"Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be" (Part 1)

This recent book "Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be" by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is subtitled “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania”. His message is that the pressure-filled competition to get into elite colleges is misplaced, unhealthy and unnecessary. Bruni relates many anecdotal examples of people who were rejected from their first-choice colleges yet went on to successful careers. And he submits that this outcome was achieved not in spite of, but in fact because of, where they ended up.


He suggests that it is often better to be a big fish in a smaller pond where you can thrive, rather than being overshadowed in a big pond. In the case of the college experience, Bruni proposes that being a top student in a less competitive environment provides an opportunity to stand out, which can translate to increased self confidence, leadership opportunities and personal growth. He contrasts that with students who go to elite schools only to be shaken when they are no longer the academic stars – the A’s and attention go to others, resulting in diminished self esteem or worse.

[For more on the “big fish, small pond” theory of college, see my blog about Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath”]

[Newton MA high schools recently held a spirited panel discussion about Bruni's book, which I reviewed here and which was reported in the Boston Globe]

Bruni writes that being rejected from a first-choice college often leaves students with a chip on their shoulder that pushes them to work even harder to make up for lost ground. He shares examples of successful people who channeled admissions rejection into increased determination and perseverance, providing a life lesson that paid off down the road.

He also acknowledges that some students may have to pass on a brand-name school in favor of a more affordable one. This does not doom one’s prospects, as illustrated by several case studies. The further along in one's career, the more weight given to resume elements beyond education. Bruni asks: “Does a prestigious college make you successful in life… or do you do that for yourself?”

That said, Bruni concedes that elite colleges offer certain advantages. Graduates on average earn more money over their careers. They have an edge when seeking employment in certain industries (e.g. Wall Street finance, management consulting), as they are considered to have already passed a de facto pre-screen. Many would also point to the benefits of first-rate research and resources while in school and the value of name recognition and alumni networking after graduation.

The book also cites interesting research that examined where a student applies vs. where they attend college (Krueger and Dale, 2011). I repeat this with many caveats about the methodology used and the likelihood that admissions dynamics have changed since the Class of 1993 which was the basis of this study:

The average SAT score of colleges where a student applied (even if rejected) is twice as predictive of a person’s subsequent earnings as the average SAT score of the school a student actually attended. The data says that the level to which you aspire, even if you don’t achieve it, is more predictive than where you actually go to college! According to this research, at least at the age of 18 it’s about ambition and self-confidence more than the name on the sweatshirt.

Bruni would like to leave the reader with the reassuring message that it can work out no matter where you attend college, so relax!

For my take on the book, see see Part 2 with my commentary on "Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be".

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