How Do I Become Ivy League Material?
April 3, 2011 8:10 PM   Subscribe

In five years I'm planning to pursue an MA in an artistic field. I live near an Ivy League university; my current teacher has a degree from that university and is encouraging me to apply. I had ruled it out because I had never considered myself anything near "Ivy League" before (the closest I've come is blowing an undergrad interview for a different school). What can I do between now and then (five years) to make myself an attractive, creative Ivy League arts grad school candidate?

What should I do to round myself out in the next five years?
* Learn as much as possible?
* Launch some noteworthy/unique projects?
* "Give back" to the community?

For those of you who have Ivy League degrees (undergrad or graduate), what do you think you did/have/smelled like to get in?
To succeed once you were there? What about your peers?

If it's relevant, I don't have a degree in this field, but I've had some professional success and am my work is respected by my peers (and since this is the arts, I presume that will matter more than the degree). I'll be in my late 30's by the time I apply.

(Also, it's worth noting that this Ask MeFi post indicates that I may be overthinking this!)
posted by anonymous to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Become known to the department. Find a faculty advisor you would want to work with as a student. Befriend that person. Learn what makes a good fit for their students and department.
posted by quodlibet at 8:30 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being known to the department is good advice, but make sure you are known to them for the amazing work you do, not for being a crank or something like that.

You are overthinking this in a big way. The Ivies are ok but not as astounding as you seem to think. And who knows what you will want to be doing in five years?
posted by Forktine at 8:34 PM on April 3, 2011

I'm not sure why you have your heart set on one of the Ivies, unless you want to get into Yale Drama School.

What artistic field do you want to pursue? The most well regarded program in your discipline may not be at an Ivy.

I would also encourage you to look for a Masters program that will give you some teaching experience. Getting the opportunity to teach will help you in your post-grad job searching, especially in the arts.

And finally, I would make sure you get some decent financial aid. Coming out of grad school with Ivy League debt and going into a career in the arts will limit your post grad choices.
posted by brookeb at 8:46 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Forktine is right. You likely have an unduly inflated sense of the meaning of the university's reputation. And you definitely have enough personal sense of inadequacy here that the first thing to work on is your self-presentation, not the substance of your work. If there's one thing that prestigious-university culture definitely responds well to, it's a self-confident presentation of who you are and what you do — though not boasting.

Also, you sound like you're not fully grokking the massive difference between graduate admissions and undergrad (indeed, asking for advice from Ivy undergrads here is a huge mistake in itself). The key here is that, while undergrad admissions is about a holistic sense of personality, hobbies, and well-roundedness, graduate admissions is the exact opposite. No one cares if you "give back to the community," or about any other kind of self-marketing about you as a person. What is important is your knowledge, talent, ability, and desire in the field, your knowledge of its basics and your plans for future work. The only aspect of your personality that matters is your personality as a member of that field, your interests and ideas within it and your ability to be a member of its community.

Why do you want to do this art master's, anyhow? Why do you want to do it at this specific institution? Make sure that you have arefully considered your answers to both of these questions — not just because they will help with admissions (though they will), but because you may be making a bad decision in the first place here. Be sure that you want to do this, that you know and are comfortable with the costs (financial and otherwise!), and that this university of all places is the right place for you to do it.

Talking to people within the department there will help with this, and also potentially with your future chance of admission. Use your existing contact with the department to set up a few exploratory conversations — just frame it as "I'm looking for advice as I consider the possibility of doing a future master's in the field," and don't even mention now that you might apply to this school. If you present yourself well and thoughtfully, you can follow up with a future conversation or two, and then you're a known quantity well before you submit an application. But most importantly, when you talk to the faculty there, listen to what they tell you. And listen to your gut sense of whether their department is a good fit for your interests, too.

The way you're fetishizing the "Ivy League" moniker here is really strange to me, to be honest. It's really quite odd how much prestige in the extra-academic world the Ivy League name carries, and it's very much more a matter of cultural cachet than anything specific about the institutions' quality, especially at the departmental level. The prestige is basically just a consequence of the schools' history and wealth and of the social/cultural/class background of their students (again, especially historically); certainly they're all very good universities, but not in a meaningful way better than at least a fair number of others.
posted by RogerB at 8:58 PM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I went to Princeton for undergrad and Columbia for my MFA, both in artistic fields. If you're in anything theatre-related, PM me for more details. I feel like both schools were looking for many similar things, but applying to Ivy grad school was definitely somewhat different. The impression that I got, going into an artistic field for grad school, is that your sense of mission and direction is key. The department wants to have an impression that you know the "why" of your degree before you start, whereas in undergrad it's more wanting to know that you have many interests that you've shown passion in pursuing.

Part of me thinks that the best way to get into an Ivy grad school is to graduate with honours from an Ivy undergrad, but since that doesn't help you much I won't dwell on it. More than anything else Ivies seem to look for two things: your writing and your extracurriculars. So build up your portfolio writing about your art form. Submit your best papers to journals, etc. Because you're talking MA I'm assuming you're doing a degree that's more academic than applied, so that's why I recommend this. The other thing is activities. It's different if you came right out of undergrad like I did, but I had a whole slate of related experience; internships with various theatre companies, running the campus theatre for a few years, writing theatre previews for the school newspaper, acting, playwriting, directing, producing, dramaturging various productions.

