When the name Cornell University comes up in conversation, people who’ve been there usually
exclaim, “It’s so pretty there,” and after a visit, it is easy to agree. The campus sits on founder Ezra
Cornell’s farm, overlooking Cayuga Lake, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. It covers 745 acres with classic ivy-covered buildings and contemporary research labs.
Students are proud of the fact that the university has been open to all kinds
of students from the beginning. By 1870, Cornell was the first major university in the eastern
United States to admit women. And it led the way in welcoming students of varying
ethnic backgrounds as well. The nation’s first African-American fraternity, Alpha Phi
Alpha, was founded here in 1906.
Whenever my schedule got way too crazy and it seemed like I wasn’t
going to make it, I took the time to put everything in perspective. Sitting at the
top of Libe Slope and taking in the breathtaking view of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake,
or standing in the middle of the suspension bridge and jumping up and down to
make the whole thing shake while watching water cascade over the falls, was the
best cure for anything that was getting you down.
In fact, the university offers seven undergraduate colleges: the College of Agriculture and Life
Sciences; the College of Architecture, Art and Planning; the College of Arts and Sciences (the
traditional liberal arts college); the College of Engineering, the School of Hotel Administration;
the College of Human Ecology; and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Students in
all the colleges come from a wide range of backgrounds, and from all fifty states and more than
120 countries. It’s a high energy, eclectic mix that gives the schooll its distinctive flavor.
The twenty on-campus libraries provide the best places for studying in whatever kind of
atmosphere suits you best. The two most popular libraries are Mann and Uris. Mann
is located on the Ag quad and is most frequented by students in Ag and Hum Ec. Uris
Library is located on the corner of the Arts quad looking down the hill, affectionately
known as Libe Slope. Uris can get pretty social at night, but within the library, the
A.D. White Library, with its balconies and alcoves,
provides a classic academic aura for studying. It’s
nice and quiet studying among the books in the
stacks. The best-known spots in Uris are the
Fishbowl and the Cocktail Lounge where wine isn’t
served, but wines may be studied.
Seven undergraduate colleges; 4,000 courses to choose from; more than eighty
majors. After four years here, anyone is prepared to be a success in the real world.
The opportunities provided to students are unique and
unlike those available anywhere else. More than one alumni has called it “the best place on earth to be.”
Regardless of which undergraduate college you technically enrolled in, you can take
classes from every school on campus, and there’s no need to search in order to find the popular
ones. The legendary Psych 101, incessantly discussed in tours and information sessions, is held
in the biggest classroom, Bailey Hall, with a mere 2,000 of your closest friends. Despite its
size, Psych 101 is educational and interesting. Offered only in the fall, one class in the semester
is a live demonstration of a psychic telling one student everything about his or her life.
When I took Psych 101, Professors Bem and Maas selected Mindy from
the class for their demonstration. Four years later, I would still hear people say,
“There’s that girl from Psych 101.” In a class of 2,000, who says you don’t get to
know your classmates? Interested? It’s offered Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
at 10:10 A.M.
Other popular classes, though smaller in size, are Human Sexuality offered in Human
Ecology, and Introduction to Wines in the Hotel School, which once a week offers an hour of
tasting wines from around the world.
This school is big, and you have to accept this fact to be happy there. Classes vary in size, but in
freshman year, you will most likely have a couple of classes with at least 200 people.
Depending on what you are studying though, it is possible that you may never have a class bigger than fifty people. Popular intro classes, such as Government 111 and Chemistry 207, can
easily have 400 or more students in the class, but, as you move into upper-level classes, the
numbers get much smaller. Language classes and first-year writing seminars usually aren’t
much bigger than twenty students per section. Most large intro classes will also have a mandatory
discussion section held during the week, led by a TA (teaching assistant) or the professor,
with many fewer students, rarely over twenty-five per section. These sections provide students
with a time to ask questions and get to know the teaching assistants. TAs can be very helpful
and are usually very willing to meet with and help the students in their section. Being nice to
your TA will come in very handy when you need help on papers or problem sets. Faculty are
accessible and friendly too if you make the effort to get to know them. Don’t be shy!
