New book prowls the Ivy League
January 13, 2006
by Christina Pryor
Two words dominate much the talk in national college admissions: Ivy League.
Although initially created as a sports league, the Ancient Eight are the source of seemingly endless debate. College Prowler, a new guidebook company, has capitalized on this national frenzy by publishing a volume solely devoted to these schools that claims to give prospective students the inside scoop.
“Untangling the Ivy League,” published last September, is the brainchild of Chris Mason, the director of product development for College Prowler, which hires recent graduates and current students to write its books. He hired Marc Zawel, a 2004 graduate of Cornell University, to take on the project during his junior year.
Mason said College Prowler’s goal was not to rank the eight universities, but instead to provide an in-depth look at the history of the Ivy League, tips on getting in, and individual profiles of each school. Yale received high marks for its lenient drug and alcohol policies, on-campus housing, and female students. But New Haven was ranked at the bottom of the Ivy League for local atmosphere, receiving a grade of C-, and was described as a bastion of wealth surrounded by impoverished neighborhoods the University tries to hide. The writers took nearby attractions, safety and proximity to other schools into consideration.
“You say the words ‘Ivy League’ to people and everyone’s heard of it,” Mason said. “It’s become synonymous with great colleges. We tried to answer the question, ‘What is the Ivy League?’ in a free-flowing format. We think the Ivy League schools have a rich history and there’s a connection between all of them.”
To write “Untangling the Ivy League” — which debuted in bookstores last September and is currently the company’s best seller — Zawel spent much of his senior year at Cornell doing research and finding students at other schools to distribute approximately 500 surveys at each college. The questionnaires asked students to rank areas such as academics, attractiveness of student body and local atmosphere, then to comment on each.
“Some people are happy at these schools and some aren’t,” Mason said. “We think these things are about general feel, and as much as you try to wrap it up in a statistical guide, you can’t.”
The book includes helpful details such as a section on Yale slang, fun facts about New Haven, and the truth about secret societies. Many students said the book was more detailed on Yale’s history than other college guidebooks, and that the book’s assessment of Yale’s academics was on target.
But many Yale students said they did not feel “Untangling the Ivy League” provided a clear picture of campus life.
Charlie Pfeifer ’09 said he felt the C- did not reflect the positives of Yale’s location, which he believes fosters campus unity.
“New Haven has what we need … but at the same time it forces you to stay on campus for most of your fun in a way that a school like [New York University] does not,” he said.
Associate Vice President of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said he does not think the observations in the book accurately reflect the Elm City.
“College guidebooks often provide good fantasy and humor,” he said. “It would be better if certain guidebooks based their writing on reality rather than falsely transposing Charles Dickens.”
Even though Yale is not the only Ivy League school in an urban area, Brown, Columbia and Harvard Universities and the University of Pennsylvania received an A- for their local atmosphere. “Untangling the Ivy League” called West Philadelphia a comfortable setting for those who lacked urban experience.
But Penn freshman Natalie Picot said that she knew two people who were held at gunpoint this semester and “many others” who were mugged.
“West Philadelphia has definitely become more gentrified than it was many years ago, but it’s still not the safest place,” Picot said. “Downtown is a 20-minute cab ride from campus and it is the part of the city that has the best restaurants and stores.”
Although the book was released this fall, some students said they felt it was out of touch with the Yale they know.
Jessica Fried ’09 said information such as distribution requirements and residential college renovations were out of date and many of the quotations contradicted each other.
“If I were reading this book in high school, I feel that I wouldn’t get a sense of the vibe of the school,” she said. “They should have asked someone involved with theater about theater instead of having anonymous quotes that lacked specific information.”
Sam Yellen ’09 said he would have considered purchasing the book after colleges send out acceptance letters, but thought it was too narrow in its focus to aid high school students in an initial college search.
“It plays into the perception that the only place to get a good education is the Ivy League, when in reality there are a number of other institutions in the country that offer a great education as well,” he said.
College Prowler plans to publish an updated edition of “Untangling the Ivy League” this June for the book’s second printing. Zawel said it was important to have the most up-to-date statistics and inside student perspectives so that prospective students would get a genuine look at the highlighted schools.