No matter the goals of the students I am working with, one of the most common qualities they focus on when choosing colleges is a “good” school. They frequently say something like, “I’m pretty open-minded about where I go to college. I know that one college isn’t necessarily better than another, but all things being equal, I want to get into the best college possible.” 

I often think about this statement because I want to know what they mean by “the best college.”

Prestige – The Yelp Review of College Admission?

It’s not a mystery that most students equate the “best college I can get into” with one that is prestigious or well-known by others. And I empathize with those who want to feel like their hard work in high school is validated by admission to a college that feels like a just reward. 

Students want reassurance that they will have good career prospects in the unknown future. They want to know that they will successfully launch into adulthood. And I am sure parents want that as well. It’s human nature to want confirmation from others that we’re on the right track. 

I can’t blame anyone for wanting these things, especially with something as crucial as choosing a college and taking the next steps into adulthood. Prestige is like the Yelp review of college admission. Therefore, relying on the prestige of a college feels like a reasonable strategy.

Prestige – Reality or Illusion?

If you read some of my other blog posts or have heard some of my public presentations, you’ll know that I have a problem with the tendency to rely on prestige. Prestige originates from the French word for “illusion.” Prestige is an illusion. And yet, while prestige may be mostly smoke and mirrors, the problem is: prestige is pernicious. 

Many students struggle to shake the desire to attend a prestigious school.

The problem with focusing on prestige in college admission is that it takes over the process and becomes an obsession. To many, prestige is not just a “nice to have” but a “must have.” It becomes the measure for students (and parents) to determine their self-worth. 

I think this is wrong. And I’m not the first to say this, but I’ll repeat what many counselors and educators believe: where a student goes to college has nothing to do with who they are or their value as a person.

Prestige Is More Than an Illusion – It’s a Scam

That’s a bold statement… I know. Because any of the popular, brand-name colleges in the United States are all extraordinary institutions filled with exceptional students and faculty who care deeply about their work, their students, and contributing to the world. And there is nothing wrong with attending a college such as this. 

So, how can I call these institutions a scam? I’m not. Let me explain what I mean.

Two decades ago, I worked in the admission office of a highly selective university. It was an extraordinary place—then and now. It was filled with bright and motivated students, world-renowned faculty, state-of-the-art classrooms and labs, a beautiful campus, exciting social opportunities, multiple record-breaking fundraising campaigns, and a global network of alums. It was hard to go wrong choosing this college. 

When I worked there, the college was already highly selective, with a 30% admit rate, and getting more selective each year. Two decades later, instead of admitting 30% of applicants, this college now accepts only about 9%. That’s a big change in admission rates and a serious increase in prestige. Now it is one of the most selective colleges in the world. 

Many students would probably reason that, with an admit rate this low, it is “better” than a college that admits 30% of applicants. But is a college that now admits such a low number of students truly better than it was when it accepted 30% of applicants? If so, we should be able to identify what exactly is better about the college. 

There may be a few new buildings on campus, a number of faculty may have come and gone, and I’m sure students can take advantage of some new majors or specialized programs. However, these are changes on the surface. There’s nothing fundamentally different about the university compared to when I worked there two decades ago and how it is today. 

So, why is it more desirable? Why is it unbelievably more selective? 

The prestige has gone through the roof, but nothing about the product has actually changed. The school is the same outstanding place it was before.

Prestige Does Not Equal Better

The example of this university is not an unusual case. It’s not an outlier. In my experience as an educator, I see the same story unfolding at most prestigious colleges throughout the United States.

This is why I say prestige is a scam. More and more students are interested in applying to popular universities because they are convinced these schools are somehow better than all the other universities in the United States. But if nothing significant has changed at these universities over the last decades except that they’ve just become more popular, how could they possibly be “better” than they were when their admit rate was higher or, for that matter, any other university?

Does this mean that students should not apply to prestigious universities? Should students not stretch and try to reach for the stars in important endeavors in life? 

I want every student I work with to feel confident that they are capable, intelligent, and destined to contribute to the world and live a life of consequence. But the unhealthy nature of obsession with simply what other people think is not a good example of trying to be one’s best. 

My Advice for Students

Forget what others think, be confident that you will make the best of your college education, challenge yourself, and grow into magnificent young adults—no matter where you go to college.

If you’re interested in working with a forthright Independent Educational Consultant with years of experience who will give you the facts about college admissions, please feel free to contact me.