Is getting into an elite school the only way to define success?

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How to Get Into an Elite College


Upon entering high school, I was under the impression that my life would resemble that of Marissa Cooper from The OC, coming home past my curfew because I was out with a cute boy or getting into some shenanigans with my best gal pals. If we ignore the blatant reality that I was not a wealthy, blonde teenager (who was obviously at least 25), my high school experience was still vastly different from the one depicted on the television programs I watched. In retrospect, I believe my high school experience more closely resembles Olivia Pope's narrative on Scandal; I was constantly under pressure to appear perfect.

This obsession with creating a facade of perfection stemmed from the culture of the high school I attended, one that highlighted those who would go on to Ivy League schools and other reputable universities such as University of Chicago, MIT, and Stanford. Because of this glorification of acceptances at elite universities, my classmates and I were conditioned to believe that prestige was the only thing that mattered about the places we would go after we graduated high school.

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Consider the commercialization of colleges and admissions offices' efforts to get more people to apply just to reject them, it's no surprise that students (and their parents) want to go to schools where 95 percent of the applicants were rejected; being in the 5 percent meant something special.

"If I go to one school with a 6 percent acceptance rate, that says one thing about me," Frank Bruni said in an interview with Katie Couric. "If I go to a school with a 25 percent acceptance rate, well, that doesn't say quite so much."

In his recent talk on the toxic process of college admissions, "A Race With No Victors," Bruni touched on experiences that felt very familiar to me. During senior application season at my school, we became masters of applying to schools, without considering much beyond getting into the most elite schools possible.

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Now with all that said, my high school experience wasn't awful: taking challenging courses in all subjects to appear well-rounded during application season allowed me to discover my passion for writing because I vastly preferred my English courses over my STEM ones. Additionally, being around incredibly bright and hardworking people motivated me to be just the same. However, this pressure to get into elite schools leads to problematic behavior.

Not Everyone Is Starting From the Same Place

To some degree, I noticed that my classmates and I viewed people by their scores without considering the diversity in socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Coming from a low-income household, I found myself vastly disappointed in my academic performance compared to my well-off peers.

This isn't to say I was jealous of their privilege, but rather I didn't consider the conditions and challenges I had to deal with that they did not; inevitably I felt incredibly inadequate, without understanding that my peers had the luxury of not having to worry about the financial situations of their households, making it easier to focus on academics. It was the same for all marginalized groups on campus, from the children of immigrants to the queer students to those struggling with domestic abuse. My peers and I continued to fail to recognize these struggles because we were so fixated on scores and statistics. The environment didn't purposely choose to not celebrate diversity; our conditions simply normalized ignoring individual narratives.

Getting a Head Start on Total Lack of Work-Life Balance

Mirroring the lifestyles of overworked CEOs, many students from my high school made decisions detrimental to their mental, physical, and social health, due to the pressure to succeed academically to get into these top schools. For instance, I recall sleeping less than 10 hours in one week in order to keep my immaculate GPA during my junior year of high school. That was nothing compared to what some students did to keep up their grades. Others turned to taking Adderall to improve their focus during study sessions, ignored their families and friends to finish papers, and avoided getting help for their declining mental health.

Lastly, the pressure to get into a good school ironically promotes cutting corners in real academics in order to earn those outstanding test scores. Every student agrees that achieving high marks on exams is desirable and bad marks are undesirable. But, this simplistic way of defining success is harmful to the student.

More Than One Way to Define Success

More importantly, coupled with this desire to get into these top schools, the student is led to believe that grades are all that matter in education. In one incident that took place my senior year, the final exam for my AP physics course, a class open to seniors and juniors, was nullified because a significant number of students had shared the answer key among themselves. There were numerous examples of incidents like this: students doing all they can to get good grades, minus actually understanding the material. Unsurprisingly, because we put so much emphasis on grades being the key to the door of prestigious universities, we undermine the purpose of education as a whole: to learn.

As I glance over the college advising page alums created to help out current students with their academic pursuits, I see the familiar "How do I get into Ivys?" posts. Despite what I've said, I actually personally don't find anything wrong to wanting to attend universities like Yale or Dartmouth. What I do find wrong is that we continue to perpetuate the idea that admission to these colleges is the only recognition of academic excellence.

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Is getting into an elite school the only way to define success?

#10. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Founded in 1861 and now one of the nation’s premier technological institutions, MIT is the No. 10 college on FORBES' rankings list this year. MIT’s academic community includes 80 Nobel laureates, 56 National Medal of Science winners, 43 MacArthur Fellows, and 28 National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners. Located in Cambridge, MA, MIT is part of a vibrant intellectual community that includes cross-registration partners Harvard University and Wellesley College. Home to the acclaimed MIT Media Lab, the school excels in the art, science, and business of innovation. According to the National Science Foundation, MIT ranks first in industry-financed research and development expenditures among all universities and colleges without a medical school. About 56% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $36,000. Though best known for its excellence in STEM fields, the university also has noteworthy fiction and poetry programs. The school is often referenced in popular media such as “Good Will Hunting” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Notable alumni include the billionaire Koch brothers, American economist Lawrence Summers, and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan.

