If you really, genuinely want to go to Cornell (i.e. it's not on your list just because you want a "few Ivy Leagues" on your list and what the heck), I will give you some tips and secrets of getting admitted.
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(I wish epinions has a way to write anonymous reviews, because I might get into trouble for revealing some secrets about the admission process, so I'm going to very careful not to step over the line and be restrained, yet be helpful enough to you, the reader/potential applicant. As a background, I am a recent graduate and an Alumni Ambassador ("interviewer") and I usually know from the bat when the high school student I talk to will or won't get into Cornell.)
Research: Read, Read, Read!
First, the most important thing is to do your research! Read all the literature that Cornell sends you. You're on the web now, so why not go down to Cornell's website (www.cornell.edu) and start reading about the schools. Yes that's a plural "schools". If you can somehow demonstrate in your essays or interviews that you know Cornell had 7 different schools/colleges, then it will immediately show that you have some interest and have done your research. Even better, you should say why that specific school to which you're applying is a perfect fit for you. Admissions doesn't expect a 16/17-year old to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives (some of us, even after graduating, have no clue!). Of course not! But at the very least, they expect that you know why you are choosing Cornell, and more importantly why you are choosing their specific school in Cornell (those 7 are: Agriculture & Life Sciences, Arts & Sciences, Human Ecology, Industrial Labor Relations, Hotel Administration, Art Architecture and Planning, Engineering.). Here's a secret: Read about that school's mission statement. Re-read it, chant it, make a song out of it, write it a hundred times on your wall, tattoo it on your arm. It is so important to the school, and so important in determining whether you are a fit for that school. Make sure your interests match the mission statement of that school.
Let me give you a solid example. Say you are interested in the medical field. Cornell does not have a pre-med major (and almost all med schools don't care what you major in). You think you are interested in Biology. Well, did you know that 3 schools offer a Biology major? (Arts & Sciences, Agriculture & Life Sciences, Human Ecology) So which one do you choose? Read my previous paragraph: read the mission statement of each school. They are drastically different from each other.
Scenario 1: Let's say you're interested in a broad liberal arts education, you have some interest in government and history and literature-- and you still want to major in Biology and go to med school. Well, easy: apply to Arts & Sciences. Say in your essay that while you are interested in Biology/medicine, you want to take advantage of the variety of liberal arts classes that are available to you in the Arts school.
Scenario 2: You are going into the medical field because you care about people and want to help the elderly and people in poor communities. You have volunteered at the local hospital, couple of non-profits, and you tutor kids in your run-down urban elementary school. Make sure in your essay and application, you emphasize how you became interested (i.e. through your activities in the community) in medicine. And then it's as simple as applying to the Human Ecology school.
Scenario 3: Your high school extracurricular activities involve the Science Club and competitions, you are doing an independent research on some science-related topic. You are interested in going into medicine, and medical research interests you. Or maybe you're thinking about becoming a veterinarian (Cornell Vet school is #1 in the U.S., by the way-- they have no undergrad school, but the Ag school is its pseudo-undergrad school). Well, write that in your essay, and apply to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: they offer lots of courses in animal biology, as well as "hard" science courses.
Another important tip: You are not bound by your choices in your application! Did you know that A LOT of Cornellians transfer between schools? Maybe you're a Bio major in the Agriculture school, but you suddenly found an interest in theatre: transfer to the Arts school your sophomore year! It's not that hard, but the trick is to be focused in your initial application essay!
What SAT score do I need? What GPA?
What I say will shock you: It doesn't really matter. Well, okay I lied. It *does* matter, but the reality is, you probably have a good SAT and GPA score, otherwise you'd be wasting your time and money applying to Cornell anyways. And the statistics show: One admissions officer said this: Did you know that about 95% of applicants all have about the same GPA and SAT scores? What does that mean? Well, that means that your objective data (scores) doesn't really differentiate you from the other applicants! Read that sentence again. I can't tell you how important the subjective parts of your application (mainly, your essays and recommendations) is to your chance of admissions at Cornell! Yeah, it's not fair, ya-dee-dah, but this is the reality! There are so many applications that needs to be read, and really, if you don't stand out, what's stopping the admissions committee from throwing out your application?
