Benefits of Not Shooting for the Stars

So I have been thinking about this match issue as well as the implied action of most applicants that they are compelled to go to the most selective college that admits them.  This has also come up with much of the writing of students from urban schools being “mismatched” because some students do not apply to colleges that are more competitive that they could get into.  I can think of a few examples where following this approach has downsides.

I went to Swarthmore (as did my daughter) and it was the right choice for me, except in one major area.  I had a really weak high school chemistry course and was considering pre-med.  The chemistry course, as it is in many similar schools, was largely a vehicle to self-select out pre-med students.  It started on page 150 of the text book, with the professor saying all of you had this first 150 pages in high school (mine got to page 25).  We couldn’t have lab partners and our labs were graded by upper class international students, who were brutal.  I ended up with a W on my transcript when I realized I could never catch up.  If I was truly committed to becoming a doctor, going to a less selective college would have served me better.


My son had much stronger credentials than I did, but knew that he was eligible for a Presidential Scholarship (spelled F-R-E-E) at Rutgers and would, on each college visit, to say Brown or Georgetown, say that they were lovely places but not lovely enough to balance off going to college for free (I love that kid!)  He is a senior now and is constantly being sought out for awards, honors, programs and fellowships, something that would be unlikely if he had gone to a most competitive college.


Lastly is my wife, a high school dropout who is brilliant.  She went back to school at age 48 to train to be a teacher at Montclair State University.  She was able to get, for instance, 6 CLEP credits in Humanities, by walking into the test and taking it, even getting a certificate for being among one of the highest scorers in the nation on the exam.  She got a great education there.  Sometimes, even in a larger lecture class, she would sit up front with a few other highly motivated students, and it would be like a smaller seminar with them.  She also got a level of attention, smaller classes, and outstanding faculty that really impressed her.


So here is my top ten list of why NOT to go to the most selective college that will admit you:


  1. Merit Money:  Lynn O’Shaughnessy in The College Solutiondiscusses how colleges will provide merit money for kids who are strong students for the school, which is generally not a student’s reach school.  Even without merit money, as one moves up the selectivity ladder there are higher costs and higher debt.
  2. Meeting Professional Goals:  In some highly competitive fields, like pre-med, it is often best to go to a school whose need is to make sure that every student who wants to go to med school gets in as opposed to selecting out students before they apply.  The experience of being supported rather than being weeded out can change the course of your life.
  3. Personal Attention:  There is often a greater opportunity to work with professors and develop close mentoring relationships with teachers when you a are big fish in a small pond.  It is often easier to get more highly supportive teacher recommendations as well.
  4. Scholarships and Fellowships:  students who are more distinguished in their school will be regularly sought out for awards, honors, fellowships and scholarships.
  5. Quality Faculty:  It is really hard to get a college teaching job and you can get outstanding teachers at virtually any college.  You are more likely to get teachers who are as focused in teaching undergraduates as they are in their own research at strictly undergraduate schools.  You are also are not taught by graduate assistants at strictly undergraduate colleges.
  6. Graduate School:  It is much easier to shine coming from a less selective pool of students.  Of two identical applicants applying from an extremely selective college and from one considerably less selective, the latter will have the advantage in admissions.  This person is likely to have greater faculty support, more leadership opportunities and better grades.
  7. Licensing:  Many of the extremely selective schools do not have opportunities to get professional licenses as an undergraduate.
  8. Employment:  After your first job, rarely do employers care where you went to undergraduate school.  And if you go to graduate school, it is this imprimatur that matters more than undergraduate school.  It is also well documented that higher pay is more related to college major than the selectivity of the undergraduate school (see John Boeckenstedt’s highereddatastories.blogspot.comfor a thorough analysis of this).
  9. The Community College Option:  This is a very inexpensive way to getting through the first two years of college.  Your diploma from a 4-year college does not say “community college transfer” and two years of successful community college will often open more doors than many students would have have leaving high school.  This is a much better option than enrolling in a 4-year college with the plan of transferring.
  10. Graduation:  The number of students who end up not graduating yet accumulating huge debt is staggering.  Students need to be honest with themselves as to what they are prepared for emotionally, psychologically and financially.  For many students, not straying far from the nest, particularly right out of high school, is more likely to guarantee future success.


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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