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Elisabeth McLaughlin / Columbia Daily Spectator

For some, an Ivy League future is written on their high school diploma from the start. For others, it means crossing exclusive lines—even within their own zip codes—that enclose elite institutions.

May 1, more commonly known as Decision Day, marks the last day that students admitted regular decision can commit to attending Columbia in the fall. As part of the most competitive applicant pool to date, the class of 2023 saw a record-low acceptance rate of of 5.1 percent, with only 2,190 students accepted out of the 42,569 who submitted applications.

While the prospect of getting into Columbia already seems like a dream for most, the difficulty of the application process can vary significantly based on a student’s high school, socioeconomic status, and family support—to name a few of the many factors considered in the crapshoot that is college admissions. While Columbia has the lowest percentage of white students in the Ivy League and close to 50 percent of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students receive financial aid, the median family income at the University is $150,900, and more students come from the top 1 percent of America’s income levels than from the bottom 20.

For some, an Ivy League future is written on their high school diploma from the start. For others, it means crossing exclusive lines—even within their own zip codes—that enclose elite institutions. For all, submitting an application is a chance to participate in the centuries-old prestige of attending the most renowned institutions in the world.

Margaret Mushi, CC ’23, attends Hopkins School, where the 13-minute distance from Yale University is often seen as symbolic of the expectation to attend an Ivy League school. When she crosses Yale’s campus to get to ballet practice, she occasionally spots Hopkins graduates who are now students there. This year alone, 15 of her peers were accepted to Yale.

“My grade was very cutthroat about the college process. Now that it’s over, it’s fine. While we were going through it, everyone wants to go to an Ivy League. It’s almost like an expectation,” Mushi said.

Leul Abate, CC ’23, is also a student at Hopkins. For him, the need of attending a good school was conflated with the value of his performance as a student. After he was deferred from his top choice, Abate had to face the possibility that his expectations to attend an Ivy would not come to fruition.

“It [felt] possible despite the ridiculous acceptance rate. I did well in [Hopkins]. People expected that I would go Ivy League. Relatively all the people who did well went to [selective colleges],” he said.

He described Decision Day as a “marathon of opening acceptances and rejections.” Once he opened his Columbia acceptance, Abate thought, “No matter what happens, I’m set.” His parents, who had been supportive throughout the college admissions process were extremely proud to learn of his acceptance, but he believes that “to some extent, it felt expected.”

Despite the close proximity to his neighborhood in Harlem, Cheikh Fall, CC ’23, quickly noticed the “New York, but it didn’t feel like New York,” family-like atmosphere that was Columbia’s campus. His excitement grew the summer of his junior year of high school, when he was one of 45 New York City students recruited for Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship program for high school students, in which he spent four weeks living in John Jay Hall and eagerly attending a philosophy class taught by Tamara Tweel.

Since enrolling at Democracy Prep after coming to the United States from Senegal in 2012, he had seen some of his peers gain acceptance to Ivy League schools—in 2018, six DP students were admitted. Democracy Prep is an expanding network of public charter schools that emphasize rigorous college preparation in low-income communities of color. According to Fall, DP counselors were “some of the best” due to their ability to frame the lives of the students in a way that would make them appeal to selective colleges.

“When I moved, my mother told me ‘you are going to this school.’ We live on 135th, and Democracy Prep is on 134th and 7th Ave. I’m not too sure [my parents] were aware of the school’s potential in terms of making kids go to an Ivy League institution. They were just looking for me to have the best education I could get, and to them Democracy Prep made sense,” Fall said.

The screams of excitement and tears of joy that followed Fall’s acceptance culminated in a 30-minute emotional phone call with his father, who had always expected the “best of the best” from his children. Fall will follow his older sister, a senior at Brandeis University, in attending college. While he plans to study economics and computer science, he is excited to fulfill the promise he made to Tweel during the summer of his junior year—he would take her philosophy class if accepted to Columbia.

Parents often chose to enroll their students in charter schools that offer greater resources to students through lottery enrollment process, as opposed to the traditional public high schools that are disproportionately located in low-resourced neighborhoods. According to the American School Counselor Association, the average public school counselor had a 464-student caseload during the 2015-16 academic year; the ASCA recommends no more than 250 students per counselor. For Christhian Salazar, CC ’23, information about the college application process was not accessible to his family without older siblings or parents that have gone through it, leaving him to rely only on the resources offered by his school and third-party guidance counseling.

