"Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be" (Part 2)

In Part 1 I summarized Frank Bruni’s book "Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be". In this blog I'll offer my take on his assertions.

I would restate the title of Bruni’s book as “What You Get Out is more important than Where You Get In”. Bottom line: an elite college doesn’t guarantee success, while a less-prestigious school doesn’t prevent it.

Bruni's message is reassuring: college is what you make of it. Even if you don't get into the school of your dreams, all is not lost. If you work hard you can do well during and after college, no matter where your school is ranked by US News. I would add that this should not be used as an excuse to take the easy way out. Aim high, don't sell yourself short. As the saying goes (with apologies to any astrophysicists), "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars".

I remind students that getting into college is not the end game; preparing for a productive career and a fulfilling life is. College is an opportunity to learn about yourself and the world around you, to grow in the classroom, in the community and as a person.

Some students will best accomplish this in a big pond where they will be pushed by classmates and professors. For others, excelling in a smaller pond will be a better path rather than chasing the name on a diploma at the expense of a positive experience. And let's remember that ponds come in many sizes. It's all about fit, finding the place that will produce a confident, educated and happy graduate.

Two concerns with the book: Bruni relies on individual anecdotes to support his positions, with little rigor or balance behind the conclusions he draws. He highlights very successful graduates from less-elite schools, some who speculate they wouldn't have done as well had they gone to a more prestigious college. Great stories which many will find encouraging, but which are cherry-picked to make his points.

Also, not satisfied with extolling the virtues of less-exclusive colleges, Bruni goes out of his way to bash the Ivy League and its brethren. An entire chapter titled "Strangled With Ivy" sweepingly paints these schools and their graduates as narrow, entitled and overrated. We can all agree that an acceptance from a premier college is not the only admissions decision to be prized, but that doesn't mean it has lost its value. A degree from a top school may carry certain advantages in terms of resources, opportunities, credibility, peer connections, alumni networking and more. An elite college is not the answer for everyone, but for certain students it is precisely the right path.

The book falls short of its promised offering of “an antidote to the college admissions mania”, which is to be expected. The reality is that there is no panacea. Putting college choice into perspective and appreciating that there are many paths to success is a very healthy step. Ditto for recognizing that college fit is more important than US News ranking. I hope that this book and related voices can help high school students and their parents relax a bit in the face of a stressful and often intimidating process.

Of course, some amount of stress is unavoidable. The explosive growth of college applications over the past decade -- especially at selective schools -- means that students now being rejected from their top choices are the same students that would have been accepted 10 years ago. They’re wonderfully qualified, but it has become a numbers game at top colleges (see my blog “The Jigsaw Puzzle of College Admissions). That’s why many students now apply to more schools, the outcomes are less predictable, and the stress level is inevitably higher.

So where do we go from here?

With the perspective that college is what you make of it, the college search should be focused on finding a school that fits each student’s abilities, aspirations, personality and priorities. Arbitrary rankings or ascribed prestige can’t tell you that. You need to look deeper, both at the schools and within yourself. If the big pond is for you, dive in! If not, find another pond and take advantage of all that it has to offer.

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