College Applications: Why Many Students Should Pass on Ivy League Schools

Teacher Esther Wojcicki explains why, for many students, lesser-known colleges are better than the best.

Teacher Esther Wojcicki explains why, for many students, lesser-known colleges are better than the best.
Man wearing a community college shirt and another wearing a Harvard shirt arm wrestling
Credit: Gluekit

Every year when spring arrives, the tension of waiting for college acceptance letters permeates my school. As high school educators, we watch as some of our students become despondent after getting rejection letters from the colleges of their choice. Getting into good schools is harder than it was five years ago, and this year I expect it to be even worse. As their trusted sources in the world of education, we teachers need to help students find a balanced perspective.

To that end, every year, I give my students the lecture on a former student I call Henry. He was rejected from almost all the schools he applied to back in 1988.

Henry was on the short side, not athletic, and though he had friends, was not part of the "in" crowd. In fact, he was at an awkward stage in life both physically and socially. When the rejection letters came -- three in total -- he became depressed and dragged around the school for a couple of weeks. Finally, after realizing it wasn't the end of the world, he rallied and became his old self: hardworking and focused on his interests in writing and computers.

I consulted with him on his two remaining choices, second-tier schools that had been his backups. In the end, he picked San Jose State University, where he majored in journalism and history, while many in his class went off to Ivy League schools or other prestigious universities.

Henry did very well at San Jose State and loved his classes. He worked hard on the school paper in the summers, and he organized internships for himself. When he graduated, he had a job at a local newspaper in Gilroy, California. Within a year, he was employed at the San Jose Mercury News, and a couple of years later, he was writing for the Baltimore Sun.

Today, he is head of a bureau of an international business magazine in Asia. What mattered in Henry's life was not the name of the college on his diploma, but what he did at the college. He learned the skills he needed to excel at his job, and he felt good about himself.

Henry's story is not an isolated one. In my 25 years of teaching, I have seen hundreds of high schoolers who have not gotten into the college or university of their choice, and in the end, it didn't matter. In fact, in many cases it was a blessing.

Some of my students who have gone to schools such as Harvard or Princeton found their college experiences overly demanding and extremely stressful. Several at Ivy League schools had to switch out of their premed major because the competition was so fierce.

What's more, a 2003 article in the Harvard Crimson, citing the results of a survey released by Harvard University Health Services, reported that "nearly half of the Harvard College student body felt depressed during the last academic year, and almost 10 percent of undergraduates reported that they had considered suicide."

In comparison, another one of my students who went to nearby Foothill Community College for two years, then on to the University of California at Berkeley for the last two years, is now an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University. Community colleges provide an excellent education and a bouncing-off point for students.

Here's the message we need to send to our students: Failure is in the eye of the beholder. Not being accepted into the college of their first choice is not the end of the world.

In fact, because all accredited colleges and universities nationwide have similar programs, students who do well in a small, lesser-known school have a better chance of getting into graduate programs than those who get mediocre grades in a well-known, highly competitive school. Grade point average is grade point average, no matter what the college, according to my husband, a Stanford University professor of physics and former head of graduate admissions in physics.

Students who hear these success stories feel much better and are able to relax and accept their college choices. Over the years, these talks have made a huge difference to many of my students, giving them the support they need from a person they respect. It's always exciting for me when many of them come back at our annual December reunion and tell me how much they love their college experience.

We need to remind students that there are many paths to achieving their dreams.

Esther Wojcicki has taught journalism at Palo Alto High School for more than 20 years and blogs regularly for the Huffington Post.

This article originally published on 3/12/2010

see more see less

Comments (10)

Comment RSS

I think most Ivy League

Was this helpful?
+1

I think most Ivy League schools are really messed up these days. Just get a good education and don't worry about where it comes from. Besides, doing poorly at a prestigious school is worse than doing well at an average school... reverse email lookup

"Our career community is

Was this helpful?
0

"Our career community is dedicated to helping palo alto Jobs Professionals, like you, connect with local employers and find great career opportunities in the Bay Area. We even provide email alerts to inform you as soon as new opportunities become available and offer the latest information and resources to help you land a great job and advance in your career."

