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Three tips for applying to the Ivy League

Princeton University

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For thousands of Canadian high school students, the approaching new year coincides with the deadline to submit applications to top-tier American universities. Whenever I go back to Canada, friends who are still in high school often ask me if studying in the U.S. is a good idea. While students are often deterred from applying to American schools because of the expensive tuition, they are still drawn to the better funding and prestige of some of these institutions. I deliberated on many of the same concerns when I applied to university. Here are three little known facts that helped me make the decision:

It might be cheaper than going to school in Canada, depending on your family income

At one point, I almost convinced myself not to apply to American universities because of the financial burden on my family. To my surprise, the generous financial aid package Cornell University gave me meant that I paid less in tuition there than I would have at the University of Toronto or McGill. In fact, many of the top American schools strive to meet 100 per cent of demonstrated financial need. However, keep in mind that you may not be able to receive aid at some schools because you are not an American. If you do have to pay full tuition, committing $250,000 for a bachelor's degree might not make a lot of financial sense.

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American universities may have more resources, but check

When I joined the Cornell debate team in my freshman year, I learned that the team has a multi-million dollar endowment, a full-time coach, and an administrative assistant. My high-school debate partner reported that at McGill, the debate program is mainly funded by the student union and has no coaching staff. I initially attributed this difference to the disparity in institutional resources, since Cornell's university endowment is triple that of McGill's. However, I soon met debaters from American schools with even higher endowments than Cornell's, but who travelled less than the McGill debate team because their university covered barely any of their costs. If you are passionate about an activity or discipline, make sure you research the strength of those programs at the universities to which you apply.

Don't be blinded by prestige

A recruiter at a top consulting firm once told me, "there are all these Ivy League seniors who expect to get interviews just because they went to a top school, and it really doesn't matter unless you used your time there to do challenging things." After I started work this year, I have seen many instances where a candidate who did interesting research and held relevant internships from a less well-known university was selected over a candidate from a prestigious university who did none of those things. I have a friend who was admitted to her top choice for veterinary school during her second year at the University of Alberta. She had decided against more prestigious undergraduate programs because she could do research at a dairy barn in Edmonton. For her career path, a degree from a prestigious institution matters less than demonstrating she has the skills and personality to work with animals. Be willing to say no to a prestigious university if you can find more relevant experiences for your career interests elsewhere.

Many people say that going to university opens up windows of opportunity, but no one reminds us that choosing a university also inevitably limits future options. Students may face the choice between studying liberal arts or pursuing a science degree, staying at home or venturing abroad, and continuing certain extra-curricular interests or letting them go. If you are thinking about going to a U.S. school, don't make assumptions about how much you will have to pay. Don't assume that just because the institution is well-funded, the program you are interested in is also excellent. And above all, value opportunities more than prestige. It will all pay off in the end.

Ryan Yeh graduated with a B.A. in Economics and Psychology from Cornell University in May 2013 and now works at an economics consulting firm in New York City. He may be reached at

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