Choosing an Elite University

Hey there. To those who were accepted to great universities in America, can you give me a rundown on why you chose to apply to your first choice, and if accepted to multiple, why did you settle on that in particular? Cheers

Interesting question - I was accepted into Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, Wharton (Huntsman Program), Columbia and a number of other top universities.

I spent nearly 4 months thinking about this from the time I initially was accepted into Harvard early action around December 15th till the day I committed to Harvard. I was deeply appreciative of the exciting choice I faced and am sure that no matter which of these places I chose, I would have had a great experience. In saying that - how did I choose?

Firstly, education is an investment in yourself and your future. It is important to consider the reputation and resources of your university and how you might be able to contribute to them and develop as a learner and a leader. I started by consulting a lot of rankings: 1
World Reputation Rankings

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2016 employ the world’s largest invitation-only academic opinion survey to provide the definitive list of the top 100 most powerful global university brands.

QS World University Rankings 2016
All the universities mentioned above are utterly incredible and would be a true privilege to attend. However, you have to start any decision from data initially so these rankings let me make my first cuts which were Columbia and Duke. Columbia and Duke tended to underperform need-blind Ivy League schools with larger endowments as well as both Oxford/Cambridge and MIT/Stanford and reputation rankings tended to support this.

Secondly, I considered what country I wanted to be in. Simplifying what was a very complex decision, I decided that the global hubs of finance and entrepreneurship were in New York City and Silicon Valley (USA) and these hubs tended to be growing faster in influence and talent than the UK. This is debatable obviously but generally based on cross-yield data and international applicant numbers to respective countries, as well as considering where most massive companies and organizations have their HQ (Goldman Sachs, United Nations, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Tiger), I felt reasonably confident that the US was a better bet. Also, coming from New Zealand, the UK was a more easy, comfortable cultural fit and I actively wanted to challenge myself. Lastly on this point, US schools have financial aid for international students meaning the cohorts are more diverse generally making for a more interesting experience. For these factors, I cut out the UK and Cambridge.

At this point, I am considering Harvard, Penn (Huntsman), Princeton, Yale, Stanford.

I actually signed up for university preview tours (the 2-3 day events colleges put on for pre-frosh [students admitted considering entering into freshman year]) for all of these universities and headed to the US with my Dad.

Upon going to Princeton, I realized that I didn’t want a small town vibe in my university experience. Princeton is location in Princeton, New Jersey which is about 1 hour from New York City. I figured if I was traveling all the way from New Zealand to the US, I may as well fully immerse myself in both an intense academic and metropolitan environment. Despite Princeton’s epic academics, leading endowment per capita and very attractive ORFE program, based on the physical campus and where it was located, I gave it the cut.

Yale’s preview event “Bulldog Days” was mind-blowing, fun and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed it and made a lot of good friends who I still talk to a lot these days. My main qualms with Yale were the relative weakness in engineering, pure mathematics, computer science and statistics which were all areas I was very interested in pursuing. I also felt that Yale had a very big focus on “happiness” and “balance” over “ambition” and “competition” to the extent that it seemed almost a bit too relaxed. Lastly, I felt if I wanted to go to a place with so much gothic architecture, I may as well have gone to Cambridge ( I must admit that having gone to Harvard my post Yale reflections may be just a little bit biased… :slight_smile: Yale gets cut.

Next came Stanford. To be honest, Stanford is pretty phenomenal at virtually everything these days. Living on the West Coast and the East Coast are two very different environments. The former has quite a focus on venture capital, high technology, entrepreneurship and has delightfully sunny weather. The latter has quite a focus on government, hedge funds, investment banking, management consulting, biotech (although big hubs in SF) and bounces between searing summers (in the 20 to 30 C range) and freezing winters (-5 to -15 C range). Computer Science is a massive part of Stanford’s campus culture just like Economics/Government is a massive part of Harvard’s campus culture. At this point in my life, the focus on finance, government, economics and the excitement of a true Winter Christmas experience pushed me East. Stanford got the cut.

Finally, Penn (Huntsman) and Harvard. I think the Huntsman program is incredible - it would have allowed me to continue to develop my French with a very specific focus on linguistic development, study at Wharton (the world’s best undergraduate business school) and also pursue a BA in international studies. It also offered an intimate class of Huntsman peers who benefit from fantastic advising, support and a wonderful community which is disproportionately international compared to the rest of Penn. I found the preview days wonderful and loved my peers and Philadelphia. Huntsman is roughly as difficult to get into as HYPSM although admission rates aren’t disclosed.

Ultimately, I decided that while I liked Huntsman, I would rather be in an environment like Harvard where every student is admitted equal into the same undergraduate program. Being in a community of 1600 vibrant, talented, passionate individuals to me sounded more exciting than being in a community of 50 in the Huntsman tucked away as a part of Penn. Penn is wonderful as well but typically for dual admits between Harvard and Penn, roughly 4 choose Harvard for every 1 that chooses Penn. I believe strongly that you’re a function of those you surround yourself with and Harvard does a fantastic job of recruiting a diverse class of leaders within a wide variety of fields and being a part of that ecosystem was simply too exciting to turn down.


Harvard ultimately won for me because I loved the Applied Mathematics program ( which offered a mathematically rigorous lens through which I could study economics. It also offered arguably the strongest on-campus recruiting process ( I was also very excited to leverage Harvard’s wonderful economics research opportunities. For my broad interests in economics, finance, government and politics, I felt I had found my home.

I have always been very happy with my choice! (Harvard '16 A.B./S.M. :wink: )


Hey there!