This doesn't mean, go out and join 100 clubs at school, volunteer half your life away, join every sports team there is, play every instrument in band... No not at all. In fact, the opposite is true: don't do too much! It's much better to have a few activities that are very focused, where you do well and with passion, rather than do a lot of things but with little involvement or passion. Choose your activities carefully. On the application itself, Cornell asks you to pick ONE activity and describe why it's important to you. Again, ONE activity. They don't care about quantity, just quality.
Another tip: Don't ever ever resort to additional pages (stapled to your application) in your application. First, no one is going to read it-- there is no time. Second, you insult the school by unknowingly saying "You were stupid and didn't give me enough space to fill in all that information in that space you gave me." If 10,000 other applicants were able to fit everything to that space with no problem, and you couldn't, then you have a problem. Believe me, if I had 5000 applications to read in 3 months, I don't want additional pages tacked on to them! Unless of course you've won a Pulitzer Prize and you're explaining to me how much that has influenced your decision to apply to Cornell...
Yet another tip: Don't be arrogant in your essays. True story: 2 valedictorians from the same high school applied to Cornell, as did a student ranked #34. Guess who got into Cornell? #34. The valedictorians were rejected. Why? They were arrogant in their essays: "I am so smart, I did this and that, and won this award and that, I am so smart, so you should admit me." No way! They never said why Cornell was right for them (and no, "Cornell is a top school, and I'm a top student, so we match" won't cut it), and they never said anything about their TRUE SELF. We know you're smart, we have your scores right in front of us: Tell us something ABOUT you! Why did #34 get in? Well, #34 knew that she wasn't #1, and explained why: She spent a lot of time doing work with a local organization, and didn't have much time to do schoolwork. But her volunteer work really helped shape her life goals, made her realize what her passion was. And she wrote a damn good essay. Very well written and most importantly, SINCERE and with genuine PASSION that seeped out from the words. You can't fake passion on paper, and certainly not in an interview. That's what grabs the attention of the admissions committee.
Cornell does not require an interview for admission, with one exception: the Hotel Administration school requires it. That being said, I strongly, strongly encourage you to "interview" (I put that in quotes, because it's really not an interview but more of an "information session") with an alumni of Cornell. I am part of the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network (CAAAN), and what we do is give applicants a chance to learn more about Cornell (for those essays!), and ask about first-hand Cornell experiences.
And it gives us a chance to help you in your application. Yes, help you! Because there is so much person you can squeeze into couple sheets of paper, it's a good idea to meet face to face with the applicant, and since Cornell is such a huge school, the admissions officers can't interview everyone directly. Which is why CAAAN exists. Ideally, every applicant would have spoken with or met an alumni. Usually, we call you first, as soon as you send in Part 1 of your application. Please return our calls and accept our offers to meet! It is so important, because as I said: the subjective parts of the application are crucial to your chance of admission to Cornell. It cannot hurt you, it can only help you. If I meet someone who's not that stellar, I usually don't say anything to the admissions committee-- I figure what they wrote in their application is who they are. On the other hand, if there's new information about you, or I find that you have a genuine interest in Cornell or some other striking characteristic about you that's notable, then I let the admissions committee know. It puts a face to the application and can only help you. It's not a stressful experience at all. (Shameless plug: If you are an applicant to Cornell and want me to "interview" you, drop me a line and I'll be glad to do it (over the phone if we really can't meet), especially if you're on Long Island, New York or where ever I might find myself (I move a lot)...)
It's actually very simple to get into Cornell. The fact is, most people don't follow the simple tips I've given you here. You'd be surprised. The unique thing about Cornell (besides its magnificent campus-- oh yeah, if you're really interested, you would have visited the campus!) is that it's made up 7 different colleges. Each are semi-autonomous and admit students separately from each other. Did you know that the only University-wide requirements for graduation are: 1. Pass the swim test, 2. Take 2 English courses (aka "Writing Seminar"), 3. Take 2 Physical Education classes (things like Yoga, Riflery, Fly Fishing, Ballroom Dancing count as P.E.!). That's it. All the other graduation requirements are set individually by the Colleges. That's to show you how distinct the Colleges are. And you must understand that to understand Cornell. It's probably the only American college that has such a weird structure. But then, Cornell is not your typical American college, or Ivy League college, for that matter.
You can email me if you want more tips or if you have questions, but don't overwhelm me with questions, otherwise I might have to start charging for it! :)
-- Updates/Addendum --
Your chances for admission are the same whether you are a New York resident or not, even to the state ("public") schools.
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