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While many California students applying to private schools focus on USC or Stanford, some adventurous applicants with a taste for a more temperate climate and distinct academic challenges might turn east to such a school as Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Interestingly, Cornell is both a private and public university. Its colleges of Agriculture Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Industrial Labor Relations are land grant institutions, whereas its colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Hotel Management and Art and Architectural Planning are private. It is also a venerable member of the Ivy League.

The campus contains a library system with over eight million volumes, making it the 17th largest library in the country; the IM Pei-designed Johnson Museum of Art with Chinese ceramics on its fifth floor along with a breathtaking panorama of Lake Cayuga; and, a 101,000-square-foot Bill and Melinda Gates Hall for Computer and Informational Sciences, which opened in 2014.

As for its dining halls, Cornell knows a great deal about how to grow and produce food, while its College of Hospitality Management is unequalled in preparation and presentation. All the elements of a Michelin three-star restaurant are on display daily.

More importantly, Cornell serves up more than 80 formal majors, 90 minors, with dual degrees, along with individually-designed interdisciplinary majors. Such unique offerings as Fiber Science and Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology give a sense of how unique the offerings are from Cornell’s seven undergraduate colleges.

Unfortunately, only 16% of applicants gained admission last year. However, Nelson Urena, a former admissions officer who has read piles of application essays and learned from some of the ‘best minds’ behind the admissions desks, shared insights into the Cornell admissions process about two years ago in an "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) link up on Reddit.

Most useful was his description of Cornell’s admissions process: When an application arrives, a first reader sheet is created and usually assigned to the admissions officer whose region includes the applicant’s high school. The first reader extracts essential information from the application, summarizes it, and then makes a recommendation to accept, reject, or wait list. The total process takes 15 minutes — not a lot of time to go through a counselor recommendation, two teacher recommendations, Common Application Personal Statement, and the Cornell supplement, the activities and award lists: the reader is moving quickly.

Next a second reader sheet is generated and a more senior admissions officer reviews the application and makes the same determinations as the first reader, taking the same 15 minutes to evaluate the application. If the two agree on an applicant’s status, that applicant will not need to go to committee. Often, however, the two readers don’t and the application then heads to committee.

Successful candidates give admissions a clear sense of their interests and how they will take advantage of Cornell’s offerings. This is best conveyed through the application’s theme (say, pursuing medicine or nutrition), as well as by using a narrative essay, telling a story to engage admissions and making a mark on its collective memory.

Regarding what type of activities to mention on the application, Urena suggests emphasizing those that the applicant plans to continue on the Cornell campus. The more leadership demonstrated in participation, the better. Should the activity clearly connect with an applicant’s stated goals, better still.

Responding to how portfolios and supplementary materials are used, Urena mentions admissions forwards these items to officers with the most pertinent expertise. Furthermore, each of Cornell’s seven colleges has its own admissions office to review submissions of interest.

Additionally, the personal statement and supplement are most important. The applicant controls their content, and from them emerges, the ‘likeability’ of the applicant.

If Cornell is under consideration — and there are a lot of reasons to consider applying — Nelson Urena’s insights might prove useful in creating an application to gain a coveted spot in Ithaca and possibly points beyond.

Ralph Becker, is founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC ( and a resident of Long Beach. He has been counseling students for 11 years. He has a certificate in college counseling from the UCLA Extension, and has published "SAT* Vocab 800." He can be reached at

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