College admissions has recently been all over the news because of a terrible scandal that involved dozens of wealthy families illegally bolstering their children's applications to get them accepted into top universities. This has caused a lot of distrust in the process and has been incredibly discouraging to the millions of students who have worked hard to achieve their dreams and applied solely on their own merits.
There are obviously a multitude of underlying issues for this situation, but I’d like to address the strong social pressure many students feel to attend schools with prestigious names. Whether it's pressure to seem smarter than your peers, the hope that a big-name school will get you an impressive career or the idea that your life will be more successful and fulfilling, this pressure creates an incredibly toxic attitude to college admissions. There are several factors other than the name of the school that I think are much more important to consider when picking a college.
Academic specialty should be a priority for all students
Often schools develop a reputation for a specific subject. For example, New York University is known for having a great film school. Harvey Mudd is a great school for STEM students. University of Virginia has an excellent undergraduate business program. Create a list of schools based on the quality of their curriculum in your interested major rather than simply picking universities with great overall ranking and prestige.
You can dive even deeper into your academic specialty and take a look at the professors within the department you’re interested in and the research they’re doing. Departmental websites typically have information on the subjects that professors are researching. For example, a college could have a top ranked chemistry program but if the research is predominately focused on biochemistry, and you’re more interested in materials chemistry, it might not be the right school for you.
Remember that you’re not just going to school, you’re joining a community
Whichever school you end up choosing, you’re going to permanently be part of the community of students who have gone there as well. It’s important to make sure that the school is somewhere you want to spend time at, somewhere you can find friends with commonalities, and somewhere where you find ideologies that align with your own. Do you care about having great sports teams to support? Are you interested being a part of a thriving multicultural student body? Is Greek life a must for you or a detractor? Asking yourself questions like these is important to make sure you end up at a school where you feel fulfilled outside of academics.
These kinds of considerations are also incredibly important when you consider how stressful college can be. It is notoriously a time where some students struggle with their mental health and having a strong community that you find supportive and nurturing makes the stressful times more bearable. Happiness in your personal life makes it that much easier to focus on being successful academically while in college.
Work backwards from your dream job to see how others have gotten where you want to go
There are many highly successful people who came from big name schools but there are just as many who came from schools you might not recognize as quickly. If you’re concerned about job prospects after college, start looking into people who have the job you hope to have, and see where they went to school. If you’re considering a university, visit their career counseling page and learn about their statistics for job placement. Most schools are very forthcoming with this information and take a lot of pride in the success of their students.
Every year thousands of students get into hundreds of schools and are on their way to achieving their dreams. There are many factors to consider when picking a school and prestige is certainly a hard factor to keep off that list. Personal pride can be very valid and appropriate, but pride should come from you and your accomplishments, not the name of the school you went to. Keep these factors in mind when picking a university and remember there is no pride in unauthentic achievements.