For most, education is still a foundation of future success hence the emphasis on a quality education and excellence by Mawlana Hazar Imam. For those who can gain admission and afford the tuition, the group of eight prestigious institutions comprising the Ivy League represent some of the oldest and highest quality targets for higher education in America. Although many other colleges also offer excellent education and academic rigor at substantially less cost, many families consider an Ivy League education an unparalleled opportunity to be surrounded by some of the most academically gifted students and professors.

The Aga Khan Education Board for the Southeastern United States organized a panel featuring Ismaili alumni from various Ivy League colleges. The panel intended to give current students a glimpse into applying to and attending these selective institutions. Over 200 parents and youth from metro Atlanta attended the event held at the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Norcross, Georgia. The audience included Jamat and several students and parents from the local community.

In her opening remarks, Mercer University Dean and University of Pennsylvania alum, Dr. Susan Perles Gilbert, spoke about the importance of obtaining higher education, pursuing excellence, and “surrounding yourself with people who have an equal or greater desire to learn.” Dean Gilbert was the first college graduate in her family, a story that resonated with some of the youth in the audience.

So how does one gain admittance into such prestigious universities? “Ivy League schools like a diverse class,” Dean Gilbert said. Her first tip: Pick a major that everyone else isn’t choosing. Be truthful about your motives, goals, and intentions on your application, but don’t be afraid to be a little different. That can mean coupling your IT, Engineering, Finance, or Pre-Med track with an Anthropology or Creative Writing degree or certificate.

The second point she emphasized was to write about philanthropy and giving back on the application essay as opposed to listing accomplishments or feats. Ivy League schools want to know that the people they are admitting to their universities have a demonstrated desire to make the world they enter as graduates a better place.

Her third tip was to not be discouraged if you don’t get admitted into an Ivy League school. There are many highly ranked public and private schools that can provide you with the skills needed to land your dream job.

Dean Gilbert’s last piece of advice was that while an Ivy League degree is great, having one matters most when it’s your last degree.

The panel that followed was moderated by Harvard Kennedy School graduate, Aliya Bhatia, and featured accomplished Ismaili alumni from multiple Ivy League institutions. The panelists touched on their higher education journeys, tips they had for getting admitted, successes, and more.

Asad Abdullah, who will receive his MBA from Columbia later this year, said, “Your extracurricular activities matter.” What a student does in his or her time after or away from school can more often than not be the deciding factor in being admitted into an Ivy League institution. Asad emphasized that schools want to know their students have an identity outside of the classroom in addition to a vested interest in their communities. When applying, show and tell the X-factor that makes you unique.

“Think of your application as a portfolio,” suggested Asad, and asked the panel audience, “What opportunities does it afford you?” When one showcases the breadth and depth of one’s talents, he said schools are more likely to see the value someone can bring to campus. It’s better to be involved with two or three things fully, instead of seven or eight things partially. One should choose extracurricular activities wisely as they require time commitment to do have an impact.

The biggest takeaway for parents, which was emphasized by multiple panelists, was to have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. “Defining what success means to you is important,” said Alisha Lalani, a panelist from Harvard, after the event. For some people, success means being a doctor. For others, it can mean being a good manager of people or being an accountant for a high-profile company. Panelists encouraged parents to let their children pursue their dreams instead of forcing them to pick a career path, such as medicine or law, that may not be their calling or their passion.

Still a few years away from applying to colleges, Amaar Alidina said, “The panelists answered quite a few questions that I had about applying to an Ivy League school such as what extracurriculars you need to do and why you should apply.”

Panelists and the moderator all agreed that scholarships are still the best way to pay for school, which resonated with parents in particular. One such parent was Shelley Koch whose son is a high school freshman right now. “I don’t think I would have considered an Ivy League education [for my son] but seeing so many people talk about it makes it seem within reach, and more of a reality,” she remarked.

Another bit of wisdom the panelists shared was that rejection can and will happen along the way. “Don’t discount yourself,” Alisha Lalani told the audience. She wasn’t accepted to Harvard initially but kept trying and eventually graduated with a Master’s in Public Health from Harvard in 2013, and is now fully immersed in her career as a result of her education.

Alisha chose to participate in the panel because she was able to recall how stressed she was during the application process, and she knew that something like this would have helped her when she was going through it. “Undergraduate [education] is not the end all, be all,” Lalani said. “College is a great starting point, but most of your life comes after it,” she said.