Does Prestige Matter?

November 5, 2019

Each year, the college admissions process gets more competitive, especially at the top schools in the country. This past year, Harvard’s admissions rate hit a low of 4.5%, and Stanford, the most selective school in the country, has elected not to publish its admissions rate for fear of dissuading prospective students from applying.

It’s no secret that top students and their families put a lot of stock into rankings like US News and World Report. And while it certainly feels good for people to be impressed by your alma mater, we have to wonder, does prestige really matter?

Our college counseling services are intended to get students into their top choice schools, but we implore our students and families to thoroughly consider “fit” and to think of prestige as just one piece of the college puzzle. The primary consideration should be, “how does this college allow my student to reach his or her goals?”— whatever they may be!

To these ends, we will say that prestige does matter, especially for students considering majors in humanities or social science (including business and finance). Prestige might matter for students with their sights set on grad school, including medical school and law school. Prestige could matter, but probably won’t, for students who are majoring in STEM fields. 

A Classics major from Harvard will be looked at more favorably than a History major from a less selective state flagship. Even though both majors are viewed as “less marketable,” the Harvard name and network could open doors in fields like finance and consulting, whereas these kinds of opportunities would be harder to come by at a less respected school. 

Most would agree that skills trump prestige in science fields. While there may be an argument to be made that you’ll develop better skills in a more rigorous program, if you can prove you know your stuff in a technical interview, the name of your alma mater won’t matter.

For students set on grad school, including medical school and law school, you’ll find it difficult to get any grad programs to admit that prestige plays a significant role in the admissions process. Grad schools will admit, however, that a student’s GPA will be looked at in the context of his or her institution— whatever that means! That said, there have been reports that students from schools known to have rigorous grading systems may get awarded an unofficial additional 0.2 on their GPA. 

Keep in mind that prestigious universities are generally synonymous with more funding, plentiful research opportunities, and highly regarded professors. Each of these factors can lead to opportunities for students to gain experiences that might make their grad school or job applications more attractive. That said, the right kind of student — someone who is motivated, ambitious, and goal-oriented— can be successful anywhere. 

So when you go on campus visits, and eventually start receiving acceptance letters, don’t let a school’s rank cloud your judgement. Depending on your goals, prestige could be part of the calculation, but it shouldn’t be the whole calculation.

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