In a society obsessed with brand names, we have fallen prey to the idea that students should attend the most competitive college they can get into. Sometimes it’s the kids who are mesmerized by big name schools, other times it’s the parents. Students spend hours in SAT prep classes, join every organization at their high school, take a myriad of AP classes, and exhaust themselves with travel sports teams. Then, parents pull out all the stops, calling business contacts for recommendation letters and making last minute donations to their alma mater. The goal is usually the same, to propel students into a college that is a very high reach. As a society, we have come to believe that this is the right thing to do. We have bought into the theory that a big name school will lead to success. In the process, we overlook some very compelling reasons why it may not be the best idea to go to the most competitive college you can get into. Why?

1. The Ocean is Broad and Deep

You may have been in the top 5 or 10% of students in your high school, and that felt great. However, once you get to an uber elite college, the campus will be filled with kids who are superstars. And guess what? Not everyone can be at the top. It’s suddenly a big ocean with a lot of sharks. For students in the sciences, grading curves can prove deadly when only the top 10-15% of students receive A’s. Dreams of medical school are suddenly crushed by the jaws of reality because unlike high school, most competitive colleges don’t give unlimited A’s and B’s.

2. Getting Ahead After College

As Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) details in his latest bestseller, David and Goliath, success is often determined by your ranking in college. Students in the bottom and middle third of their college classes do not usually succeed in math and science related majors. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about Harvard or Hartwick. The top third succeed in getting the grades to pursue STEM careers, no matter where you went to college. The rest fall by the wayside. What about the notion that the Fortune 500 is flush with Ivy League CEO’s? Forget that. Less than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs went to an Ivy League.

3. Honors Programs & Research Opportunities

Many universities today offer an honors track to the top 5-10% of entering freshmen. Programs vary, but most include: special classes, professor mentorships, research and publishing opportunities, honors dorms, and a designation on your diploma. If a college doesn’t offer an honors program, there are likely research opportunities and teacher assistant positions that are critical for students wanting to pursue graduate school. And these only go to the top students.

4. Merit Aid

This is money awarded to student for grades, SAT/ACT scores, and leadership/talent. It has nothing to do with need. Forget that the Ivy League and elite colleges like Duke, Georgetown, Amherst and Williams don’t award merit aid. If we look at schools that do offer merit money, they are giving it to the very top slice of the entering class – those students with the highest SAT/ACT scores and GPA. So, the odds of seeing merit aid at your reach schools are slim. You are much more likely to receive it at your reasonable and backup schools.

5. Life Balance

College is a time to learn and chart your career path, but it’s also a time to discover things about yourself as an individual. Perhaps you want to try painting, singing, acting, hiking, skiing or yoga. If you are constantly in the library studying to keep up, you won’t fully take advantage of all that college has to offer, from the arts to sports and forging new friendships.


– With thanks to Cristiana Quinn