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The dark side of attending Ivy League programs

Ivy League Universities

If you’re joining an Ivy League university, you would naturally expect to see smart, talented, and ambitious class fellows all around you. And you would certainly see them, no doubt. But, before long, as the freshman year progresses, you would also see them increasingly anxious and stressed, and as someone says, “looking lost.”

Whatever the tense conditions on their campuses, Ivy League universities continue to be a big deal, indeed. Come admissions seasons every year, about 280,000 souls wait for the magic moment when their choice Ivy college informs them they have been accepted. On average, only 8 percent, about 23,000, receive good news from one of eight universities that make up the League — Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Pennsylvania.

The Ivy badge is a lifetime ticket to prestige and prosperity. Once students graduate, they can hope to earn higher salaries than their counterparts from other universities. According to a Washington Post article quoting Department of Education statistics, a typical Ivy League graduate makes more than twice as much as the typical college graduate ten years after starting work.

You would obviously expect the students in such a select group to naturally feel special and elite about themselves, and you would not be mistaken. They believe that they have the power to change the world. Why not, they are part of an exclusive society of great privilege. But they are also gladiators in an arena of cruel competition that brings them hopelessness and depression.

‘Stressed out? What, me?’

On campus, the initial euphoria of gaining acceptance eventually blows out. Students feel that their school doesn’t care about them and that their fellows have no time for them, writes Zachary Schwartz, an Ivy League graduate, in an article in VICE, a social liberal magazine that covers arts, culture, and news topics.

Classmates are just competition, not friends, he says. Students are wary of even their best friends in their class doing well or better than them. So as not to fall back in the race, students vie with one another to attend more classes, do more internships, and join more clubs. There is no room for failure.

Often, students face not just academic pressure but also unhelpful bureaucratic procedures and intimidation from administration officials, Jessica-Grey, a former Columbia graduate, writes in Xojane, which covers women’s issues. Officials know how important the degree is for students and adopt an autocratic style of functioning. The Ivy League environment drives at least some students to marijuana or alcohol, she writes.

The first casualty is, naturally, physical and mental health. A campus epidemic called lack of sleep worsens the situation.

According to a survey of undergrads, 58 percent of Princeton students survive on just three restful nights a week. Some make do with less.

But it would take more than the loss of a few hours’ sleep to make students drop their façade of self-assuredness and risk revealing their feeling of emptiness and aimlessness. Emotional well-being is a scarce commodity on campus, not that there would be any sign of its paucity.

A big weakness of Ivy kids is that they have no idea how to handle failure, Schwartz writes.

They may have been the crème de la crème of their high-school class, but at their Ivy school they are only one among equals, at best.

This is not to say that all those who get into an Ivy are there on merit — because they worked hard or because they have a wide range of life experiences at a young age. No. There are more than a few students around, children of Fortune 500 CEOs, movie stars, or Arabian royalty, who got in because not they themselves but their parents were, let’s just say, Ivy-class. [Read – Can you buy your way into a top university?]

Students who had to slog their way into an Ivy school find that many of the “interesting experiences” that their rich classmates narrate are nothing more than other “must-haves” these people bought with their parents’ money. Indeed, these well-heeled kids can be heard wondering aloud without the slightest embarrassment whether they would have been admitted if it were not for their parents’ deep pockets.

Learning to think

It is widely assumed that parents send their children to college for the enlightenment that education brings, not just for degrees that would pave the way to successful careers. But the assumption about enlightenment is dashed at elite universities, if we are to believe the former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz.

In an article in New Republic titled “Don’t send your kid to the Ivy League,” he reminds us that college is an opportunity to develop the self, an individual, a unique being, a soul. It gives us a chance to show that you can survive in a demanding and competitive world, and it helps you develop a personality. It teaches you to think. But because of academic pressure at elite universities, you don’t learn to think, and your undergraduate days are focused only on academics and on collecting the building blocks to a great career, Deresiewicz contends.

Elite institutions claim they teach to think, but they teach only the analytic and rhetorical skills need to succeed in the workplace, Deresiewicz writes. Today’s kids appear to be socially more active and entrepreneurially and creatively smarter, but they are made to harness their talent only to the pursuit of wealth and prestige.

