Seven Reasons Not to Aim for Elite Colleges

on September 27, 2017

If you aced high school and will be graduating with a stellar academic record and top test scores, should you aim for the nation’s elite colleges?


Plenty of high school superstars assume they should target the Ivies and other extremely selective universities. Their high school counselors often encourage them to do that.


It won’t always be a wise idea.


Here are seven reasons why academic overachievers might want to cast a wider net when applying to colleges:


1. It will be harder to remain a star. Being the smartest kid in your high school class or close too it is quite an accomplishment. It feels good to have conquered those four years, but imagine being at a university where most everyone else is an academic wunderkind — then imagine having to compete with them.


This is a topic that popular author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about passionately in his book, David and Goliath.


“Rarely do we stop and consider whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest,” Gladwell writes. “The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.”


After all, half of the students who enroll at top tier institutions will graduate in the bottom half of the class.


2. You can feel like an imposter. When you look around at all the accomplished students on an elite campus, you can have serious thoughts about whether you belong.


A mother recently told me that her daughter’s experiences at Stanford University had been challenging because everyone seemed more talented than she was. For instance, her daughter wanted to take a dance class but she was intimidated when she discovered that the course was full of some of the nation’s best young dancers.


There is even a name at Stanford for this phenomenon. It’s called the Duck Syndrome. While ducks look serene gliding on the water, beneath the surface they are furiously paddling.


At other colleges it is called Impostor Syndrome. Some students will worry that the admissions office made a mistake in admitting them.


In this kind of environment, it’s easy to lose your confidence. That appears to be what has been happening this semester with the son of a dear friend of mine who has never earned a B on a report card.


Taking his first math quiz as a freshman last week at an elite university, he experienced a panic attack as he realized the quiz wasn’t as easy as he was used to. He ended up getting a 90 percent on the quiz. To him, that seemed like failure.  


3. You can’t turn it off. To be admitted to elite universities, students typically make tremendous sacrifices. They have to gorge on Advanced Placement courses and use their precious free time to participate in meaningful extracurricular activities that ideally involve leadership positions. And, of course, they have to produce stellar ACT and/or SAT scores.


A common belief of these overachievers is that they deserve trophy school acceptances after making many sacrifices.


Consequently, many view their acceptance at an elite institution as their finish line, but they discover that it’s not. And they often feel compelled to keep pushing themselves in college, as the stakes are even higher. They can’t locate or don’t want to locate their off button and sometimes burn out from the pressure. 


4. You can shine in a less competitive environment. It is much easier to shine in a less selective pool of students, said Scott White, the head guidance counselor at Morris High School in New Jersey. The student choosing the less selective college “is likely to have greater faculty support, more leadership opportunities and better grades.”


That’s been the case with White’s son, who is a senior at Rutgers. He is constantly being sought out for awards, honors, programs and fellowships, something that would be unlikely if he had gone to a most competitive college.


5. You’re doing it for your parents. A terrible reason to aim for elite universities is because mom and dad want it. Many affluent students, in particular, feel pressure to fulfill this dream for their parents, warns Madeline Levine, a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, who has treated many of these students.


In her highly acclaimed book, The Price of Privilege, Levine argues that a child’s belief that their parents’ love is conditional can lead to serious mental health problems that can follow them to college.


Twenty-seven years earlier, another seminal book, which was ultimately translated into 30 languages, reached similar conclusions. Alice Miller, who was the author The Drama of the Gifted Child, concluded that bright, sensitive children become so aware of their parents’ desires that they do whatever possible to fulfill their expectations in an attempt to win their love.


6. It can cost more. Elite universities are magnets for brilliant students who are primarily high income. If you fall into that category, you are likely to be charged more for a bachelor’s degree at a highly prestigious institution, with the exception of a handful of colleges with generous no loans financial aid policies. Elite institutions typically charge more and offer fewer merit scholarships, if they offer any at all.


Here’s an example:


Northwestern University’s cost of attendance is $71,559, but just three percent of students receive merit scholarships. The average merit award is a mere $8,034. Among Northwestern’s freshmen class, 46 percent receive no financial aid or merit awards. These are high-income students.


Let’s contrast that with Loyola University, which is less than four miles away and not as selective. The sticker price is lower ($59,052) and the percentage of students who receive merit scholarships is higher at 27 percent. Ninety-five percent of the freshmen class receives need-based aid and/or merit scholarships.


Aiming lower can bring greater awards, which was what White’s bright teenage son knew when he was looking at his options.


“My son knew that he was eligible for a Presidential Scholarship (spelled F-R-E-E) at Rutgers University and would, on each college visit to say Brown or Georgetown, observe that they were lovely places but not lovely enough to balance off going to college for free,” White said.


Capturing scholarships from less competitive schools also can make it easier to afford graduate schools.


That is what is happening to a young woman who got into Northwestern University, her dream school, but her parents balked at paying full price.


Offered a major scholarship, she ultimately ended up at the honors colleges at the University of Pittsburgh where she has thrived. Her father, who is an attorney, recently told me that her daughter has received a “top drawer education” and enjoyed academic opportunities closed to many students.


“She understands the importance of her undergraduate scholarship in terms of her prospective graduate education,” her dad said.  “She realizes that she will have significant funds to finance graduate studies.  She knows that if/when she is accepted to her dream graduate school, she will have the financial means to attend that program.”


7. You might not get in. Elite colleges and universities are so selective that even A-average students with perfect ACT or SAT test scores have no guarantee of admission. Getting in depends on more than good grades.


“Many talented students apply for admission to Ivy League colleges each year, and many talented students are rejected by Ivy League colleges,” said Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of Strategy at


If you apply only to the most selective colleges, you risk being rejected by all of them. The Ivy League colleges, as a group, admit less than 10 percent of applicants. It is better to apply to a mix of colleges.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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