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Palm Beach Post

Climbing into the Ivy League
By Fred Marion, December 5, 2005

Daniel Strife, last year's valedictorian at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, scored a 1580 - nearly perfect - on the SAT. It helped him end up where he is now: studying engineering at Princeton University.

One of the 19-year-old's first courses this fall is advanced physics, a class rooted in calculus.

"A lot of it is counterintuitive," Strife said. "You have to get used to relying on the numbers."

A recent homework problem dealing with angular momentum and torque got so perplexing that Strife and a group of friends disassembled a bicycle so that they could build a gyroscope.

"We didn't believe the math," Strife said.

Instead of chewing on pencils, they figured out a way to make the math tangible. It's that push to understand things that makes Strife and his classmates textbook-perfect students. They're the type of kids - driven and focused - who teachers love to teach. It's a trait that, no doubt, helped land them spots at Princeton.

Palm Beach PostAccording to U.S. News and World Report, Princeton and Harvard share the No. 1 spot as the country's top undergrad schools. Both are members of the Ivy League, an athletic conference made up of eight schools clustered in the Northeast.

The eight Ivy League schools are all ranked among the Top 15 schools in the country, according to the magazine. The top four are ivies, with Princeton and Harvard tied for first, followed by Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

Somehow, just the name "Ivies" evokes both awe and derision. It conjures up castle-like campuses, prestige and wealth. The schools are pompous and elitist, people say. They're liberal bastions full of privately schooled daddy's boys.

It's a skewed perception, said Robert Shaw, a partner at IvySuccess, a private firm that helps high school students get into "reach schools."

Wealth and "legacy status" - having a family member who attended the school - are small determinants in a big pool of factors.

"The bar is going to be raised for a kid that goes to a private school," said Shaw, whose firm in New York's Long Island advise high school students before and during the admissions process. "An admissions officer is not going to be impressed with a kid who went to Pinecrest (a rigorous private school in Miami) and had a 1450 on the SAT because the student had every access to educational resources. On the other hand, if you had a student that's Hispanic, or from a disadvantaged neighborhood... that kid might get into Harvard with a 1300 or 1350."

Legacy status only comes into play if two students are equally qualified, Shaw said. In that case, the scales may be tipped toward the legacy student.

Increasingly, grants and financial aid have made Ivy League schools (whose tuition with room and board can hover around $40,000) accessible to low-income students. In May, Princeton graduated its first senior class since instituting a "no-loan policy" in 2001. Instead of loans, the initiative offers students grants that don't have to be paid back. The policy benefited more than half of the school's 2005 graduates at some point during their four years at the university.

"Families shouldn't reject the opportunity just based on finances necessarily," said Brian Meegan, dean of college counseling at The Benjamin School, an independent high school in Palm Beach Gardens, which sent two of its 73 seniors to Ivies last year.

They also shouldn't assume public school students don't have a shot. In fact, Meegan said, the majority of students accepted at the Ivies come from public schools.

Ivies look primarily for three things: academic excellence, high test scores and extracurricular excellence, Meegan said. Often, students are enrolled in rigorous programs such as those offered by the International Baccalaureate Organization. With many of the schools accepting just 10 percent of their applicants, those who do get in are truly outstanding.

"They actually recruit the entire world now," said Meegan, of the Ivies. "Many of the students are not only successful locally, but they're state or nationally or even internationally successful in their activities."

Distinguishing themselves from their peers, Ivy Leaguers may have volunteered hundreds of hours, founded nonprofit organizations, created Web sites, staged plays or written books.

Harvard accepted 2,000 students from a pool of nearly 23,000 last year.

"We admit people who set their own course as opposed to the recipe that others have set for them," said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions for Harvard College. "We look typically for people who have done something unusual."

Sara Robinson, a freshman at Yale University and a graduate of Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, remembers touring the University of Pennsylvania and being struck by how tough the competition was.

graphic"We could fill the entire freshman class with people who got 1600s on their SATs," a tour guide told her, "but we don't."

Students need some other way of setting themselves apart. Often, that means finding a few select extracurriculars and excelling in them. Robinson, for example, volunteered with the Israeli army for a month, she helped migrant workers get access to aid and she was active in her school's debate club. She also kept her grades up, finishing sixth in her class and scoring a 1510 on the SATs.

Her chances were good when she applied to Yale, but she still wasn't prepared when she found out she'd been accepted.

"There were no words. It was all screaming for like five minutes," she said. "A friend called about a biology assignment due the next day. I was like, 'Ahh! Yale! Ahh!,' and hung up the phone."

Now away at college in New Haven, Conn., she finds the caliber of her classmates inspiring.

"One thing I've noticed here: there are no stragglers, there's no one that doesn't read all the pages or do a lot of their homework or look up extra articles," she said.

One of her roommates wants to be a fashion designer and is in charge of putting on a "Great Gatsby" party at the school. Another was involved for a time with the Mars Rover project and hopes to become an astronaut.

There's a good chance some of her peers will go on to positions of power and influence. The last two presidential candidates, George W. Bush and John Kerry, were, after all, Yale grads.

"You're imagining the people you went to a party with down the hall, or a person you had a crazy conversation with about Aristotle (and what they'll do later)," Robinson said. "These people are just amazing. You can't imagine it until you're here."

Tian Sui, a senior at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, has already sent off an early decision application to Princeton. By doing so, he's agreed to attend the school if accepted. The early decision deadline was extended from Nov. 1 to Nov. 8 for students in South Florida because of Hurricane Wilma.

"I don't want to be overly optimistic, but I think I have a pretty good chance of getting in," Sui said.

Currently ranked 12th in his high school class, Sui scored a 2100 out of a possible 2400 on the revised SAT, which now includes a writing section. The 17-year-old hopes to one day become a tenured researcher for the National Institutes of Health. He's spent the past three summers doing internships at Florida Atlantic University where he's studied how free radicals affect RNA oxidation. Oxidized RNA, he said, mimics the conditions found in precancer and Alzheimer's-affected cells, and his research could one day help scientists understand more about these diseases.

Sui started working on his Princeton application "during the middle of the hurricane." He highlighted the fact that he runs varsity track at school, and that he's president of two clubs: SECME - an engineering society - and the Table Tennis Club, but he devoted the bulk of his time to reworking his three essays.

Writing samples help put a face on applications that otherwise read like a rsums, and Sui's almost superstitious about his essays. So far, only his family, a teacher and a reporter have read them.

"I don't read my friends' essays, and I don't let them read mine," he said. "I have my own brand of creativity that no one else has."

As of Nov. 16, Princeton had received 2,230 early decision applications. Based on last year's numbers, Princeton will likely admit about 30 percent of those applicants, with decisions due to be sent out in mid-December. That leaves Sui playing the waiting game for now; hopeful, but also prepared for the possibility that he might get rejected.

"Sometimes your best is not enough," he said, "when you're competing with the smartest kids in the country and the world."