be amazing to have a coterie of friends like me and I think elite schools are more likely to foster that type of environment.
These explanations may not be groundbreaking, but they are a far cry away from the prestige-driven reasons most people assume we have.
Hearing my friends’ reasoning for wanting to go to elite schools led to another question: why Ivy League? Many people love to point out that it really is just a sports League and can be less judgemental about people wanting to go somewhere like Stanford, which is obviously one of the best schools in the country, just as prestigious, and has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard and Princeton. However, our discussion clarified perfectly why at least one Ivy league is on each of their lists. Sofia pointed out that with their rich history and tight-knit communities, students and alumni not only get the benefits of a top-notch education but solid social connections as well. “It’s something you can take advantage of if you’re trying to get somewhere specific,” she said. “And,’ she added, “not something that a state school, which can’t pay as much attention to every student and just generally doesn’t have the time or energy to spend on you necessarily, can offer.”
It’s true. The stamp of the Ivy League bears real-world weight in your connections and social circles. This year I went to an info session at Harvard and the person giving it told us how they have Harvard Clubs all over the world, so whenever she goes traveling she’ll always stop by one, and immediately she feels at home. If you go to an Ivy League, you’re basically guaranteed a lifelong community. in a way that othwe schools can’t offer. Not only is this nice, it’s invaluable.
The stamp of the Ivy League bears real-world weight in your connections and social circles.
Continuing the conversation on why an Ivy, Shannon cooly demolished the idea that students salivate at any Ivy League school just for the prestige by noting, “I only have Yale, and I’m not applying because it’s an Ivy. I’m applying because it’s a good fit for me. I honestly don’t even think about how it’s an Ivy.” Although it’s true that some students only want an Ivy League diploma to name-drop, this quote highlights the fact that many Ivy hopefuls do deeply enjoy the feelings of the Ivy or Ivies they apply to. Alexandria added that not only is Yale one of the top schools for her intended major (international relations), but it could be one of the few schools to offer adequate financial aid. “I would love to go to NYU too,” she said, “but they just would not be able to offer me the financial aid that an Ivy would.” If this doesn’t explain why the Ivy League is the most famous league in the world, I don’t know what will.
At this point, I’m sure a few readers are wondering, “But what must high school be like for those aiming for these crème de la crème schools? Surely they must experience high school differently from their peers!” Fortunately, my group shared all the nitty-gritty details of their high school experiences. Interestingly enough — and possibly expectedly — each girl (myself included) has found herself find yourself doing things because they could increase her chances of getting into the school of her dreams, although not as grudgingly as you might expect.
Shannon admits that in her junior year she was overwhelmed by the feeling that she wasn't doing enough. “I started doing a lot more extracurriculars just for the college app. that got to be kind of unhealthy” she confessed, “so I cut it down this year.” Alexandria, who is soldiering through her junior year currently admits hat while she enjoys being president and vice president of multiple school organizations, she sometimes wondered if she could go out more if she weren’t aiming for an elite school. Sofia had similar experiences, mentioning that even though she doesn’t feel like he was missing out, she’s developed a mentality of thinking she’s never doing enough — something that prevents her from being able to relax fully. “I do actively have a support network and a group of friends, but there are definitely days that I say, ‘Okay, what would my life be like if I was at the high school that’s across the street from me?’” However, all of us agreed that overall we think we are healthier for our consistent academically active lifestyles and that tt’s not good to let yourself slack. “Just because you don’t have to earn 20 new Spanish medical vocabulary words a day,” I pointed out (something I brought up because I do that), “doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.”
Now I’m sure all of you are wondering, “With schedules like these, do these kids have any social time at all?” Don’t fret: I have the 411 on that as well. Now, this aspect of #prestigiouscollegekids might be the most stereotypical. The majority of Alexandria’s social time is centered on school, be it something academic-based or extracurricular based. There are no casual nights at the movies or aimless hangouts. This isn’t entirely her fault she says, explaining, “I feel like I have this reputation that I didn’t completely create that I’m the kind of girl that people expect to stay home studying or doing something school-related, so they won’t invite me out with them. They won’t invite me to do other things because they think of me as a professional, politically focused girl who’s only interested in those things, which isn’t necessarily true.” Sofia emphasized the importance of technology in her social life, saying that she is “always texting somebody” and that “somebody’s always on facetime” because that’s how she keeps up with people. Unlike the previous two, Shannon is lucky enough to have a guaranteed regularly meeting social group through her sport. “Most of my social interactions come from my gymnastics team. I do school, then I spend four hours a day there so that’s where all my best friends are.”