There are seemingly, to quote late professor Carl Sagan, “billions and billions” of
programs of study. There are more than eighty majors at the university, and
you can graduate with a B.A., a B.S., a B. Arch, or a B.F.A., or any combination. Bachelor’s
degrees are awarded to any field from animal science, and operations research, to ancient
civilizations, textiles and apparel, and mechanical engineering. The largest enrollments (by
major) are in biological sciences, applied economics, and engineering.
Believe it—you can major in anything and any combination of things
you can find. Friends of mine had majors in classic civilizations, historic
preservation, and linguistics and psychology.
Clearly, there are no boundaries to what you can study, even if it includes subjects that
have never been put together as a formal major. That’s one of the benefits of going to a school with a great deal of academic
As for what’s actually required of all students, the list is pretty short. Entering freshmen
must take and pass the swim test, take two semesters of first-year writing seminars
and two semesters of physical education. Now, there’s no need to worry about these
three requirements in the least. Seminars offered across the curriculum by the award-winning
Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines are as varied as majors. Writing seminars
are offered on such topics as:
- African-American Women Writers
- The Personal Essay
- From Fairy Tales to the Uncanny
- Contemporary Moral Problems
There are just as many phys ed classes to choose from to fulfill that requirement including
the (extremely popular) ballroom dancing, tae kwon do, rock climbing, intro to ice skating,
badminton, squash, Swedish massage, yoga, scuba diving, running, skiing, golf, and riflery.
Getting tired of being on campus but think transferring is a little too drastic? It’s easy
to study somewhere off campus and still graduate on time. You can study abroad in
more than fifty countries, such as Spain, Sweden, Australia, and France. Engineers can take
part in a co-op program and spend a semester and a summer earning some serious money
in real-world work experiences. The Cornell in Washington program gives students in any
college the opportunity to live inside the beltway at Dupont Circle in their
four-story building with three floors of apartments and one of classrooms and a computer
lab, take classes with faculty and visiting professors, and have an internship in the
nation’s capital. Urban Semester gives students a chance to spend a semester in New York
City working and studying.
You can also spend a summer at Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island off the coast of
Maine. Undergraduate students can earn a semester’s worth of credit studying topics related
to marine biology and ocean ecology, and participate in research projects—sometimes on the
station’s research vessel. Adventurous students also take part in archeological digs around
the world and more locally in New York State.
Cornell is one of the top research universities in the world, and hundreds of undergraduates
participate in faculty research projects every year. It isn’t hard to find a project.
It can be as easy as talking with a faculty member after class about getting involved in his
or her research. There are also structured undergraduate research programs on campus,
such as the Hughes Program in biology or the research teams (such as Robocup) in the
engineering college. Some students even get their
names on research papers and present their results
at conferences. It’s a wonderful way to meet professors
and other student researchers, and it looks great
on your résumé!
Most Popular Fields of Study
Every fall, thousands
of applications pour into the Admissions Office.
Over 30,000 students apply for admission to one of
the seven colleges. The Undergraduate Admissions
Office collects and keeps track of all the applications
and, once they are complete, funnels the
applications to admissions offices in each college
for decisions. The Common Application and short
in-house supplement are used in all the colleges
(interviews and portfolios are required for some).
At this stage applicants
must decide which of the colleges to apply to.
For example, one can major in biology in both the
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and in the
College of Arts and Sciences. In the Ag school, bio
focuses on the natural world. In Arts and Sciences,
biology can be studied with anything from classic civilizations to anthropology to linguistics.
(Don’t worry—internal transfer between schools is possible if you decide you
don’t want to study biology and want to try meteorology or theater arts instead.)
