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Getting into the Ivy League

By Queena Lee-Chua
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 07:15:00 08/25/2008

Filed Under: University, Education

MANILA, Philippines?In the past decade, more of my students (and their parents) have been dreaming of entering the Ivy League.

Some do their graduate studies in Harvard or Yale, while others prepare for these universities as early as high school.

What exactly does it take to get into the Ivy League?

I regularly write recommendations for students (even some who did not exactly stand out, but who I felt exerted some effort). I remember two of them in particular. Both were women, had the same major, were involved in similar activities, and graduated with similar honors.

A few years later, both asked me to recommend them for graduate studies in the same prestigious institution in the United States. I praised both highly, and gave them practically the same evaluations.

One got into the coveted school; the other did not. I have no idea why the school accepted one and rejected the other.

Grades do count

I have a fair idea what it takes to be accepted into the Ateneo de Manila University (and possibly, the University of the Philippines and De la Salle University). Grades do count?high school marks and, especially, college entrance test scores. Cramming may backfire.

As for college preparatory courses, no study has been done on how effective they really are.

My high school classmates and I did not attend review classes for college entrance tests, and most of us were accepted by the universities we chose.

Entrance tests evaluate knowledge and skills acquired through the years (not through a few weeks of review). Most students who do well in school do not require preparatory courses.

Aside from grades, Ateneo also looks at the activities the students are engaged in. Have they shown promise in a particular area? We are impressed if students can maintain their scores while engaged in meaningful activities.

Do they show potential in developing their talents for writing, art, mathematics, service? If so, we welcome them. By the way, Ateneo also gives a lot of financial aid to deserving students.

Other factors

Of course, there are always other factors at work, though I am not too sure how effective they are. For example, does it count to have a father or a brother who is an alumnus? Maybe, or then again, maybe not. We Ateneans still pride ourselves in fairness and merit?that the students we accept are those we believe truly want to develop themselves to the fullest.

How about the Ivy League? I am proud of my Chinese-Korean-American cousin Edward Ngo Sohn, who has always been outstanding. My aunt Victoria (summa cum laude at the University of California, Berkeley) and her husband Hong Yong (a multi-awarded professor at the University of Utah) have raised their kids right.

When Edward was in primary school, I visited their house and was greeted by my precocious cousin who knew the biological details of hamsters, snakes, rats.

My aunt and uncle fostered a stimulating home environment where Edward developed his skills not only in academics, but also in taekwondo, speech, writing, and many other fields. His dream of going to Harvard Medical School came true.

Five promising students

My cousin was accepted into Harvard, and so were some of my good students. But many more were not, something I did not understand until I read ?Fat Envelope Frenzy,? a tell-all book by Joie Jager-Hyman, former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College who is now taking her graduate degree at Harvard.

Hyman followed five outstanding high school seniors for one year, all of whom wanted to get into the Ivy League. Felix Zhang had excellent SAT scores, took several Advanced Placement (AP) courses, was a concert pianist trained at Juilliard, worked with college medical professors and submitted an article to a medical journal. He traveled to rural China and helped take care of impoverished children.

Lisa Wang, the top rhythmic gymnast in the US, trains more than six hours a day in the US and in Russia. She still manages to stay on top of her studies, and finished high school a semester early to concentrate on the sport. ?I?ve developed such a ridiculous work ethic,? Lisa says. ?I can take pain and criticism.?

Are Felix and Lisa certain they can enter Harvard? No. Many top US schools have a quota for Asian-Americans because they are already ?over-represented in the applicant pool.?

Andrew Tessier has great SATs and grades. Despite Hurricane ?Katrina,? he was able to graduate on time, due to the heroic efforts of his school?Jesuit High School in New Orleans. Andrew enrolled in a Stanford gifted program (?just for fun?).

Nabil Abdurehman, whose family comes from Ethiopia, is a math whiz. In junior year, he already finished AP Calculus, so he enrolled in higher calculus at the University of Memphis during summer, also ?just for fun.? Nabil has perfect SAT scores, and he has already won national scholarships for science.

Marlene Fernandez is struggling financially, and her older sister went into debt just to go to college. Marlene is the best Hispanic student in her high school, having taken some AP courses. But even with affirmative action (making some colleges prefer African-American and Hispanic-American students), Marlene is not sure she can hold her own against other students.

These five students are already overachievers, but what does it really take to enter the Ivy League? Read the book to see the enormous pressures these kids undergo?and whether these are worth it. Witness the political, economic, and social factors at work (many of which are beyond student or parent control).

The book is riveting, and I found myself rooting for all these bright teens. So did they all get accepted into their dream school? Read, and find out.

?Fat Envelope Frenzy? by Joie Jager-Hyman is available in National Bestsellers at the 4th floor of Robinson?s Galleria Mall.

E-mail Queena Lee-Chua at blessbook@yahoo.com.

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