What the research says about prestigious colleges

From the Gallup Organization’s “5 Ways to Make College a Success,” the findings of which are based on their comprehensive research on higher education.

4. Question the value of attending prestigious, highly selective and high-priced colleges and universities. They actually provide little (at best) to no (at worst) advantage in being engaged in your job and in your life outcomes (thriving in your well-being). Nor do they reduce the chances of feeling education regret. College is much more about what you make of it — how you take advantage of your education — than the type of institution you attend.

If I get in, then…

Students are too focused on the allure of prestigious colleges, often believing that if they can just get into one, everything else will just fall into place. All their work that led up to it will be validated. They’ll be happy and less stressed. They’ll be virtually guaranteed a life of success and fulfillment.

But college acceptances, even to prestigious schools, don’t work like that. Yes, an acceptance to your dream college would feel great and would definitely be worth celebrating. But any expectation that just getting in will start a domino-like chain reaction where everything else in life just goes your way is unrealistic and unhealthy. Your education, your success, and your life are all a work in progress, no matter where you go to college.

Author and Harvard professor Shaun Achor spent years not only counseling Harvard students, but also teaching a positive psychology course so popular that at one point, 1 out of every 7 Harvard students enrolled. I think his quote in this Psychology Today article has a lot of relevance for high school students (and their parents) who are putting too much hope into just how much happiness that dream college acceptance could likely bring (the bracketed portion is mine):

“When I was counseling overwrought Harvard students, one of the first things I would tell them is to stop equating a future success with happiness. Empirically, we know success does not lead to happiness. Is everyone with a job happy? Is every rich person happy? Then step one is to stop thinking that finding a job, getting a promotion [ed. note: or getting into a famous college], etc. is the only thing that can brings happiness. Success does not mean happiness. Check out any celebrity magazine to look for examples to disabuse you of thinking that being beautiful, successful or rich will make you happy.”

If you love a prestigious college, you think you would thrive there, and your counselor agrees, by all means, take your best shot! But also take some comfort in knowing that whether or not you’re happy and successful in college and in life will depend a lot more on you than it will on where your college sits in the US News rankings that year.

Your worth isn’t found in a college’s decision

Many colleges are releasing their early admissions decisions, and I can’t think of a better message to share (again) than that from Patrick O’Connor in his 2014 piece, What Your College Application Decisions Won’t Tell You.

O’Connor builds his message with several specific examples, all of which eventually lead to a conclusion I wish every senior who applied to college would read and embrace:

“A yes from a college doesn’t make you somebody; the work you put in to earn that yes did that. A no from a college doesn’t make you nobody; that happens when you decide their denial is a character indictment, instead of an opportunity to build a great life at another school…Your worth is within you, and it isn’t waiting for much of anything, other than your recognition of its existence.”

In fact, the sentiment could be broadly applied to any high school student, from freshman to senior, who hopes to attend college. I hope you’ll read and share it.

How to make sense of college rankings

When it comes to utilizing college rankings, I’ve found that most families fall into one of three camps:

1. Those who don’t consider them.
2. Those who plan to incorporate rankings into a variety of college factors.
3. Those who let the rankings drive their entire college process.

I’ve seen some families in that third camp arrive at their first Collegewise meeting with the latest US News college rankings in hand, intent on limiting their college list to schools in the top ten. Matchmaking, shmatchmaking—it’s all about getting into the highest US News-ranked school possible.

I don’t expect to effectively convince many folks in that camp to migrate, but if you’re on the fence and might be willing to take a realistic look at whether or not any agency can effectively rank colleges, please check out Frank Bruni’s latest New York Times piece, How to Make Sense of College Rankings, the gist of which can be found in this excerpt:

“But [college] rankings cannot take into account, and thus ignore, the most consequential part of the equation, which isn’t some spell that a given school casts on a student but a student’s commitment, curiosity, daring. An obsession with rankings obscures and invariably minimizes this essential truth.”

Glimpse your future

I remember my first Collegewise student who had an incurable case of namebranditis.

Stanford was the only school he could envision himself attending. In his mind, if it wasn’t going to be Stanford, it had to be a school that was just as prestigious. And I knew after just one meeting that this was going to be a problem.

