If you’re applying to competitive universities, at some point you’ve probably had that moment when you raised your eyes to the sky and thought to yourself “What’s the point? Is the Ivy League worth it?!”
(And then if you were feeling dramatic, maybe you screamed “Why is college important?!!! DO I EVEN NEED TO GO.”)
You’re not alone! Most humans who’ve navigated the college application process have asked themselves these questions at some point.
We’re here to answer them and also ask you some important questions of our own.
I’ll start by saying that there are many good reasons to pursue an Ivy League education.
You’ll get a great education. You’ll have some of the brightest and most well-respected professors in the world. You’ll make connections with up-and-comers and their rising tide might lift your proverbial boat.
Are Ivy League schools better? In many ways, you could say yes.
It’s also totally possible to get a great education, well, almost anywhere.
If you’ve ever wondered if the Ivy League is really worth it, read on.
4 reasons why an Ivy League education may not be as life-changing as you might think
1. If you’re actively involved in your education, you can get a great one anywhere
When you’re actively involved in your education, you can learn a ton--at almost any school, from almost any professor.
What does it mean to be ‘actively involved’ in your education? You probably already know.
It means completing all the required readings and maybe even some of the optional-but-suggested readings. It means taking part in class discussions and asking questions. It means staying after class to chat with the professor, attending office hours, and taking part in study groups.
Outside of class, taking an active approach to your education takes many forms. It means taking advantage of all your college has to offer--whether you’re attending a community college, state school, or Harvard. Here are a few specific ways to do that:
Visit your school’s Career Services Office. A degree from a prestigious college doesn’t mean the job offers will start to roll in like magic. You still have to build a great resume, apply for jobs, interview well, and compete with lots of other students at your school who are vying for that same job at that prestigious law firm/investment bank/start-up.
One of the most underutilized resources on campus is the very office whose job it is to help you, well, get a job. Set an appointment with a career counselor, tell them what your hopes and dreams are, and ask them for advice.
Talk to professors and faculty. If your academic advisor or professor has experience in an area or industry that interests you, stop by during office hours and pick their brain. Ask them about their own career path to get a sense of what you’d like your own to be.
Take on summer internships. For 99% of jobs, having actual, real-life work experience is far more important than your alma mater. It’s a great idea to start interning the summer after your sophomore or junior year. Whether you’re helping a local business level-up their social media game, clerking for a county judge, coding for a start-up, or working on an organic farm, get experience and figure out what you love and don’t love to do.
Getting a research position, becoming a tutor or TA, or joining clubs and student government all enhance your college experience. Attend campus college fairs and information sessions. Make use of the alumni network. Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you. Go out and make them!
2. Don’t be a small fish in a big pond
How you feel about yourself and your likelihood of success is more related to your relative position to your classmates than it is to the institution that you graduated from.
That’s what Malcolm Gladwell argues in a great talk at Google Zeitgest in 2013 on a concept he calls Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder (EICD).
Here’s the short version:
As humans, we are more likely to make self-assessments about ourselves and potential for success based on the people that are immediately around us, not the world at large. As a result, we “tend to overstate the significance of elite institutions and grossly underestimate the cost of being at the bottom of a hierarchy.”
He’s got some fancy numbers about SAT score distributions and publishing rates by PhDs at elite and non-elite colleges to prove his point.
If you find yourself obsessing about whether the Ivy League is worth it, consider watching his entire 19-minute presentation below.
What does this mean for you?
Don’t just go to an Ivy League school for the sake of going to an Ivy League school. First consider whether or not a college will allow you to be a standout leader and graduate in the top 25% of your class (as opposed to the bottom 25%).
3. Getting a ‘sensible’ degree from an ‘impressive’ college guarantees ... nothing
That’s almost painful to read, isn’t it? It’s much more comfortable to believe that the ‘right’ degree from the ‘right’ college guarantees success and happiness for years to come.
In addition, people graduate each year from Ivy League colleges with degrees in business, engineering, or marketing and struggle to find jobs they like. Likewise, every year, people graduate from less high profile schools with degrees in philosophy, art history, and gender studies and go on to become fulfilled, professionally successful adults.
Building a career and life that fulfills and supports you takes decades. It doesn’t begin and end with your undergraduate degree.
4. “Success” isn’t linear
You’ve seen this graphic, right? It perfectly captures the reality of “success.”
When we see people accomplishing awesome things, we don’t see the years of mistakes, backpedaling, and sidestepping.
We see Einstein’s Nobel prize, not the fact that he didn’t get into the Zurich Polytechnic School. We see that J.K. Rowling is the most successful author of all time; we don’t see her divorce, single parenthood, or her 12 rejection letters for the first Harry Potter book. When we look at Stephen Spielberg, we see Jaws and E.T., not the three times he was rejected from USC.
It’s tempting to believe that an Ivy League education will put you on an escalator towards “success,” but that’s not necessarily the case. An Ivy League school can give you a lot of great resources but It probably can’t help you choose the right career path, predict how your life and interests will change over time, and it certainly isn’t the only path toward personal and creative fulfillment.
More than anything, it’s important that you choose the school that’s right for you. Maybe that school happens to be an Ivy League school, but maybe it’s not.
Whichever school you choose, know that you are in charge of your success and, as Frank Bruni so aptly put it, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.