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Opinion: Stop turning college admissions into a game of prestige

What you put into a bachelor’s degree matters far more than where it comes from.
Putting+too+much+weight+on+a+university%E2%80%99s+prestige+makes+the+already+confusing+and+stressful+process+of+college+applications+even+worse.
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Putting too much weight on a university’s prestige makes the already confusing and stressful process of college applications even worse.

College admissions is difficult and complex. The last thing any high school senior needs when deciding the course of their life via the intricacies of the Common Application is societal pressure only to consider “prestigious” universities.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening.

Due to social media trends, peer pressure and parental influence, many prospective college students fall victim to the misconception that prestigious colleges, like Ivy League schools, are the only viable path to success.

Like countless other high school students, I turned to social media as a way to learn about different colleges during the application process. The most-viewed videos, however, are rarely genuine tips about finding the best college for you.

Far more popular is the trend of applying to dozens of top-ranked colleges and meticulously crafting the longest applications possible, all to get into a highly competitive school.

Idealizing prestigious colleges in this way fuels the idea that they are inherently more valuable. In reality, the degree matters more than the name of the institution on it.

Sai Tallapragada, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, said many high school students make generalizations that prestigious colleges are better before they even know what they are pursuing.

“When you’re in high school and applying to colleges, you get tricked into thinking it’s your top college or nothing,” Tallapragada said. “I think what you really get out of a more ‘prestigious’ school is the brand value on your resume rather than actual value in your education.”

However, the impact of brand value is rarely large enough to measure. Education itself is valuable no matter where it comes from and the professional experiences you glean during your college years are more important.

Gabrielle Brown Torres, the career and college readiness coordinator at Southwest High School with Achieve Twin Cities, a service providing college guidance to local high schools, said experiences are most important.

“I always tell students, ‘The education section is the smallest part of your resume,’” Torres said. “It’s your experiences, where you’ve had internships, where you volunteered that employers look at.’”

Nevertheless, the demand for prestigious colleges is stronger than ever with a record-high number of applications for the class of 2028.

According to Torres, heightened peer pressure is a major factor in the demand for prestigious schools. Torres said many students compare themselves to others and apply to prestigious schools because their peers are.

“I had one student this spring who told me he was probably going to end up at the U of M, but he wanted to apply to MIT and some other prestigious schools because his peers were doing it,” Torres said. “I just asked, ‘Why?’ The U of M is already a really great school with great programs.”

Nyesha Brown, the college navigator for Roseville Area High School who works with students to explore postsecondary education options, said families also influence students to focus on certain schools. When a student has a long history of family members who attended a certain Ivy League school, it exerts extra pressure to follow in their footsteps.

However, colleges less glamorous than Ivy Leagues can be just as valuable and far more affordable.

According to Tallapragada, many state universities, including the University of Minnesota, have programs of equal quality at a fraction of the price.

Brown said that local community colleges are equally beneficial due to lower costs of attendance and travel. Community colleges allow many students to get a feel for college and decide if it is right for them before transferring to four-year universities.

Even the process of submitting applications to prestigious colleges is far more complicated. 

“When you’re applying to five schools or so, it’s fine, but applying to twenty schools is just excessive and unnecessary,” Torres said. “It’s a lot of money because of application fees, and it’s a lot of time for the student because of the supplemental essays.”

According to Brown, students intent on studying at prestigious schools often try creating extremely long college applications, sometimes participating in activities solely to fill out a page on their application. Brown said this can be detrimental because it limits students from exploring their passion.  

“If you’re feeling the need to fill an entire page, then what exactly are you trying to identify as?” Brown asked. “Kids will burn themselves to the end of the stick to make sure that they are executing everything that will get them acceptance into these schools. So I say, ‘Hey, try to be a kid sometimes. It’s OK.’”

However, attending a prestigious college can be undeniably beneficial.  

Bhanu Narra, a second-year physics and philosophy student at the University of Oxford, said he wanted to attend a prestigious university because he believed it would open up paths to better graduate programs in research and academia.

Narra said the college’s prestige benefited him primarily because he sought out a specific physics program and knew what he wanted to do with it. The school’s prestige would not necessarily be equally valuable to other students.

“I knew from middle school that I would want to do physics, so I drilled down just on that,” Narra said. “But if you’re unsure about what you want to do, then it’s much less valuable.” 

Ultimately, when students consider which colleges to apply to, they should look for their best fit rather than feeling pressured by prestige.

“It’s really about the student and the journey they want to go on,” Brown said.

Nothing is wrong with wanting the best for yourself, but the gamification of college admissions causes students to forget that the best college is not the same for everyone.

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