He was the consummate good kid. Smart, hardworking, and polite—all the tools a student needs to be successful. But while he earned almost entirely A’s in high school, he had consistent B’s in his math classes. He scored in the mid-1200s on the SAT. Those credentials were good enough for him to be a certain admit at hundreds of colleges. But they just weren’t going to get him admitted to schools that deny droves of seemingly perfect applicants.

Still, at every meeting, he asked the same questions about how to improve his chances of admission to Stanford and “colleges that are just as good.” It didn’t matter what I said or did to try to get him to see that he deserved better than the stress and uncertainty that would come with hanging his hopes on a short list of colleges that admitted fewer than 15 of every 100 students who applied. He reluctantly added some more realistic schools, but only because of my urging, and he never could muster any excitement for them.

All those reach schools he insisted on applying to said no. The only “good school” (his words) that said yes was Tufts.

Now, Tufts is—and was back then—no slouch in terms of selectivity. But it wasn’t Stanford or the Ivy League. To him, that meant that Tufts just wasn’t good enough. And he was heartbroken.

The good news is that, as is almost always the case with admissions decision disappointment, once he stopped looking back and started looking forward to everything that was waiting for him in college, he perked right up. He bought the sweatshirt and registered for classes and threw himself into life as a Tufts Jumbo. He invested all that innate work ethic and character into carving out a remarkable college career for himself, earning top grades and enjoying a very successful stint on Tufts’ sailing team.

Four years later, he graduated and went to medical school. Today, he’s a happy and successful pediatrician.

What if he could have glimpsed into his future while suffering from namebranditis back in high school? What if he could have seen how much learning, growth and fun were waiting for him at a college that he felt at the time was beneath him? And most importantly, what if the crystal ball had shown him the future proof that his career dreams were all going to come true, even without the admission he craved from one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges?

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream college or two. Take your best shot and see what happens. But remember that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it. Your future career may not be certain, with or without a magic crystal ball. But your success and happiness will not be dependent on an admissions decision from a prestigious college. If you could glimpse your future, you’d be certain of it.

Great together

At a wedding I attended last weekend, the groom’s father gave a heartfelt toast about raising a sensitive, happy boy who truly blossomed when he went to college. Dad spoke about watching his son throw himself into Model United Nations, spend a summer interning on the South Side of Chicago doing outreach for those who were HIV positive, and eventually emerge four years later a confident, mature, socially-conscious leader.

Today, the groom is a successful public relations executive. He’s also a proud graduate of Willamette University in Oregon.

This isn’t a post touting Willamette specifically. College applicants need to find the schools that best fit them. And just because Willamette sparked this transformation in the groom doesn’t necessarily mean it would have the same effect for every student.

But prestigious colleges don’t hold patents on transformative college experiences. A student who is eager to learn, grow, and take advantage of the opportunities that college has to offer can fulfill those goals at plenty of different schools. For you, that could be Willamette, Williams, Wabash, or Wesleyan.

It’s not about getting into what the rankings say are great colleges. It’s about finding schools where you can be great together.

Salespeople, not scientists

Parke Muth is a former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor. His take on the US News rankings, as quoted in this article in the Yale Daily News, sums up the problem with choosing your college based on a purported ranking.

“'[The US News ranking] wasn’t done by a bunch of scientists — it was just a few guys wondering how to sell more magazines,’ Muth said. ‘The idea that there is somehow a distinction between schools a few places apart on rankings is just ridiculous.’”

Getting the most

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, in response to “What got you interested in technology?”

“I went to Stanford and started my pre-med classes. After my freshman year, I went back to Wausau [her hometown in Wisconsin], and I realized that I was learning all the same things that all my friends who went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison were learning. We were all memorizing the same flashcards and had the same carbon atoms and molecules. I’m doing something much more expensive, so how can I really get the most out of Stanford?”

She found her answer by diving back into the course catalog and finding her new major—symbolic systems—which “combines philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and computer science.”

Wherever you go to college, the path to success will be asking—and answering—the question, “How do I get the most out of it?”

The myth of the Ivy League

The Myth of the Ivy League doesn’t indict the schools themselves (there are plenty of graduates from highly selective colleges who have nothing but fond recollections of—and effusive praise for—their undergraduate experiences). But author Eileen Torrez, herself a graduate of an Ivy League school, is more concerned with the adverse effects that a relentless push to achieve can have on kids, and the fact that those effects are often only exacerbated once students join the coveted “best and brightest” in college.

