Attorney Harvey Wax has been widely interviewed regarding a law school rejection letter he received. In 1957, before the advent of the Internet and online applications, Wax wrote a series of letters to Ivy League universities in application to their law schools. Princeton turned him down, with this response: “In reply to your recent letter, I regret that we must inform you that Princeton University has no law school.”
Wax’s letter is featured in a new book by Bill Shapiro called Other Peoples Rejection Letters, according to a CNN report. He went to Harvard Law School.
Wax’s mistake is comical, but it made me wonder: How many people apply to graduate schools that have name recognition, without serious inquiry into the value of the program?
I think it’s important to note here that the Ivy League began as an athletic conference in the Northeastern United States, not as a prestigious academic club. It has evolved over time into a status symbol. While it is true that Ivy League colleges tend to live up to their reputations for academic excellence (the Ivy League is comprised of Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, U Penn, and Yale), “Ivy League” does not necessarily mean “best.” Not many people would argue the excellence of schools like MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Duke, none of which are Ivies and all of which rank above Cornell and Brown in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings.
If you are applying to grad, law, business or medical school, the rankings diverge even more widely from a straight Ivy League ticker, and it would be a huge mistake to choose a program simply for its name, without investigating the reputation of the specific program that interests you. Different schools are known for their programs in different areas. The top schools are frequently not Ivy League; in the job market for each industry, the top programs are known and respected.
The type of grad school I’m most familiar with is law school, and it is well-known that NYU, ranked #32 for undergrad, stands right up there with Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia for its law school. For tax law, NYU is #1; for international law it is #2. For health law the Ivies don’t even rank.
- For biology, chemistry and computer science, Stanford, MIT and UC Berkeley tend to be the top picks.
- For math geniuses, Princeton is #1.
- Seeking a Master in Fine Arts? Try the Rhode Island School of Design. It’s #1.
- Library and Information Studies? University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are tied for the top spot.
Make your grad school application picks after seriously studying programs to find the best fit for you. You might want to choose the most highly ranked program, or the best location given your needs, or the school that gives you the best scholarship package. If you can get all three from the same school, you’re all set!
Location is especially important with law school and other geographically specific fields (architecture might be one). A lower-ranked law school often offers an affordable and smart choice if you want to practice in a smaller company or at a firm in the school’s geographical area-there are many other professionals from that school practicing in the area, and they love to hire their fellow alumni.
With the availability of the internet, Princeton probably doesn’t get too many applications for their still non-existent law school. You probably won’t make a mistake like that. But make sure you don’t make the mistake of choosing schools blindly. Do your research, weigh the factors that are important to you, and put your best applications forward.