In seventh grade, Salazar attended a magnet school fair where a representative from Valley High School in Las Vegas told him that through the school’s International Baccalaureate program, he would have the opportunity to attend universities like Harvard, Columbia, or Princeton. He was the only student from his middle school who was admitted to Valley High School following an application and lottery admissions system. Attending Valley would give him a tier-one education and access to standardized test prep, free of cost, through the Upward Bound program.

“I’m still convinced that magnet program, especially the IB program at my high school, helped prepared me to even have the possibility of attending Columbia,” Salazar said.

In a school of over 3,000 students, it was difficult for Salazar to get information from his counselor, especially about financial aid. After taking the SAT, the College Board reached out to him, offering a counselor through CollegePoint, a program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that offers free college advising to high-achieving, low-to-middle-income students. Without services like CollegePoint, full-service college consultants can cost anywhere from $300 to $1.5 million. This counselor became his primary means of guidance in the daunting application process, wherein his hope fluctuated amid the constant uncertainty.

“It felt like a dream come true—everything that I had worked for paid off. In that moment, it felt like I could do anything. I felt like nothing could stop me,” Salazar said. “For my family, it reiterated the point that the American dream is possible. It inspired my younger brother to say that we can do anything. Through hard work and tenacity, we can do what we aspire to.”

Mazen Alsafi, CC ’23, noticed the mention of Columbia in Claude Brown’s autobiography “Manchild in the Promised Land” and knew he wanted to pursue his education at an institution known for its campus activism. While Columbia was always in the back of his mind as he sought to maintain a strong GPA, he was confronted with the reality that his SAT score may not be competitive enough. He was a student at the Syracuse City School District in Syracuse, New York, where the average SAT score was one of the lowest in the state and admissions to Ivy League schools was not the norm.

Standardized test scores continue to be a barrier for students in low-resourced schools without access to SAT/ACT preparation that can cost upward of $1,000 for basic courses. For Columbia’s class of 2022, the SAT median score of 1460-1550 is representative of the top 1 percent of testers. In the eighth grade, Alsafi was selected from a cohort of students for the Upward Bound program, wherein counselors gave personalized advice in navigating the college application process as well as provided SAT prep, resources he never had access to at his high school.

“With support from the people around me, my family, the Upward Bound program, I decided to give it a shot regardless of what happened. I know that I worked hard to get where I am and if I didn’t get in, it would be fine. I have other options. Those thoughts that it’s very difficult for a Syracuse City School District to get into a school like that, it made me doubt my decision to apply, but at the same time, it was worth a shot,” Alsafi said.

The day his admissions decision was released, Alsafi’s mouse hovered anxiously over the login to the admissions portal. As a soon-to-be first-generation college student, his acceptance would be the first his family had ever seen. Alsafi added that his 11-year-old sister also plans to attend Columbia—a process he can help facilitate given his recent experience. He said it will be hard to move away from his parents, who implored him to not waste his potential and follow his dreams.

When he visited Columbia during Days on Campus, the scene of students protesting on Low Plaza reminded him of the activism he wanted to pursue when he sets foot on campus.

“It’s really relieving knowing that I have so many opportunities and regardless of what I study or what I do. I know I have the support and motivation to pursue what I want to pursue and that’s something that I really value about Columbia,” Alsafi said. “Knowing that I’m going to be in a university where people appreciate what you stand for and where you come from, that’s something that makes me so happy.”

For Christine Kim, SEAS ’23, the rigorous atmosphere of the school where her peers were constantly striving for high academic performance was a main source of motivation rather than a point of competition. She attends Stuyvesant High School in New York City, ranked No. 25 among public schools in the nation. The selective specialized school has recently been criticized for only accepting seven black students out of 895 spots, highlighting the exclusivity of a school that sends about 25 percent of its students to the Ivy League or similarly competitive colleges.

“I felt like I had a general sense of what colleges were looking for. I don’t think I was insecure about other people. I was more worried about myself and trying to make my college application the best it could be for myself,” Kim said.

Her journey from Stuyvesant to Columbia had been previously modeled a decade prior by her godbrother who mentored her throughout much of her educational life. While she was taking Music Appreciation, a Stuyvesant-mandated class, her godbrother told her about Music Humanities, which was very similar, but “100 times harder than what I experienced at Stuy.”

She looks forward to courses like the Art of Engineering and hopes to practice an interdisciplinary approach to college by taking a wide range of classes, like Literature Humanities and applying that knowledge to her engineering skills.

When decisions were released, she was on the subway home and couldn’t get the application portal to load. Finally, it loaded at the Penn Station stop—she had been accepted to Columbia.

Staff writer Valeria Escobar can be contacted at valeria.escobar@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

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