What puts you over the top is something with a great story. In my senior year, I assistant dramaturged my school's world premiere production of a play that joined the forces of three Russian heavyweights; comprised of a great playwright, director, and composer, the play was suppressed by Stalinist forces in the 1920s, and was never staged until we unearthed, completed, and put it on with more than a hundred student dancers, musicians, and actors. It was major international news and some of my visuals were shown in the New York Times. This is all to say that doing something exciting, starting or getting involved in a fascinating project, can really get you in the door because it shows mission and uniqueness. You want them to call you in for an interview if only because they want to hear your story. If it gives back to the community, so much the better. My internship involved bringing free Shakespeare to kids who normally wouldn't get a chance to see a play.

GREs and recommendation letters are also pretty crucial, especially if the committee might know your recommenders; this is pure speculation but I believe doing quite well on the GREs is a nice "what was your undergrad?" leveler. Always, always know the passions of the people running the department, first so that you can see if you'd be a good fit in the first place, second so you can know what to emphasize in your application and interview. (And if you can't genuinely share/emphasize a similar passion/interest/outlook to the department in general, you probably don't want to be there.)

Good luck! I know people say "Ivies aren't the be-all and end-all of education," and I know they aren't, but I had the best, most exciting time of my life at both schools, and particularly in grad school met a staggering number of important people in my field, and had an internship opportunity like no other. I think I'll stop blathering now.
posted by ilana at 9:22 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

For those of you who have Ivy League degrees (undergrad or graduate), what do you think you did/have/smelled like to get in?

To be perfectly glib about it, my grades and scores were simply high enough to get me admitted.

Less glibly, getting admitted to a prestigious graduate program (of any kind) can be helped immensely by making yourself known to the department, finding professors with whom you'd like to work and talking about your mutual academic interests to see if there's some good overlap, and demonstrating that you can contribute something to the department. Graduate admissions are their own "beast" apart from the undergraduate admissions process, which for places like Harvard is akin to alchemy.

You say your teacher has a degree from that university. What does your teacher say about his/her experiences going through the admissions process? Does your teacher still have contact with professors in that department? Your teacher is going to give you a glowing recommendation to this grad school, right? All these matter more than how you smell.
posted by deanc at 10:00 PM on April 3, 2011

I got my Master's from the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Design. And to be perfectly honest, unless you were doing a discipline that required a degree -- architecture, etc, I have no idea why you would go for one. If you have professional success in the field, keep working in the field and building your success that way. You don't need a MFA to be an artist! (I did need a MLA to be a LA because I didn't have a BLA, but that's another discussion.)

I had a significant scholarship (enough to make me choose UPenn over Harvard & some other programs), but getting a Master's in the arts is always an expensive proposition. You generally won't be funded, and your career in the arts may not ever pay enough to make it worthwhile.

Other than that, there are only two things that matter--GRE scores and your portfolio. Undergrad won't matter; rec's will help. Just study for your GRE's and build your portfolio.
posted by Kronur at 11:37 PM on April 3, 2011

Part of me thinks that the best way to get into an Ivy grad school is to graduate with honours from an Ivy undergrad, but since that doesn't help you much I won't dwell on it.

In my experience, this isn't true-- the vast majority of students in my program at an Ivy (not in the arts) came from schools in the top sub-Ivy stratum (Johns Hopkins, Amherst, etc), or are foreign and went to foreign universities, or took significant time off between undergrad and graduate school to work in different fields, in which case the origin of the undergrad degree didn't really matter (although the GPA and GRE scores did). This might be totally different in arts fields, though.

While the Ivies aren't a magical kingdom, the one I'm at now blows my very good undergrad university out of the water in terms of organization, funding, and opportunities to interact with the big names in my field. When you apply, though, you need to explain why this particular Ivy is the right one for you. Actually, make sure you don't use the phrase "Ivy League" anywhere in your application materials-- they're all quite different, and one thing you don't want to do is project the image that you care more about the label "Ivy" than you do about that particular school's strengths.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:43 AM on April 4, 2011

I have an MFA from Columbia, and have no idea what it was that they liked about me. My classmates came from quite a mix of backgrounds: some had gone to state colleges (as I did), some had gone to Barnard. Some were in their twenties and straight out of undergrad, while others were grandparents. Some could afford the tuition and others couldn't. Some had relevant professional backgrounds and others were unpublished bartenders. There's no checklist for admission, as far as I can tell.

Being somewhat oblivious to my surroundings, I had no idea that Columbia was Ivy League until after I was already attending classes.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:29 PM on April 4, 2011

It's fair to add that many Master's programs that you have to pay tuition for (as opposed to being funded) at many universities -- Ivy League or not -- are big revenue generators/cash cows, and thus don't have super-rarefied admissions standards of the sort you see at the undergraduate level. If you are qualified enough that you won't embarrass the university by your presence, have good recommendations, and are willing to pay tuition, then I would guess that odds are at least decent that you'll be admitted (MBAs being an exception to this general rule).
posted by deanc at 5:06 PM on April 4, 2011

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