People lose sight of their hobbies or what they are good at, such as writing short stories, for example, to go into finance, which is the most popular major at the Ivies. Though students are told that they could become whatever they put their mind to, they end up choosing careers in a few similar professions. A third of the graduates at top schools go into finance or consulting. The academia, research, clergy, the military, politics and such other fields are nowhere to be seen, Deresiewicz rues.

Just faking it

Activities to widen your horizons are commodified and chosen only to beautify the resume, the former professor writes. People feel they better take up a project of rescue or rehab in Guatemala rather than in Arkansas, so that their social work would look better on a job application. Social work now means doing good so that one can do well, and not doing good for its own sake, according to Deresiewicz.

Developing leadership in their students is supposed to be an important project for the Ivies—that is, leadership that ostensibly serves a social purpose. But in reality, the leadership qualities that are developed only help students reach the top of their employer organization’s hierarchy later. These leadership qualities may make a difference for students in their jobs, but they may not make a difference in society or to the lives of others, Deresiewicz feels.

According to him, diversity in elite institutions is a sham. Colleges feel they are doing great things for diversity if they have children of white business people and professionals studying and playing alongside children of Asian, Hispanic, and black business people and professionals. Stanford students feel that they are studying in a diverse institution if one of them plays the cello and other lacrosse, he remarks.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia exist on campuses just as they do elsewhere in society, says a blog in The American Interest. Ivy League presidents are committing huge funds for cultural centers that would educate the community about race, ethnicity, diversity and inclusion. But this may not be enough: Asian students are now victims of discrimination in admission, standing in for Jews, who used to be treated unfairly decades ago.

An unequal world

Deresiewicz says that in the college admissions game, there are no winners from underprivileged groups. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges in the US came from the top quarter of the income distribution. In 2000, it was 55 percent. In 2006, only 15 percent came from the bottom half. “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from a society that it is supposed to lead,” writes Deresiewicz.

Draw the best out of it

But all said, overcoming the stress and the pressure at the Ivies can be well worth it. You will be taught by top-class professors and you will develop a work ethic that will be appreciated all through your career. The financial rewards and prestige are, of course, huge.

In order to be able to draw out the best offered by the “Ancient Eight,” you have to overcome their systemic problems and, on a personal level, fight for your survival. If you are mentally prepared for challenges, you can do well. But, as VICE writer Schwartz says, if you’re not one of the few chosen to attend an Ivy League school this fall, maybe you should be thankful for that. Well, maybe.

Also read:
Problems an average student can face in an elite MBA classroom
What my bad masters experience taught me
From an Ivy League MBA School to McKinsey
Why this Ivy League MS grad from India skipped the elite MBA programs
Problems of international students in USA and how to tackle them

Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

5 thoughts on “The dark side of attending Ivy League programs”

  1. Hi, I have 6 Years of Experience in Digital Marketing. I want to upgrade to next level of my career. Need to focus on Analytics, Planning, Execution. What is your suggestion towards the MBA Specialization?

  2. Hello sir,

    I am a Mining Engineer working in Coal India Limited with 5 years Experience. I am interested in doing MBA from any one of the prestigious Business Schools in the world. First of all, I would like to ask about the opportunities available to me after completing my MBA and also I would like to know whether any business school offers courses related to mining or mineral resources. please give the information of any scholarships that can help me in bearing the expenses of the course.

  3. Hey m tithee shah from india and will be completing my bsc in geology this yr. M looking further for masters in geoscience and environmental disaster management courses in canada. Can u guide me with details of universities and yrs of completing courses, fee structures and how to apply for those universities!?

  4. Hi,
    I have 5 years of working experience in IT sector but have been on a sabbatical for past 8 years and now in my late 30’s. Want to enter the workforce with an MBA. I might not be able to crack into the most elite Indian B schools. So is it worth doing an MBA from a mediocre B school. And will I be able to get a job with an ROI of approx 5 lacs? Request your expert guidance.

  5. @Vinoth: Read more about MBA specializations here:

    @Pavan: Mining would be too niche a topic for something as mainstream as an MBA. However, on the scholarship topic, this may help:

    @Tithee: We’ve covered all the details about masters degree in Canada here:

    @Ahmed: As you probably know, the budget you have mentioned would be too low for any of the reputed MBA programs like ISB. It could get you some online or distance MBA options, but their market value will not open many new doors for you.


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