“I am sorry, I can’t, I have debate…” used to be my friend’s favourite saying. He used to do a million (plus one) extracurricular activities, get decent grades and Skype with his girlfriend from Israel. Three months later, we accidentally met again. Not only did he look as if he had not slept or eaten for the last few days, but he also sounded utterly unhappy. He refused to have coffee with me and with a “I am sorry, I am sending college applications…” went home. What the heck was going on?
I figured out that a lot of college applicants (even when being the most hardworking people you can imagine) freak out each autumn with a single thought haunting their mind: “What if Oxford/MIT/Harvard/plug-in-any-name-of-a-supercool-university-here rejects me?” And since last year – quite frankly – I was also one of them, I wondered whether a) the “best” university for you is always “the best university according to XYZ rankings” and b) what is it about these “best” colleges that makes them (seem) superior to all other choices you may have.
Do not get me wrong. THE “Ivy League Degree” clearly opens up a world of opportunities. You are a demanded employee, get high social status almost by definition and once you find your first job, you will probably never have to eat those 20-cents-noodles again. Right? But the thing is – do you know more about, say, linear algebra than people from less well-known universities? Are you prepared for your particular dream job better than from any other school? Does a Diploma from a prestigious school means something else than that you survived a stressful application process and aced your SATs (A-Levels)?
Let me give you an example how terribly misleading university rankings can be. In February, one Czech newspaper published a university ranking (subject: economics). The winner was the Faculty of Economics at the University of Economics in Prague. So far, so good. However, if you took a closer look, you would have discovered two major problems with this statistics: Firstly, it is misleading due to very unusual methodology and secondly, it did not even take into account the perhaps most important criteria: Teaching quality. Reality check: My friend who studies there (1st year Bc) has no idea what derivatives are or how to use them – which, if you study economics, is rather embarrassing.
On the other hand, this was an extreme case. But even if we assume that university rankings are more or less accurate, what does that really mean? In my opinion, in the era of Internet the courses cannot be that much different content-wise. It is rather all about the way you are treated as a student and what opportunities you are given. And frankly, some small (read: unknown to rankings) universities can excel in that. However, because they can’t boast about their 600-and-something years of “tradition of excellence”, they are not among the TOP.
One more reality check: One of my best friends currently studies at Yale. A dream came true, you would say. Well, from my perspective it is rather a dream where you yourself are not allowed to dream. Whenever we Skype, he sounds exhausted and frustrated. Peer pressure (“you gotta challenge yourself”) and his student advisor pressured him into something that is (even among the Yale students) perceived as suicide: Directed studies. Yet the worst thing is not the immense pressure and workload, nor the lousy grades he (sometimes) gets – it is mere knowing how deeply unhappy this pressure makes him. Is it worth sacrificing his interest in chemistry for which he now has no time? Is it worth the shiny Yale stamp? Doubt it.
So now we know that prestigious universities can suck not only money but also joy out of your life – not to mention the difficulty to shine – and hence derive some pleasure from hard work – among a hundred or more extremely smart ambitious students at a top college, I say: Why suffer? I don’t think it’s “ok” not to sleep for three years, just like it is not “ok” to study somewhere just because you need a fancy Diploma and suffer from depression and once or twice seriously consider killing yourself. I think that unless you know that this is what you have always wished for, you should allow yourself to breathe from time to time.
Finally, a piece of advice that would have saved me many tears one year ago: If you want to be successful, forget the rankings. Find a college most suited to your needs and dreams – care less if it is in the Top 50 or not. Remember, you are looking for your new home.