I think I’m probably slightly unusual in that I only ever applied to Stanford, and it was the only University I listed on the Common App. I’ll detail my thought process here, when I was searching for my number 1 choice.

The Initial Shortlist:

Initially, I decided that applying to an American University would be a huge change for me, and one that I would only want to make for a huge benefit. As such, I only really considered the top few schools in America - if I didn’t get in, I didn’t think for me it would justify the massive expense. I started by shortlisting Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Caltech in my mind - and also briefly entertained the idea of applying to Cambridge/Oxford.

Making the First Cut:

Cambridge and Oxford were the first to be cut for me. I didn’t like the culture of the English Universities as much as that of the American ones. To me, there was a bit more of a focus on getting in and getting out with a degree, as opposed to the networking experience supported by the American system. Therefore, the American culture suited me better - and I liked the more casual atmosphere (particularly with the West Coast schools).

So what next?

I was therefore set on America, and trying to choose which school out of an incredible plethora was really tough. This is where my personal goals started to come into play. I love entrepreneurship, programming and startups, and also want to study Economics.

Out of those schools, MIT/Stanford/Harvard/Princeton probably have the best economics programs (supported by ).

Out of those schools, Stanford/MIT have the best computer science programs (supported by ).

Yale and Caltech didn’t come up here, so they got the cut. Supporting this was a visit to Caltech, and I really wasn’t enamored by the atmosphere there - especially having just visited the incredible Stanford campus.

Harvard seemed to me (without visiting) to be very similar to Princeton, but outperforming it by a fraction in most areas, so I cut Princeton.

Ok, so a shortlist of 3

From here, I considered the culture more carefully. I’m a fairly chilled out kind of person, so sunny California appealed to me, over the Boston. Stanford was also right in Silicon Valley, a huge plus for what I was interested in. I liked that the people there seemed so relaxed. Here was a University that is right in the running to be the best in the world, but yet people are cycling and skateboarding around.

I was lucky enough to meet Professors there, and I had a few meetings with Execs in Silicon Valley firms in 2015, so I felt quite close (probably naively) to Stanford itself, too. I got far too attached to the culture there, and had I been rejected, I would’ve paid the price I think.

I also really liked the dschool. I love desigining and building things, and Stanford dschool often partners with a company called IDEO, who are responsible for a huge number of design innovations we take for granted today. Better light switches, the computer mouse… The list goes on, all products of that incredible company. I wanted to be a part of that.

It was the icing on the cake when I learnt about how executives in the Valley would often come and guest lecture there, too. Imagine having Mark Zuckerberg teach your CS class?

From that, I really settled on Stanford. MIT/Harvard would’ve been the next on my list if I’d been rejected, but Stanford - to me - really stood out as the best place, for someone like me, in the world.

This is a deeply personal decision, and I’m in no way putting anywhere else down!

I’m super excited to start! Hope this was helpful.


Hey! Good question. Same as Harry, I ended up only applying to Princeton, as Princeton was my ED choice and I was very fortunate to be accepted. However, the other highly competitive schools I considered were Cornell and University of Chicago.

So why Princeton? I knew from the start that I was going to be a history major, and upon researching undergraduate history programs, I discovered Princeton’s really was the best. I was so excited at the prospect of having so much hands-on time with faculty members, and the emphasis that the university puts on the undergraduate experience. I also knew I wanted to write a truly bang-up senior thesis (even though I didn’t know what I’d write about for sure until junior year). I wanted the opportunity to push myself as a historian and writer, and I knew Princeton would make that happen.

When I was applying in 2001, I was in a Civil War history course at my high school that I absolutely loved. James McPherson, one of the most prominent Civil War historians, was still on faculty at Princeton, and I spent a lot of time during high school reading his work. I was lucky enough to take his course before he retired. That rockstar factor certainly played into my desire to pursue Princeton as my ED choice.

I loved the idea of going to a college that was big enough that I wouldn’t know EVERYBODY, and big enough that my classes would feel intellectually diverse and that I’d learn from my peers in addition to my professors. However, Princeton still feels like a close knit community that is completely and immediately manageable to navigate - something else I was looking for in a school. Princeton fit the bill on all accounts that I prioritized at the time.

As far as the backup plans go - why Cornell? I was an elite jazz musician coming from an elite performing arts boarding school, so I reached out to the jazz ensemble directors at all of the schools I was interested in attending. My rapport with the Cornell jazz director was really solid, and I thought I’d have a good chance of getting in by way of his advocacy on my behalf. I knew I’d thrive at Cornell as a history major, and potentially even have more cultural opportunities to explore there than what I would have at Princeton, so I fully planned on applying had ED not worked out.

Why University of Chicago? Similarly to Princeton, it has a great history department, and I knew I would get real chops there that I could potentially take on to a graduate program later in my life. Also, it’s in such a vibrant part of Chicago, particularly for the cultural things that interest me, and I could easily envision myself having a great four years living in Hyde Park and taking advantage of everything the school and the community had to offer.

Hopefully these short anecdotes reveal how it can come down to a lot of factors when making the decision about what will ultimately be best for you. Also remember that you’re doing the best you can to make a decision that makes sense for where you are at 18 years old (or perhaps even younger!). It’s a big decision, but know that in the end, you’re going to be fine in your adult life no matter where you end up, assuming you’re doing the best you can to make the smartest choice with the information and resources available to you at the time.


Also just to clarify - Princeton was Early Decision at the time when I was applying, which was not the case this past cycle. However, schools frequently update their ED/EA policies year to year, so be sure to take a look early on in the application season to have the most accurate info about how your favorite school will handle their early admissions.