Like any luxury brand, top colleges in the United States have always been in demand. Interestingly enough, the “Ivy League” (U Penn, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and Cornell) started as a football league, not as a prestigious school affiliation – they were simply East Coast schools that played football against each other and banded together to set some standards for what kind of students they could attract without falling below a certain academic minimum. For most educated US citizens, “big brand” extends just as much to the US News and World Report’s ranking of top “liberal arts” colleges like Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Middlebury and Bowdoin, which are just as strong academically as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Why then are they in a different ranking category: “liberal arts” versus “national universities?” If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. Liberal arts simply means that none of these schools are “professional” schools (law, medicine, business, fashion) but rather schools that offer 40 different academic majors ranging from philosophy to anthropology. The chief difference is that schools US News calls “liberal arts” don’t have graduate schools (Harvard, for example, has Harvard Law, Harvard Medical, Harvard Business, etc… while Amherst is an undergraduate college only).
Given these facts, why are the “Ivies” still sought out? For the same reason luxury brands like Rolex are sought out – easy recognition, but not necessarily better quality. Are the Ivies better academically than schools like Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore and Middlebury? We would argue they are on a par. If you dissect the US News ratings, you’ll see that across the board, the top national liberal arts colleges fare as well as the Ivies in most categories: undergraduate academic reputation, retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, graduation rate performance, and alumni giving rate. The only areas that may have a slight discrepancy is the financial resources category, simply because graduate programs also bring in earnings for the school. For example, Harvard (ranked #1 for national universities for 2011) had a 2010 endowment of $27,557,404,000 whereas Williams (ranked #1 for national liberal arts colleges for 2011) had a 2010 endowment of $1,468,492,932. However if you compare the dollars for each student, you’d find the amount to be almost identical.
Another thing to keep in mind – the instruction can be much more personal at the smaller liberal arts colleges. One of our students called last week to complain about Yale. She was taking 4 classes freshman fall, yet only one was taught by a professor while the others were taught by graduate students. And even in the one taught by a professor that was fairly small, the professor didn’t read her papers – the graduate student did. Not to mention that many of her classes were large. At schools like Amherst, Williams and Middlebury, class sizes tend to be much smaller, you get to know your professors better and they actually grade your work.
Yet to international students, recent immigrant families and families who don’t have a long history of college education, the Ivies have a certain name brand lure that makes them popular year after year. Add to this that applications have been on the rise ever year for the past decade at all top colleges – more high school graduates than ever before, more international applicants, more immigrant families, the usage of the Common Application which has made it easier to apply – no wonder the number of applicants has risen so dramatically leading to single digit admit rates at most Ivies. And as schools get harder to get into, they become more desirable and the cycle continues.
Let’s look at some numbers for top colleges – 40% of the freshman class at almost every top college has a “hook” that helps them get in: recruited athletes make up close to 20% of the class, minority students roughly 10-14%, legacies (meaning their parents graduated from that same college) roughly 5-10%, VIP’s (the president’s son, a famous actor’s son) and development (those whose family not only attended the college, but gave huge sums of money to the school) cases make up the remainder. That means that for any applicant to a school that say admits 20% of its applicants, the acceptance rate for “normal” unhooked students is more like 10-12%. O How do international students fit it? The news isn’t good at the top colleges. Though schools deny quotas, if you actually look at the percentage of international students at every top school, it’s typically limited to 8-12% of the class, no more. Students from 80-100 different countries compete for this very limited slice of the pie making it daunting, near impossible, for students from any one country like India to gain acceptance. To be clear, it’s much harder for international students at top US colleges because they are all fighting over a very small piece of the pie. What does it take? Super high scores on standardized tests, familiarity with US colleges (why a school is a good match, not just the name brand of the school – colleges hate being picked just based on reputation) and a unique academic niche and reason for attending a particular college. What else? National or international distinction in a subject whether math, science, English or history and high level awards, honors, talents, etc…. Our best advice? Don’t assume you have any chance at the Ivies – don’t limit yourself. Instead, look beyond the big brand schools and instead, apply Early Decision (which greatly improves your odds) to any of the top liberal arts colleges in the US News and World Report ranking so you won’t be competing with all the other international applicants in the regular round (where odds fall even more). Also, don’t discount colleges you just plain haven’t heard of as an international student: there are many colleges you may not be familiar with that offer stellar programs in your area of interest. We’d recommend picking up a copy of Ruggs Recommendations for Colleges, which indicates top colleges by discipline. Through our Application Boot Camp program in Boston, MA, we help international students every year get into the very best US colleges, but it takes a definite strategy and a different approach than the vast majority of international applicants who simply get rejected out of hand. International students have to have specific academic reasons for choosing a particular school besides prestige or they are doomed before they start.
International students need to realize that they can’t simply look at overall admissions stats to determine their odds because most schools limit the international student population to 10 percent of the overall class. Again, although colleges don’t admit to quotas, these numbers don’t vary much year to year, so they are what we would call virtual quotas. If you look at a school that has a 20 percent overall admissions rate, the admit rate for international students is likely to be closer to 5 percent—not to mention the fact that international students compete with other international students from 80-plus different countries, plus their own country. Schools might receive 300 applicants from China and then accept two or three! The number of international students studying in the U.S. is over 600,000.
Again, we recommend that students focus on lesser-known name brand schools, schools that don’t receive as many applications from international students. Rural schools, for instance, or schools outside the Northeast tend to get fewer applicants from international students. Study the U.S.News & World Report list of top National Liberal Arts Colleges and focus on those schools more than just the Harvard University/Yale University/Princeton University-level schools that have super low acceptance rates. US News offers a list of schools that have large percentages of international students, which is typically indicative of a higher acceptance rate for international students. For national universities, some schools of note are New School (25%), Carnegie Mellon (16%), Florida Institute of Technology (13%), California Institute of Technology (12%), Brandeis University (12%), Columbia University (11%) and Northeastern University (11%). For national liberal arts colleges, some schools of note are Wesleyan College (20%), Bard College (12%), Bryn Mawr College (12%), and Lake Forest College (12%).
Choosing a college is not just about picking a brand name school. While we understand that employers in some countries place higher value on an Ivy League education, it is typically only because these are schools that are easily recognizable by name. The reality is that international students are at a distinct disadvantage if they assume they will get into an Ivy League college just because they have high test grades and scores. The best plan would be to pick a top liberal arts college or school that receives fewer international applicants and then apply Early Decision using the guidance and tips we offer through our books, websites, newsletters, and for current juniors, our summer Application Boot Camp program.