The College Conversation: Students can thrive, Ivy school or not

When I sit down with a client who tells me he wants to attend an Ivy League institution, I always ask, "Which one?"

The response is often, "It doesn't matter, just that it's Ivy League."

When asking for specific names, the student lists them: "You know ... Duke, Stanford, NYU."

And he gets my response: "Those aren't Ivy League schools."

After I name the eight Ivies and the student declares they all sound like great places, I often get the following response, "I'll just apply to all of them since this will increase my chances of at least getting in to one of them."

First of all, that's an insane amount of work, and more important, it proves that the student really has no vision of the types of colleges where he will truly thrive.

I initiate a very important conversation related to identifying what the student is really looking for in his or her undergraduate experience. The search begins for the right "Ivy" and, most importantly, the right type of college environment for that student.

It's a great conversation starter when students learn about the vast differences in location from Cornell's industrial yet college-town feel in Ithaca, N.Y., to Columbia's urban Mecca in Harlem.

But as one of my colleagues, a Princeton grad turned independent counselor, explains, "Students need to go beyond understanding the vast differences in the geographical location and draw contrasts with the student body and atmosphere (e.g., Brown's eccentricity and Dartmouth's Greek scene)."

Spending some time browsing student reviews at and reading the college summaries in college guides can help students quickly narrow the field. Often one of the best aspects of this initial research is that students start to define the characteristics they really want to have or not have in their undergraduate experience. Then the conversation continues.

Admission to the Ivies is ultra-competitive. Last year, 220,000 applications were submitted to the eight Ivies and 90% were denied admission. It takes more than straight A's in an exhaustive list of AP/IB classes. When I look back over the years and analyze the profiles of the Ivy League admissions with whom I've worked, they all share one characteristic: They are intellectually curious beyond belief. They are brilliant, dynamic and confident. They explore, analyze, research and learn just for the sake of learning.

After 15 years of working in the education and college-admissions industries, I know parents want what's best for their child, and that often includes admission to the most highly selective schools in the nation, especially the Ivies.

But families often don't understand there are dozens of other institutions that offer the same wonderful resources, job placement and preparation for success in life. It's really important that students and parents are honest with themselves about the incredibly slim chance of getting in. Even if their child is the best thing since sliced bread, he or she still might not get admitted. It all comes down to finding the right fit and one label, "Ivy League," does not fit all — even for the most high achieving, spectacular students out there.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to

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