The Problem With Prestige

It’s human nature to want to be “the best” sometimes, and to have other people look at our accomplishments with admiration. The desire for prestige can be especially prevalent when you’re thinking about college. It might feel really important to attend a college that is considered “elite” — one whose name people will recognize and whose exceptional reputation will make you proud. But sometimes, the desire to attend a prestigious college can complicate your college process — and your life. If you’re finding that anxiety about getting into a “big name” college is rising, it’s time to take a step back for some perspective…and to learn how to manage the pressure for prestige.

Anxiety comes from fear. Not the fear of what’s happening right now, in this moment, but the fear of what might happen. A first step toward easing your anxiety about getting into a prestigious college is to ask yourself a simple question: What am I afraid will happen if I don’t? 

I’ll Be A Failure

If you’ve made it a goal to get into an elite college, not being admitted might make you feel like a failure. You might think that you weren’t good enough, or that you didn’t work hard enough, or that you somehow didn’t do the one thing that would have gotten you in.  

A hard reality of college admissions is that you only have control up to a point. When you apply to an elite college, you’re competing with thousands of other highly qualified students for a very, very limited number of spaces in a freshman class. There’s no way of knowing what exactly colleges are looking for or how they make their choices. In effect, it’s pretty random. You could even say it’s a lottery. If you enter a lottery and don’t win, you don’t consider it a failure, or a judgment of your accomplishments and abilities. Right? At worst, you were unlucky. But it has nothing to do with your worth or who you are as a person, or your potential to do amazing things in your life. 

I Won’t Get a Good Education 

It’s true that top colleges attract great talent and have a lot of resources. It’s also true that you can find talented faculty, engaged students, and good resources at every college. You might need to seek them out, but they are there. No matter where you go to college, you won’t get the most out of your education if you wait for it to come to you: Make things happen for yourself. Engage with professors. Seek out internships. Join clubs and professional organizations. Create the education that you want. 

Remember, the vast majority of people, including countless great thinkers, innovators, and creators did not attend highly prestigious colleges. They still got great educational foundations and acquired the skills to help them continue learning through their lives. They still built fulfilling careers. So will you…whether you go to an elite college or not. 

I Won’t Get a Job

Again, only a small percentage of people with college degrees attended an elite college, and somehow, those people have jobs…often really awesome jobs, where they make a lot of money and have power and respect (if you’re into those things). Does having a degree from a “hoodie” college on your resume get your foot in the door with employers? In some cases, maybe (though, believe it or not, some employers consider it a minus). But you can also wedge your foot in there through other means, such as networking or capping off your degree with a specialization or certification. And once you’ve had your first job and have the experience and connections that go along with it, employers will place far more value on what you’ve done than on where you went to school. In short, you’re no less likely to have a good job if you go to the state university across town than if you go to the elite college across the country. 

People Will Think Less of Me

Well, maybe. But you can’t control what other people think, and you’re wasting a lot of valuable time and energy when you try to. There’s a saying that goes, What you think of me is none of my business. In other words, if you’re living authentically and being true to yourself and your purpose, you won’t care what others think of you. Sure, this is easier said than done when you’re eighteen, but it’s a good philosophy to try to live by. Will Uncle Fred think you’re a slacker if you don’t get into Princeton? Maybe, but that’s his problem. Will your friends judge you if you choose to go to a small, relatively unknown liberal arts college instead of an elite public university? Maybe, but honestly, after graduation you’re probably not going to see most of those people again until your 10 year high school reunion…if ever. It may be uncomfortable in the short term, but you can withstand it. Stay focused on yourself and making the most of your college experience, and you’ll be happier for it. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with striving to attend Stanford, or Yale, or UCLA, or any of the handful of super selective colleges that we all know about. If you want to attend an “elite” school, apply! Go for it! But don’t let this desire cost you peace of mind, make your college process a source of incredible stress, or damage your self-esteem. No matter where you go to college, trust that you’ve landed in the place you’re meant to be, the place where you’ll begin to discover who you are and explore everything the world has to offer.

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