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.
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
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
"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
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
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
"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,
"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
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
"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
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
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