“High standards are important. Aspirations can make the difference between a student floundering or reaching her full potential. The trouble with high-achieving students is that their broad range of abilities can crowd out the unique interests that drive individuals toward passionate, fulfilling lives. Students themselves can get caught in a praise-seeking trap, especially if they’re consistently rewarded for right answers rather than genuine interest or hard work. But just because a student has the perfect grades or a profile studded with stellar achievements doesn’t mean an elite university is the best place for them. If anything, it means the opposite: that they have the drive to succeed anywhere, and that if placed in an environment that suits them, they’ll be both happy and successful.”

Those who do

Chris, a Collegewise counselor and former MIT admissions counselor, shares this recent post from MIT Dean of Admissions, Stu Schmill, about what they look for—and don’t look for—in prospective students.

In simple terms, we want students to pursue the things that interest them with energy and enthusiasm. We want students to make decisions that are educationally sound for them to best prepare them to succeed in college and beyond. We want students to challenge themselves appropriately in the areas that are most interesting to them. We want students to engage with their community in their pursuits. And, we want students who demonstrate strong ethical character. In short, we want young people to be students and community members first, and applicants second…We don’t want students to do things just because they think they have to. We don’t want students to take advanced classes out of a sense of competition, rather than the joy of learning. We don’t want a laundry list of a million activities. And we don’t want students sacrificing quality for quantity – something that is happening far too often.

I think Schmill’s sentiments are honest and forthright. I also think that the admissions officers at most highly selective colleges would concur. But to really understand and appreciate what he’s sharing, you’ll need to read the entire thing, and you’ll need to read between the lines.

It’s true—MIT doesn’t want students who take every AP class out of a sense of competition. They don’t want students who do things because they think they have to. They don’t want students who focus more on their quantity of work than they do on the quality. They want genuinely curious, engaged human beings who will make valuable contributions in and out of class when they get to college.

But this year, MIT received applications from 20,000 of the very best students in the world, and they only needed to admit about 1500 of them to fill the class.

Those students who were admitted may not have diligently plodded through all of their schools’ AP classes driven only by a sense of competition. But most of them probably took the most challenging courses offered, and voraciously pursued their intellectual interests outside of class driven only by their curiosity and desire to learn. There aren’t very many teenagers who learn that much, that well, driven only by their own intense intellectualism. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted may not have done things because they thought they had to. But they probably did commit themselves passionately to things they really cared about. And they almost certainly achieved impressive success within those activities, whether it was community service, drama, baseball, the math club, Kung Fu, playing the cello, or training guide dogs for the blind. There aren’t very many students who can make that kind of an impact in high school, and do it all driven only by an innate sense of passion and drive unrelated to college admission. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted probably didn’t care about quantity. They never asked how many AP classes, activities, hours of community service, awards, etc. were enough. They cared more about what they were learning, doing, and contributing than they did about whether or not it would be sufficient to earn an admission to their dream college. But their applications almost certainly revealed that they did more, achieved more success, and made a greater impact than most of the applicants applying to college. There aren’t very many students who can do that much, that well, and legitimately claim that they did it because they wanted to, not because they were trying to impress colleges. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Is it a perfect process? Is it even fair? No, it’s not. There are lots of kids who worked, achieved, and cared enough to prove that they deserved to be admitted. But it’s a numbers game, and the reality is that schools like MIT just can’t admit every qualified student who applies. That’s the rub at just about every highly selective college. Too many stellar applicants, too few spaces to offer.

If you want to attend a highly selective college like MIT, please understand that there is no magic formula, no hard-and-fast list of necessary achievements that will guarantee your admission.

So what should you do?

Take the most challenging classes you can reasonably handle without sacrificing sleep or sanity. Work hard to get the best grades you can. Commit yourself to, and make an impact within, activities you care about. Be a class participator. Make efforts to learn about things that interest you, academic or not. Be a good person who cares about your family, your friends, and your community. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. Have faith that your work ethic and character will always be more important than any grade, test score, or admission decision from a particular college.

And most importantly, find colleges that fit, regardless of their prestige. Your list may include some schools like MIT where statistically, nobody stands a good chance. But balance those choices by including schools where your counselor agrees that you have a strong chance of admission.

Taking this route still won’t guarantee that you’ll get into a highly selective college. But it guarantees there will be plenty of great colleges where you’ll be one of those who do.