Requirements for admission vary by school and program, but basically excelling in any
college preparatory course load in high school is a step in the right direction. The SAT or ACT
with writing is required. SAT Subject tests are specified by college and division. AP credits are
accepted but will count differently depending on your major and score, so don’t think you’re
home free just because you got a 5. Applicants who go to small high schools that don’t offer AP
classes shouldn’t be concerned about being at a disadvantage. Some freshmen arrive with fifteen
to twenty AP credits under their belt, and yes, they will probably be able to start out in
higher level classes or maybe finish a semester early, but the majority of students have only a
few, if any, AP credits and still graduate in good standing after four years.
One of the best things about admissions is that they look beyond the numbers.
Special talents and leadership records are just as important as your SAT scores. Three
percent of incoming students with an exemplary leadership record in high school are
selected as Meinig Family National Scholars. Students who held jobs during their
high school academic year may be selected as Tradition Fellows, an undergraduate
loan replacement fellowship. In order to continue to be a Fellow, students must work, keep
a certain GPA, and be involved in public service activities. Upperclassmen can apply to be
Tradition Fellows in the spring of each year. The Hunter R. Rowlings III Presidential Research Scholars program is designed to recognize, reward, and encourage
students who have demonstrated academic excellence and true intellectual curiosity.
These scholars are assigned a faculty mentor in freshman year and are given special opportunities
(some paid) to participate in research as undergraduates.
Regardless of whether the college you’re applying to requires an interview or
not, the Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network offers the opportunity for
applicants to meet with alumni in their local area for a casual exchange of information.
The most important thing to remember is that if you get accepted, the people
who read the application believe you can make it and be a success.
Cornell’s need-based admissions policy makes it affordable to attend. About sixty-five percent of undergrads receive some form of financial aid.
My financial aid package was excellent. I was a National
Scholar and came out owing only $5,000. But my parents made sacrifices and so
did I. My mother went to work while I was in school to help pay for my college.
(She hadn’t worked before.) Yes, I was in debt. My take on it is this: Education’s
supposed to be hard; not impossible, but not a free ride.”
The financial aid system is need-based. The university doesn’t give merit or athletic scholarships.
The most important thing to remember is that paying for college isn’t meant to be easy.
It can put a strain on your resources. But you will receive a top-quality education, and as alums
will tell you, the name alone will take you far in life.
Need-based aid also gives the university the kind of diverse community it needs to be a great
institution. The mix of income levels and socioeconomic backgrounds at the university makes
it a truly interesting and stimulating place.
When parents think about paying for college, work-study is always on the top of their
lists. Work-study is a great thing. Your employer only has to pay half of your wage; the
other half is paid by the government. Therefore, employers LOVE work-study students, and
there are usually enough jobs to go around. Granted, it may not be your dream job, but in
most jobs, there is plenty of room for advancement, and your salary usually advances, too.
If the job is in research or something related to your major, it gives you additional experience
that makes you even more marketable once you leave.
When I first started hunting for a job, it was the worst. Every place I
inquired at was full and none of the available jobs fit in with my class schedule.
It seemed hopeless. I called my mother in tears and told her I didn’t want to be
on work-study anymore. Then I found a job at the Undergraduate Admissions
Office as an administrative assistant. The job had great (and flexible hours),
and an understanding staff. I stayed there for the rest of my four years, became
a student personnel assistant—which meant I hired and coordinated all the
students for the building—and still had a job after taking a semester off to go to
Washington. The job gave me excellent experience that I put to good use after I
Student Financial Aid Details
All freshmen have a similar first-year housing
experience, living together in residence halls
located on North Campus. Some returning students
elect to live in residence halls on West Campus, but
about half of students live off campus in
sorority or fraternity houses, in Collegetown, and in
the surrounding areas. There are a variety of off-campus
options to choose from, from high-tech (and
expensive) apartment buildings to three-story
Victorian houses with six apartments that include
oddities like oval windows, sinks in hallways, and sitdown
The university offers a lot of music, theater,
dance, and films, but if you’re looking for other
social activities, trust me, you’ll find plenty. As each
weekend approaches, one is faced with an immense
variety of choices. Since one-third of the campus is Greek (fraternities and sororities),
there are always a collection of fraternity open parties, crush parties, after hours, and
formals to attend. Fraternities are housed both off and on campus in just about every direction,
so there is bound to be one nearby. Many other options exist outside of the Greek
realm and cater to many different interests. Student Services supports more than 600 student
organizations and clubs—and if you can’t find one you want to join, you can create your own!