(Photo by Songquan Deng, Getty)

#9. Amherst College

Ranked at No. 9 this year, Amherst College is one of the top small private liberal arts schools in the country and one of the few need-blind institutions. About 57% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging nearly $43,000. Since Amherst belongs to the Five College Consortium, students can attend free classes at Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts. Amherst offers bachelor’s degrees in 38 fields of study, and many students work one-on-one with renowned faculty members who have received awards from National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Mellon Foundation. The college boasts one of the oldest intercollegiate athletics programs in the nation, with 27 NCAA Division III varsity teams known as Lord Jeffs. Students can select from over 100 different clubs and groups, including Croquet Club and a Much Ado About Knitting group. The 1,000-acre campus is home to the Wildlife Sanctuary, the Book & Plow Farm and four museums. Students take advantage of the snowy Massachusetts winters by grabbing dining trays and sledding down Memorial Hill.

(Photo by Raymond Forbes, Getty)

#8. Brown University

Ranked at No. 8 this year, Brown University has the reputation as the most eccentric and liberal of the Ivies. Brown offers an open curriculum in over 40 academic departments, imposing no core requirements and allowing students to “concentrate” rather than “major” in their preferred areas of study. About 47% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $36,000. Established in 1764, Brown is the seventh-oldest institution of higher education in the U.S., celebrating its 250th anniversary in the previous academic year.

(Photo via Getty Images)

#7. Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College, ranked at No. 7 this year, is a private liberal arts school in Swarthmore, PA, whose students are known for their academic intensity. Founded in 1864, the college is located just 11 miles outside Philadelphia. Students can choose from more than 40 courses of study. First-year seminars are capped at just 12 students. Swarthmore is a member of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and students can cross-register for courses at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. About 49% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $36,000. Those looking to get involved outside of the classroom and laboratory can participate more than 100 student clubs and organizations. Around 93% of students live on the 425-acre campus, which is home to the 300-acre Scott Arboretum full of trees and perennials. Swarthmore is the third-highest producer of Ph.D. students in the country, with nearly 20% of students entering doctoral programs after graduation.

(Photo by Aimin Tang, Getty)

#6. Harvard University

Founded in 1636 and now ranked No. 6, Harvard University was the first institution of higher learning in the U.S. Its history, influence and wealth haven’t stopped it from experimenting with new educational models in experiential learning and online platforms, such as edX, co-founded in 2012 with nearby MIT. Harvard alumni include 47 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state, 48 Pulitzer Prize winners. Scores of prominent people in business, the arts, politics and more have studied and taught at the university, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., NBA star Jeremy Lin, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and actress Natalie Portman, who delivered the 2015 Class Day address. FORBES' No. 46 Power Woman Drew Gilpin Faust currently serves as the university’s president. Harvard boasts the largest university endowment in the U.S. at $36 billion and has taken a stand against fossil fuel divestment. In June 2015, Harvard received the largest gift in its history of $400 million to endow a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The school motto is “veritas,” which is Latin for “truth.” About 58% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $42,000.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

#5. Yale University

Granted its charter in 1701, Yale is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the country and ranked at No. 5 in the country this year. The 1,153-acre campus in New Haven, CT, is home to 440 buildings and four museums, including the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Collection of Musical Instruments. Undergraduate students can choose from more than 2,000 courses and 81 majors. The most popular majors are economics, political science, history and psychology. The library is one of the largest in the country and houses more than 15 million volumes. Yale boasts an endowment of $19.3 billion. 51% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging nearly $43,000.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

#4. Princeton University 

Chartered in 1746, Princeton University is one of the oldest colleges in the country, and ranked No. 4 on this year's list. Nassau Hall, first among the historic buildings that adorn Princeton’s 500-acre campus in Princeton, NJ, served as the nation’s capital in 1783. Undergraduates may select from 36 academic departments. Nine current faculty members are Nobel Prize recipients. The university’s generous financial aid program provides grants and campus jobs in place of student loans. 60% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging more than $34,000. Admitted students can defer their enrollment for a year to participate in community service work abroad through the Bridge Year program. On-campus housing is guaranteed for all four years for undergraduates.

(Photo by Xiaoping Lang via Getty)

#3. Stanford University

Located in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the tech world, Stanford University is a private research university ranked at No. 3 this year. The school is known for its strength in research and successful alumni. Railroad magnate Leland Stanford founded the school in 1885. Stanford boasts more than 5,300 externally sponsored research projects with a total budget of over $1.3 billion. About 53% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging more than $39,000. The university has produced a number of leaders in government and finance, including U.S. president Herbert Hoover, four U.S. Supreme Court justices and business moguls like Steve Ballmer, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Marissa Mayer. Around 93% of students live on Stanford’s campus, which consists of around 700 major buildings across 8,180 acres.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

#2. Williams College

The No. 2 Top College, Williams College is a highly elite liberal arts school in Williams, MA whose students are known for their academic and athletic prowess. Founded in 1793 as a men’s college, it began admitting women in 1970. Williams follows a 4-1-4 annual schedule, in which students take four courses during the fall and spring semesters and one course during the winter term. While students can choose from 36 majors, they are required to take three languages and arts, three social sciences and three science and math classes. Around 96% of the student body participates in at least one of the 150 student organizations and 53% of freshmen receive school grants averaging $40,000. The 32 varsity athletic teams, nicknamed the Ephs, compete at the NCAA Division III level.

(Photo by Mira / Alamy)

#1. Pomona College

The No. 1 college in the country this year, Pomona College is a private liberal arts college in Claremont, CA, offering 47 majors and 600 classes. Established in 1887, it is the founding member of The Claremont Colleges, a consortium of neighboring schools. Students can choose from over 2,000 classes offered through the consortium. Around 80% of students have taken a class at another Claremont school. 57% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging nearly $40,000. Nearly all students live on campus.

(Photo by John Crowe / Alamy)

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