Fit vs Perception

Submitted by ashley on Sun, 03/13/2011 - 12:34am

This morning, I posted an interesting article entitled “The Flaw of Overall Rankings.” While the US News and World Report prides itself on evaluating the overall quality of an institution, the system of ranking schools frequently comes under fire. This piece looks at the ranking’s shortcomings from a psychological perspective, showing that unique traits and strengths are undermined by an arbitrary appraisal of “general ability.” Writer Robert J. Sternberg trenchantly observes that students “may be willing to overlook the particular qualities that make institutions differentially great in favor of some overall prestige or reputational factor,” meaning that we base our college lists on comparative, rather than absolute value.


Of course, stereotypes often derive their longevity from some bit of truth, but that doesn’t mean every talented student would thrive at an Ivy League school. Literally all of my students want to put Harvard, Yale or Princeton on their lists. Only a few of these achievers know why they aspire to attend: to participate in a neuroscience research project with a particular revered professor, to study ancient Greek under the nation’s foremost Homer scholar, to take a creative writing workshop with her favorite Pulitzer-winning short fiction writer. The rest simply want to tell people where they went to school, and while I will never criticize someone for taking pride in what he or she earned, I know bragging rights do not constitute an appropriate reason for setting your sights on one of these schools.


When I told my college advisor that I planned to apply early to Princeton, he asked me why. I knew that he wouldn’t let me fill out a single form until I had a specific, compelling answer, and that’s the way it should be. Don’t base your college list on reputation and rankings alone; visit as many campuses as you can, research programs, sit in on a lecture or two, pore over student reviews on and talk to recent alumni. Most importantly, though, figure out what you want to accomplish during your four years of undergraduate study, and make sure you can best achieve those goals at every college on your list. When it comes to your overall experience, fit is everything.


A wonderful side effect of this personal inquiry is a boost to your application quality. More than anything, admissions committees look for students who know why they are drawn to particular schools and can articulate those reasons in a well-crafted essay. Harvard, Yale and Princeton may very well end up being perfect for you in terms of campus culture and academic programs, but you have no chance of getting in unless you can prove it to them.