The Ivy League specifically refers to an athletic conference of schools in the Northeastern United States, yet it is far more than that. As a group, the Ivy League is dedicated to academic excellence and can afford to maintain first rate facilities, a world class faculty, and a selective admissions process. Paced by Harvard's $37 Billion dollar endowment, they rank among the richest academic institutions in the world. The schools include the oldest in the country. Listed in order they are Harvard founded in 1636, Yale 1701, University of Pennsylvania 1740, Princeton 1746, Princeton, Columbia 1754, Brown 1764, Dartmouth 1769, and newcomer Cornell 1865.

Begin by assessing if you are Ivy League material. These schools admit on the basis of the following criteria. You need demonstrable academic prowess, with consistent honors grades in demanding courses including those of advanced placement. A lot of weight is given to teacher recommendations praising your intellect and drive. Your SAT scores should total more than 1400 in the old system, 2000 in the new. Character is evaluated as well. The Ivy League prides itself on cultivating leaders of integrity who are dedicated to service. The schools rely on personal interviews and admissions essays to assess an applicant's personality, while your background is scrutinized to see if your values are put into active practice as you lead a well rounded life. Finally, the Ivy League looks for an outstanding trait that distinguishes you from the pack. As snippet of dialog from a recent film said about an Ivy League applicant, it helps if you can "dazzle."

Scrutinize each school for what it provides. They vary greatly Yale has a first rate drama school that counts Henry Winkler and Meryl Streep among its graduates. Harvard grads Jack Lemmon and John Lithgow had other majors because Harvard offers degrees in neither drama nor film. If you're interested in engineering, only a few of the schools offer these programs. Look into specific faculty members. It's likely that you'll find Nobel Laureates or former cabinet officials in your field of intended study at one or more of these schools.

Although the Ivy League is expensive, with their big endowments the Ivies are moving toward an admissions process that puts acceptance over ability to pay by subsidizing the attendance of middle-class applicants. Check with each school for specifics to see if you qualify for financial aid. Now let's look at the schools in more detail

Brown University is located in Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, a city of 172,000. It's considered by many to be the most liberal and progressive of the Ivy League schools. Brown encourages its students to form their own educational programs without mandatory grades believing that setting personal goals and reaching them is the best way to motivate students. If you need a more structured educational experience, this is not the school for you. Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons is the first African American president of an Ivy. It's acceptance rate is 13.8%

Columbia University is on the upper West Side of Manhattan. In addition to the educational resources consistent with all the other Ivy League schools, all of the cultural delights and myriad distractions of New York City are just a subway ride away. The school's philosophy is to provide the best general education program possible for its undergraduates. The school teaches students to reason, analyze, generate their own ideas and clearly express them. It also offers an undergraduate engineering program. Columbia is the home to the Pulitzer Prize, and has first rate journalism program. It's also the birthplace of FM radio. Barack Obama earned his undergraduate degree at Columbia. It is not the place to go to play football. The team had a losing streak once of 44 games over five years. The school's acceptance rate is 9.7%

In contrast, Cornell University is located in rural upstate New York in an area of scenic beauty. The school prides itself as an institution dedicated to the public good, which springs from it's history as the Ivy League's only state land-grant university. It offers some unusual undergraduate concentrations including studies in hotel administration, agriculture and life sciences, industrial and labor relations, and architecture, art and planning. It has an acceptance rate of 24.7%

Dartmouth College is the smallest Ivy League school located in rural Hanover, New Hampshire. Because it's so remote, fraternities, sports and student organizations play a bigger part in campus social life than at any other Ivy. Dartmouth divides its academic calendar into four terms of equal length which gives students enormous flexibility in arranging their schedules. With a prominent engineering department, the school prides itself on being tech savvy providing 100 free terminals across the campus for BlitzMail its popular in-house email system. It was the first Ivy to offer wireless Internet. In 2008, the most popular majors were economics, government, history, psychology and brain sciences, English, biology, and engineering sciences.

Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher education in the country. Freshman spend their first year in Harvard Yard, across the street from where George Washington took charge of the Continental Army. It's located on the park like Charles River in urban Cambridge, a short subway ride away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with which it exchanges some classes, and Boston with its cultural and historic treasures. It's the richest school in the world with the planet's biggest private library. The list of famous graduates is a who's who from American History including seven US Presidents. My own class included John Roberts Jr., the Chief Justice of the United States; Yo Yo Ma, the cellist; Bill White, the Mayor of Houston; and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In the class ahead of me was Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft; and the late Benazir Bhutto, Primer Minister of Pakistan. It's the most selective Ivy with an acceptance rate of 7.1%

University of Pennsylvania is set an urban oasis that puts all of its undergraduate and grad schools on a 260 acre campus in downtown Philadelphia. It was founded by Ben Franklin. In addition to its highly regarded school of School of Arts & Sciences, U Penn offers undergraduate degrees from The School of Engineering and Applied Science, The School of Nursing and The Wharton School, the nation's first school of business. The university prides itself on its research with 174 research centers and institutes. It has an acceptance rate of 17.7%

Princeton University is perhaps best known for of the most brilliant man who taught there, Albert Einstein, and an iconographic American writer who never graduated, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Located in a bucolic small town by the same name it's equidistant from Philadelphia and New York City. There's a major emphasis on undergraduate education with a very low student to teacher ratio of 1:5. Each undergraduate is required to complete an approximately 100 page thesis. It has an acceptance rate of 10.2%

At a meeting of the Harvard Club in Los Angeles last year, comic Andy Borowitz told the gathering that when he was a kid, Harvard was in the business of educating Presidents, but these days, that task was left to Yale. In fact for the last 20 years, there's been a Yale educated President in the White House. The trend would have continued with a Hillary Clinton victory, but she was defeated in the primary by Barack Obama who graduated from Harvard Law School. Yale alums also include Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Kerry. Yale's undergraduate program like Harvard's, is modeled after the Oxford and Cambridge systems. At Harvard they're called houses, at Yale colleges. At Yale, incoming freshman are assigned to these separate colleges for the duration of their stay as a way to build group cohesion. At Harvard, the assigning occurs after freshman year. In both cases, masters, and faculty members staff these buildings which include residential quarters, meeting rooms, dining halls, and recreational facilities and occasional tutorials. Yale is located in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, a fading industrial city of 124,000 about two hours north of New York City. Yale's 70 undergraduate majors are primarily liberal arts. About 20% of undergraduates concentrate in the sciences, 45% in the social sciences, and 45% in the humanities. Yale was founded by ten Harvard grads, soon to be joined by Harvard's Cotton Mather who found his alma mater in Cambridge to be too liberal. In fact, in contrast to Harvard's motto "Veritas" which is Latin for truth, Yale's is "Lux et Veritas," which means Light and Truth. The rivalry continues to this day. In New England the annual Harvard Yale football game is simply referred to as "The Game." Yale is the second most selective Ivy League School with an acceptance rate of 8.6%