Hacking the Ivies (Cornell Perspective)
A Syllabus for those that want to excel in undergrad.
This piece is intended to help provide a framework for an incoming student as they create a plan for academic and experiential success. This comes after an in-depth conversation with some of my fellow alum and highlight some strategies we shared and have seen work for several students at Cornell. Note: You should consult your academic advisor and Cornell Career coaches as you go along your journey.
Hope this helps.
Cornell is a fantastic institution and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The challenges a student may face, regardless of background, can be tremendous. But through that experience, you can develop valuable relationships and learn a ton about yourself and “any study.”
Keep in mind that several courses are graded on a curve, Cornell is a powerful research university, and Cornell’s student population has a wide diversity of international students. All of these factors helped shape my experience. These factors also play a meaningful role in the academic challenges for students with different strengths.
Freshman Fall — Take pre-requisite courses, 2 Hard, 3 Easy. Find a student majoring in the subject matter of the difficult class, and engage them in a conversation about WHY they like the subject. Sure, you have TA’s that help grade you, but I think it’s also muy importante to galvanize interest in challenging subjects. That can, in-turn, boost your drive to succeed. And when you ask that mentor a question, they’re now primed to explain to you, with passion, why that aspect of the subject matters to the bigger picture. You have to trust yourself at a young age. Trust that you are smart and can succeed with the right drive
Freshman Spring — I would go to campus a couple weeks before the start of the semester, partake in the fraternity bidding process, and make friends with a ton of participants. You can amass a ton of powerful friendships here. Just talking about “bids” you get back at the dorms is an experience you can align with others on, but make sure not to alienate anyone. Many of the Prophytes will be your TA’s, so have fun but be thoughtful as you’re being heavily watched during this process.
If you’re not pursuing Greek life during this semester, take 3 Hard classes and 2 Easy. Do the inverse if you are pursing Greek life. Keep in mind there are a handful of Greek organizations that do not accept Freshmen, so some people choose to wait until subsequent semesters to join Greek life. Greek organizations aside, make sure you’ve contributed to the community meaningfully by this point by joining a student org. But don’t take on too much too early. Have a strong academic foundation early on will guide your internship opportunities and ultimately your post-graduate activities.
Sophomore Fall — You can take 2 hard classes, 3 easy now while your peers are doing pretty much the opposite. If you’re feeling like you have to drop one of your easy classes to do well, give yourself a gut check. You need to excel here to solidify a great outcome. Hold out on social distractions. We’re trying to get A’s here (especially in easy classes) and go back to our professor to TA.
Feel free to party, but stay focused on some current/near-term items. Reach out to alumni and ask for a short winter internship (~6 weeks). Go to the Cornell Career Services and Cornell Tradition offices and ask about a stipend for said internship. Now you’re making money while getting meaningful job experience for your resume. 👏🏾
Sophomore Spring — This may be your most academically challenging semester, 3 hard classes, 2 easy. Also try to bolster campus involvement through student orgs. Be honest with yourself and your studies. Secure your Summer internship by reaching out to Alumni through Cornell Trak. Make sure to revisit any academic scholarships Cornell gives to see if you’re eligible since you’ve been focusing on your grades. Try to keep living on campus. Leaving campus so early often impacts your social relationships and your studies (particularly in the winter). Academia is a major focus to finish the year 💪🏿.
Junior Fall — Study abroad. Do a program like CIEE which will be easier academically and cheaper than a Cornell study abroad program (or one of sponsored by other schools). Connect with students from across the country. Reserve money from your previous internships to go on multi-city trips (especially if in Western Europe). Through CIEE, you can often get ~18 credits in one semester (3 credits at the start for a foreign language intensive, 15 credits through your regular classes). Have fun here and recharge from the pressures you face far above Cayuga’s waters. All of these classes are counted as electives and not toward your GPA (though your transcript is visible later on so don’t be negligent). You’ve paid 1/3 of your normal Cornell tuition to relax and expand your horizons.
Junior Spring — Make sure you’re TA’ing one or two of the classes from last year. That’s 1–2 easy A’s. Take 2 hard classes (should be coming close to the end of your requisite courses for your major) and 1 easy elective. If you are business minded, pursue a Business frat now. Since you have good grades, are part of student orgs, and secured 2 previous internships prior to this, your resume will stand out. You also went abroad while everyone else is stressing over school. You’re back in the States, recharged, and have a lot of international experiences to talk about. It’s hard to successfully interview while abroad. Use this business frat as an opportunity to learn more about different industries you may pursue and secure your Summer internship.
Senior Fall — Take 2 Easy classes, Intro to Wines (Pass/Fail), and 1 Hard class if it’s a requirement for graduation. Remember you have an extra 3 credits from your study abroad experience. Some may be in a position to graduate early by taking on an extra load. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are in computer science / learning how to code in pursuit of a full-time position (in which case starting off cycle can put you in a strong negotiating position for a high salary).
Try NOT to defer any classes that you need to graduate until the spring semester. Having a class you’re dependent on for graduation adds too much stress amid all the different activities you’ll likely have going on as you finish undergrad.
At Cornell, many courses are graded on a curve. This can mean that a numeric test result that would normally amount to an A- or a B+ could easily amount to a much lower letter grade, depending on how you performed in relation to your peers. Unless you have a tremendous competitive advantage at test-taking or are in the sciences (not life sciences), most all of your classes ought to be graded on papers and class discussions, not Tests.
In your Junior year, you have other focuses and I don’t recommend competing with others who don’t have similar focuses at that time on tests. An argument could be made that the former is more subject to your individual effort, while the latter could be subject to things beyond your control. Obviously, you’re a beast and can “win”, but the friendships you make and experiences you undergo now will prove vital in the next few years. You didn’t pay this tuition money simply for textbooks you can get online.
Make sure you secure your full time job opportunity in the Fall. If you’re having a hard time, go balls-to-the-wall reaching out to alum for coffee. I would treat it like road-tripping to connect with friends. Worse case, do another winter internship, but I would suggest keeping it aligned with the industry you’re actively pursuing.
Senior Spring — Finish whatever classes you have left. If you’ve passed your swim test, take Golf or Swedish massage as your PE electives. You could choose other PE electives, but I would argue this is an often overlooked opportunity to garner a lifetime skill.
Go to a Cornell Ice Hockey game. Hit as many of the ~151 things to do before you graduate list. Go to CTB, secure a table outside, get a pitcher of beer with a diverse group of friends during the day (not every day). Go on the annual wine tour with your business frat. Pass off the leadership reigns to a younger person, put them in a position to be successful. Volunteer in the local community. Connect with local politicians. Go to a party at Ithaca College. Network with a handful of people at one of the grad schools.
Hit up Slope Day festivities, but don’t mess your life up. Graduate, make your supporters proud. Live your best life.