What's in a Number?

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

To many applicants, college selection appears reduced to a numbers game. One of the biggest decisions in a young individual’s life comes down to the comparison of a series of integers. Many students and parents spend months obsessing over a GPA, an SAT score, the cost of attendance, admission rates, and most of all - institutional rankings. The truth is, that while these numbers hold significant value in the admissions process, they should not be the "end all be all" of decision making.


As an educational consultant (and someone who has been through the academic application process numerous times), I see a lot of weight placed on these numbers - and the subsequent pressure for students to obtain them. Very often, when trying to pick the right college or university, the only factors considered are the ratings of the university and the ability of the student to reach certain numerical bars. While the general gist of that logic holds, the right selection process is much more complex.


Specifically, let’s dig into the meaning of the so-called "university rankings." Various websites and even published books release annual lists, which claim to contain the “best” or “top” universities, ranked in order. Universities belonging to the famous Ivy League or the UC (University of California) system are ranked in the top 20 - with Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford often vying for first place, with Yale and UC Berkeley following closely behind. These are the "name brand schools," that have gained the reputation of the best over the past centuries. With admissions rates of <10%, these universities attract applicants from all over the world.


But even if you have a high GPA and a near-perfect SAT, does that mean that those top 20 famous schools are the right place for you?


To answer this question, it’s important to consider historical context. These time-honored academic institutions have built their reputations on developing innovative educational curricula in the liberal arts. To this day, they remain the best options for those wishing to be lawyers or doctors. Nonetheless, the past couple centuries have seen a rise in a vast variety of other types of colleges and universities. The U.S. is full of unique small liberal arts colleges, like Williams and Emory, and big state schools like the University of Michigan and University of Texas at Austin. All of these schools have much higher admission rates, and are consequently ranked much lower on the lists of top schools in the United States.


So why consider applying to schools that have lower rankings? Are they truly less reputable and less elite? To answer this question, I’ll give a concrete example. I graduated from a prestigious private high school, with a high GPA and a standardized test score in the 99th percentile. I had community service, extracurriculars, several scientific publications to my name, as well as a full supplemental art portfolio as a youth professional violinist. My numbers fit the checklist for a prospective student of a top 20 school. Like most 17-year-olds across the world, I told myself that if I was smart, I belonged at Harvard or the University of Chicago. All I knew of universities at the time was the names I heard in movies and books, from my parents and teachers. I had no idea what other factors I could and should be considering.


Throughout the next several months, I had received letters of acceptance -- as well as rejection -- from the dream schools on my list, in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. When decision day came around, I found myself in a conundrum: all these schools with different colored packets and different mascots seemed identical, as I knew almost nothing about them except the number on that ranked list of “best universities.” After much deliberation and additional research, I ended up committing to a school that was near the bottom of my list - a safety school I had applied to only per the recommendation of my college counselor. Three years later, I can say that it was the best decision of my life.


Watching my younger sister go through the admissions process this year, I have done a lot of thinking, whether I would’ve approached the process differently, knowing everything I know now. Truthfully - yes, hindsight really is 20-20.


I chose to go to a state school that had a lower ranking than some of the other offers of acceptance I received. The truth is, those numbers often say very little about teaching capacity, professional development opportunity, and prestige of the desired degree program. For example, it is a well known fact that tech companies like Google are prejudiced against name brand schools like Princeton and Brown, and are more likely to hire an individual who graduated from Georgia Tech or the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Likewise, if you hope to obtain a degree in engineering, a theory-based school like the University of Chicago is not going to be the right place for you, but Purdue University might be. Looking up rankings for particular degree programs might be a better start for your search.


A reasonable parent at this point might pose the question: well, if we shouldn't rely on the numerical rankings of schools, how can we know which place is the right academic start for my child? And the honest answer to that would be that you can't! It will be up to the future college student to visit the campus, look up faculty in the department and classes required for the diploma (as well as their syllabi), opportunities for research and internships. It will take lots of work, but if you truly want to find the right fit - you must dig deeper than a number.

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