In addition, the very extensive intramural sports programs will help you let off steam in
competitions involving everything from giant slalom skiing to inner tube water polo.
Just glance at the Daily Sun on Friday and you’ll find a plethora of activities going on all
over campus. On any given weekend, you can attend a concert, a varsity sporting event,
intramural games, an ethnic festival, or listen to a speaker. Because of its size, there are
always lots of people at whatever event you attend, and you’ll definitely meet someone with
interests similar to yours:
- Diwali, a celebration of the Indian New Year—“the festival of lights”—takes place every
fall. It’s put on by the Society for India and the on-campus Indian Association and features traditional
Indian food and a performance of skits, traditional and modern dance, and instrumental
- In the spring, the Festival of Black Gospel brings famous gospel singers to campus and
unites regional gospel choirs, like Pamoja Ni, in song and spirit.
- One weekend in every year, Lynah Rink is packed solid to watch the hockey team play their
biggest rival, Harvard. Smuggled in under jackets and in shirts, fish of every size and color
as well as some frozen fish sticks and lobsters become airborne when Harvard players skate
onto the ice.
- Some years, Bailey Hall is packed with over 1,800 a cappella fans for Fall Tonic, the all-male
Hangovers annual concert. Visiting a cappella groups who perform during Fall Tonic
are undoubtedly amazed at the number of people at the concert and often mention
that there are more people in the audience than students at their own school. We are
dedicated fans and strongly support the groups or teams we enjoy!
The Public Service Center mobilizes
over 3,000 student volunteers each year in both one-time and ongoing projects. That’s over
170,000 hours each year of service to the community. During Into the Streets, a national day
of service, there are close to 500 volunteers who work with thirty local agencies. On that
one Saturday alone, students do over 2,500 hours of service in the greater Ithaca area.
In the evening and weekends, the cinema organization offers at least four different films, playing
either in the theater at the Straight (Willard Straight Hall, the student union) or in Uris
Auditorium. Both are on central campus and are a short walk from any dorm or apartment.
The movies can be classics that you never thought you would see on the big screen, movies
that have just left theaters across the country, and foreign films. Every so often, the student
film classes show their own interesting (and often experimental) work.
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
The athletic department fields varsity teams in basketball, crosscountry,
indoor and outdoor track, soccer, squash, tennis, polo, lacrosse, field hockey, rowing,
gymnastics, and hockey. Known as the Big Red, the sports teams are of championship quality.
In addition to the main Career Services Office,
each of the undergraduate colleges also has a career
services center where students can go for career planning
and information, job search strategies, and advising.
Alumni around the world network with
current students to help them find jobs and offer
externships to sophomores, juniors, and seniors who
want to experience the real world of work. Placement
rates into medical, veterinary, and law schools are considerably higher than the
national average for other colleges and universities.
Public Service Continues After Graduation
Cornell’s record of public service holds true after graduation as well as during the undergraduate
years. The university traditionally ranks in the top ten schools nationally in the
number of alumni who are accepted into Peace Corps training. Many more work with
AmeriCorps and VISTA in their postgraduate years.
Prominent alumni include:
- Adolph Coors, ’07, Beer Baron
- E.B. White, ’21, Author
- Allen Funt, ’34, TVPersonality
- Harry Heimlich, ’41, Developed the Heimlich Maneuver
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., ’44, Author
- James McLarmore, ’47, Burger
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ’54, Supreme
- Toni Morrison, ’55, Author, Nobel
- Janet Reno, ’60, Former U.S.
- Lee Teng-Hui, ’68, Former
President of Taiwan
- Christopher Reeve, ’74, actor
- Pablo Morales, ’94, Olympic