I completely agree

Was this helpful?
0

This is absolutely true. Besides, there's too much value attributed to having a secure position in life, to being accepted at the most prestigious jobs and social circles and earning money. Sometimes we forget the real value of working hard, doing what you love and providing a service to your fellow men. You certainly don't need a Harvard diploma for that.
Sean Rye
repossessed cars insider tips
repossessed cars basics

palo alto Jobs

Was this helpful?
0

"Our career community is dedicated to helping palo alto Jobs Professionals,
like you, connect with local employers and find great career opportunities in the Bay Area. We even provide email alerts to inform you as soon as new opportunities
become available and offer the latest information and resources
to help you land a great job and advance in your career."

Was this helpful?
0

well, I didn't enter the Uiversity I liked from the first attempt but I did it from the second. I'm sure that it was for the better. Everything is for the better. Just do not give up!
Best wishes from http://eventsearch.us

Homeschool parent to my 2 children aged 13 and 7 (grades 8 and 1)

OH SO TRUE!

Was this helpful?
0

"What mattered in Henry's life was not the name of the college on his diploma, but what he did at the college. He learned the skills he needed to excel at his job, and he felt good about himself."

--This is a gem of a life skill! Thank you Ms. Wojcicki.

Homeschool parent to my 2 children aged 13 and 7 (grades 8 and 1)

PERSPECTIVE! If we only look

Was this helpful?
0

PERSPECTIVE! If we only look from the different angles, we will not be stuck with "what has been done" or "what used to work" or "formulas". There are four directional signs: north, south, east and west therefore, we may look at a place from four different views. Can be adjusted as well. like northeast or southwest, etc. I think homeschooling is like this too -- education from a different perspective.

Internet and Society

A Bit of Different Perspective

Was this helpful?
+1

I was ready to commiserate with one of my students who was not able to leave home to go to his top choice for a CS degree. Then he told me not to worry. He had used Google Scholar to rank the citation count of the community college professors and found a real gem.

However, Ivy League schools provide a signaling effect in certain industries. You can't find a substitute for that unless you actually produce good work and the intended recipient is receptive to something other than credentials.

Community Director at MyEdu

Dead on!

Was this helpful?
+1
Quote:

We need to remind students that there are many paths to achieving their dreams.

I think this article says it perfectly! Prestige is an unreliable and unrealistic factor in choosing a colleges or degree, but it still has a hold on our national psyche. Even annual rankings are unreliable because they heavily weigh such factors as endowment size, which only affect undergrads indirectly, if at all. Besides, just because a whole school is considered "great" doesn't mean your department or program is.

I'm really happy to find this on Edutopia and see Lisa's response because this is how my company, MyEdu, gets its ideas for new educational services. When we were Pick-a-Prof, we compiled professor reviews and grade data so that students could take the courses that best suited their study habits. Today, we decode degree requirements at each university, so that students can find the best fit major and even compare degrees at different institutions side-by-side, apples-to-apples. Universities don't want you to know how they compare competitively, but families are screaming for it - particularly with the skyrocketing costs of tuition. Our next service will allow students to take courses at different institutions - say a community or online college - and be confident that the credits will transfer back to their college.

My point is not about how great MyEdu is, but about the wealth of information out there for families to use when choosing a school, degree, or related career.

This is the 21st century people! 'Prestige' is out and 'personalization' is in!

Omri Goldshtrom
Program Director
www.MyEdu.com

Parent of three teens two of which have a chronic genetic disorder.

Whew!!!!

Was this helpful?
+2

I am just starting the process with my sixteen year old. She wants to major in theatre of some sort. Of course she has picked the Colleges that are the farthest away and the yearly tuition is off the scale. I am giving this article to her to read and maybe this will change our course. THANKS!!!!!!!

see more see less