Don’t be so fast to accept an elite college

They may want you, but here’s why you might not want them. 


Mae Oliva

Since the 1700s, Yale University’s Gothic building have encouraged society to idolize Yale and other elite schools with unrealistic measures.

What would you rather be: a small fish in a large pond or a big fish in a small pond? What pond you choose would affect your status, your role and your opportunities to thrive.

Most, I’m guessing, choose to be the big fish because in a much smaller place it’s easier to dominate the food chain. Who would want to live in a big pond if it meant always hiding in the fear of being eaten by a bigger fish?

As humans we avoid where we are vulnerable and we thrive where dominance is accessible – unless we are talking about college.

If you were accepted into both, would you go to a prestigious and high-ranked college, or an “average” college?

Most would say the prestigious college because how could you not? It has become a symbol of success, and a highly glorified brand associated with eliteness.

In the case of some students, they are not thinking about how a college will enumerate their skills; they are focusing on which college will brand them highly, as if it’s the college that establishes who they are and what they can be. As Junior Joanne Do explains, the glorification reserved for prestigious colleges has defined and overtaken a lot of our understanding of what success is.

“It’s subconscious [to be attracted to elite colleges] — it’s what society feeds us and we see it everywhere. We praise those that get into Ivy Leagues and do great things, but I think we fail to see those that have achieved the exact same things but without the Ivy Leagues, ” she said.

There’s one major flaw Do points out about glorifying elitism: our unhealthy obsession with claiming a spot to be the best.

Based on the quantitative successes of her school career, Do fits all the initial boxes for what  colleges are looking for: the AP classes, as well as heavy extracurricular and volunteer hours.       Although there isn’t a static measure of what makes a student “elite,” there is a level of shared resilience and academic achievement associated.

She often feels she’s employed by the pressure and search for glorification, although simultaneously she knows that there are disadvantages that come with elite schools.

“Subconsciously, I’ll always wish to choose the better name because that’s instilled in us within society,” she said.

What many people may not know is that entering an elite college could mean entering a big pond as a small fish.

The hub of intellectuality and the overwhelming concentration of talent is so high, and as a result there’s a constant competition for dominance. Senior Philip Back, who recently got a full scholarship to Yale University, explains his uncertainties of what the Ivy League sphere will bring.

“Right now, I feel a little bit of imposter syndrome because I know kids that are a lot better than I am so it’s nerve wracking to go to school to compete against them,” he said.

In a school with such a large pool of talent, how can you avoid comparing yourself and defining your knowledge and smarts based on the people around you? As Rebecca Bellito, VHHS college counselor explains, oftentimes that mindset is a trap.

“Don’t just pick a school because you want that car decal on the back of your car. There’s more to it than just having this name brand college. It’s about the fit in all aspects. And it’s not to say those super selective schools aren’t a great fit for students. But we want to emphasize that’s not the only path to being successful,” she said.

When students don’t understand those other paths they’ll often find themselves in a situation known as  “relative deprivation” at an elite school: When one defines their worth around their environment and its composition. As humans we do that, often unwillingly and out of habit.

Sometimes, this can motivate students if they’re in a high pace and intellectual environment and learn to enhance their own knowledge. Other times, it can discourage them from validating their own successes, and lead to problems with esteem and confidence.

In “David and Goliath,” a book read and studied by AP Language & Composition students, students explore the direct impact elite colleges can have in the STEM field if a student delves themself in an environment that exceeds their capabilities.

“The likelihood of someone completing a STEM degree –all things being equal – rises by 2 percentage points for every 10-point decrease in the university’s average SAT score,” he said.

This means that lower-ranked schools could actually have a larger rate of students completing a STEM degree.

How could elite students who’ve made it to the top be dropping from their major? One huge factor is relative deprivation. In all universities, the phenomenon forms because it’s how people form, label and make sense of large groups. And in a school with such a high sphere of intellectuality, its difficult to feel confident in your own smarts.

There is a level of competitiveness and challenge that’s healthy and that will push you to be productive. But, when the challenge is excessive and  disproportionate to what you can handle, what you get out may actually be less than what you started with, as VHHS counselor Shannon Garcia explained.

“Competitiveness on its own can spur someone toward more success, learning something better or being more thorough in something. And I worry that in an environment where all the elite kids in the whole country are attending, that can be really detrimental to them [students who attend a prestigious college],” she said.

This idea follows a lot of the parallels of an inverted U curve: a mathematical model that shows how something does not always provide a static output or advantage when it’s reached excess. When a college’s level of competitiveness begins to unhealthily challenge you, the original advantages of an elite college may not be advantages at all.

At the end of the day, does it really matter what college you go to? While Do values college, she also isn’t afraid to see a reality many elite-seeking students can’t see and the long term insignificance of a brand-name.

“If you go to a doctor, you never care if they’re from Harvard. If they do what they do and they’re good at it, then their background or school doesn’t matter,” she said.

My final point is this: put yourself in the pond that you know you’ll thrive in – not the one society is telling you to go to.