Last Updated: Oct 20, 2020
As a student with a 4.5 GPA and a 1540 SAT score, I receive a lot of surprised looks from people when I list off the colleges I applied to without ever mentioning Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or other schools that attract high-quality applicants. To be honest, those (almost derogatory) comments of, “Wait, why didn’t you apply to any Ivy League schools?” or, “I’ve never heard of [insert small college name]... it must not be very good…” get tiring pretty quickly and sometimes make me feel as though I didn’t work hard enough on my college applications. I’m here to debunk that myth, however, and stress the importance of looking beyond just big-name schools.
As a precursor, I’m in no way saying that Ivy Leagues and other well-known schools are not worth applying to. If you feel up to it, or if your dream school falls in that category, then go for it! Apply to your heart’s content. Just don’t forget to watch out for the little guy as well.
The search for a (BIG) name-brand school
When I began my college search as a second-semester junior, the only schools on my list were Ivy Leagues and top schools in the University of California system. My college counselor immediately told me that I needed to think slightly smaller. I balked at that idea at first, but I’ve come to love it. My counselor introduced me to many smaller schools that I’d never heard of before, and though I was skeptical, those small schools have come to the forefront on my college lists. Here’s why.
Big schools are great when it comes to resources, but they are less appealing when looking at student-faculty ratios and class sizes. It is really important for me to be able to know my professors on a personal basis, and I knew it would be difficult to get that level of communication at a school with tens of thousands of people. For instance, if you consider undergraduate and graduate students, Harvard’s population is over 20,000, and Stanford’s is just under 17,000. That is a huge adjustment for students who are used to going to high schools with 2,000 students at most. Many of those larger brand-name schools also serve as undergraduate and graduate institutions, meaning that, as a STEM major, research was going to be very difficult to achieve. If, like me, you consider the opportunity to conduct research as one of your most important factors when choosing a college, then be wary of big graduate universities. It will be much harder to find research opportunities there because of the volume of graduate students. Over half of Yale’s population is graduate students, and a similar, slightly smaller percentage is seen at Princeton.
Small colleges solve those issues, and it is simple to find schools that have class sizes of 30 students and fewer, allowing you to know all your professors in a way that would be impossible at schools like Harvard. I applied to Pomona College, which has around 1,500 students and a student-faculty ratio of 8:1. Small colleges are also less likely to be graduate institutions, and if they do accept graduate students, they will often put more of a focus on their undergrads. Another school I applied to, Brandeis University, accepts graduate students, but almost 80% of their population is undergraduates.
Seeking a high-quality education
The biggest argument when it comes to comparing Ivy League institutions and other smaller schools is the difference in education. Yes, it is true that Ivies offer an amazing educational experience, but these small schools do as well. Your education in college is dependent upon your own commitment to learning. It is possible to get a better education at an unknown college than at Stanford if you just dedicate yourself. Your undergraduate education should not be about what school you go to or if it has a big-enough name in the world of education. You should focus on your own goals and needs, and think seriously about whether or not a large, well-known college will be the best fit.
For me, I quickly realized that I needed to give up my insistence on going to a brand-name institution. I now am proud to say that I will be happy at whatever college I end up attending, as I know I can make the best of it at any school.
So relax! The name of your undergraduate college is not the most important thing in life, and it’s not worth it to stress over applications to only places with acceptance rates of 10% or less. Allow yourself to look at schools that seem like a good fit for you rather than what might be a good fit for someone else. Not everyone is destined to attend an Ivy League college, so don’t force yourself into that role. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be a big fish in a small pond—if you are used to being at the top of your high school class, you might want to think about going to a school where you will stand out. It’s easy to become just part of the crowd at a big university, and you may end up doing nothing remarkable there because there were too many other amazing students. Part of college is allowing yourself to do great things, and that might mean sacrificing your dream of going to Harvard, Yale, or Brown. Instead, you should focus on finding different colleges that have the exact major you want, or have professors doing interesting research, or other factors that are important to you. Don’t confine yourself to the brand-name box.
The next time people pester you about not applying to those Ivy League schools, you will be ready to teach them some great lessons about the importance of small, relatively unknown universities and all the opportunity they can offer.
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