“I feel like I have this reputation that I didn’t completely create that I’m the kind of girl that people expect to stay home studying or doing something school-related, so they won’t invite me out with them.”
My own social life probably most closely mirrors Alexandria’s. Pretty much anytime I see someone it is related to school or extracurriculars. I think I’ve been out to see friends 3 times this school year. Believe it or not, the first time was a college visit. The second time was also a college visit. My friends often don’t invite me out because I’m perceived as being too busy.
I think because of that, I often find myself drawn to colleges that are heavy in dorm culture like Williams and Harvard, where the majority of the students stay in on-campus housing all four years. That’s four years of living with people more like me who understand my schedule and making lifelong friends and connections.
I know that at this point we all sound like a bunch of humorless nerds, (but I promise we’re not!!!) When asked about what she thinks life at her dream school would be like, Alexandria said, “I have this idea that I’m going to have these study groups and a boyfriend that’s a chad.” We all giggled, and I added an anecdote about a girl I know who went to an elite university who told me that people would sometimes stress cry over grades in the quad and no one would judge. “It was oddly cathartic to hear,” I said. “because I don’t wanna be that weirdo who’s crying over grades! I want you all crying with me!” That got a laugh out of everyone as well.
Lastly, people seem to assume that being interested in top tier schools is the same as being a HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) or bust student — one of those overly dramatic teens who swear their life will be over is they don’t land a spot in the “holy trinity” of Ivy League schools. Okay fair, my friends and I are all a wee bit dramatic, but I promise you we’ll all be fine. Shannon conceded, “I feel like last year I would have said I would die, it would have been so bad.” But she’s since matured. “Now I feel like I’ve distanced what I’m doing from just the goal of college. I feel like I’m not just working hard to get into college. I’m just working hard to prepare myself for whatever is coming next for my career and just life in general.” She would, of course, be sad but she wouldn’t be crushed. Alexandria has spent years trying to prepare herself for the possibility of rejection from her dream schools. “I started to try to mentally prepare myself and come up with backup plans to my backup plans so that I will be okay knowing that even if I fail at that level of what I want to do I can have other ways to still get to the carer that I want.” She believes that this preparation has been essential to her accepting that either way, her life will be okay. Sofia admits that it would be disconcerting if she didn’t get into her dream school because it is something that she’s been working for a long time, “ultimately it wouldn’t be a huge deal.” It would just kind of be a “realignment” of her goals and priorities in terms of where she’d attend.
“I feel like I’m not just working hard to get into college. I’m just working hard to prepare myself for whatever is coming next for my career and just life in general.”
Truthfully, to me, it feels a bit more personal as a Black person. For some reason in our society, you can be a well-educated Black person who went to a good school and people will only see you as a decently successful person or even “successful for an African-American,” where they’re using African-American as a qualifier. But I think once you go to an Ivy or a Stanford, a Williams or an Oxford, people see you more for you. You’re no longer seen as just “exceptional for a Black person,” you’re seen as an exceptional person in general. So if I don’t reach an elite school, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll continue with my life knowing that I may have to work harder to prove my talent.
At the end of all of it, I reminded my friends that add that no matter what happens, I’m sure all of us are going to do something great in our lives.
We already have a support network of sorts: each other. There’s an idea that the five people you’re closest to determine your success. Basically, if the 5 most influential people in your life are motivated go-getters, you’re likely to succeed. However, if the 5 most influential people in your life are meandering and not driven, you’re much less likely to succeed. My friends and I would be categorized in the former group.
The truth is, we might end up as #prestigiouscollegekids or we might not. Sometimes it really is luck of the draw. Either way, with the amount of determination we have, we’ll be unstoppable.