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The Prestige! (College Applicants: Stop Falling for This Trick!)



I recently rewatched Christopher Nolan's wonderful 2006 film The Prestige, in which Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play 19th-century magicians in a lethal race for glory. (It's based on a real-life rivalry, and guest stars David Bowie as Nikola Tesla—it's a great movie.)


I bring this up because, even though I am an obsessive word-hoarder, I'd forgotten this fun fact about the English language until the film's opening scene, where Michael Caine is in a courtroom, explaining to the judge that a magic trick has three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige.


That word, "prestige," means "illusion" or "deception." Let that sink in for a sec.


I work with Business Bros and theater divas, aspiring veterinarians and aspiring politicians. Recruited athletes. National Merit scholars. Students with stratospheric GPAs and students whose grades are all over the map. Students with massive economic limitations and students with seemingly unlimited affluence. Students who are mistakenly convinced no college will accept them... and students who are mistakenly convinced no one will turn them down.


People who worked with me have gotten into Princeton, Howard, Brown, Barnard, Columbia, NYU, Penn, Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Duke, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC and Georgetown, to name a small handful. In any given year, I also have students who sincerely look like they will be fought over by the entire Ivy League, but instead have the confusing experience of being negged by all but schools they considered slam-dunk "safety" applications.


Student egos take a beating when their best isn't "enough" for Sparklepants University. Parents question every decision that led to this dead-end; did the kid do the "wrong" Eagle Scout project? Is this about quitting swim team after ninth grade? Would everything have been different with one more AP class? People understandably want a "why," but there often isn't one, other than that when you're applying to colleges with single-digit acceptance rates, you're playing the lottery no matter how accomplished you are. Selective schools turn down tons of qualified applicants.


Last spring I fielded a call from a non-client parent who was in tears. Her kid was losing it over "not getting in anywhere." The kid was a unicorn—STEM-babe, cheerleader, student government stalwart, 4.4 GPA. How could it be possible that she had no options?


Welp... it wasn't! With some carefully worded questions I discovered that this student had SEVEN acceptances, five deferrals, two rejections and four schools who hadn't even weighed in yet. Miss Rejected Everywhere had amazing options, including hefty merit awards from colleges plenty of people would slash tires to get into. What this family was freaking out about was that the ultra high-prestige school she was focused on had punted her to regular decision. (Spoiler: she got in, and yes, Mom was still bitter that she'd had to endure the wait for regular decision responses.)


Higher education is not about prestige. No one cares how sexy your degree is! Seriously. In the job market, there are very few situations where it'll matter where you got your education. It will matter that you got one. (In fact plenty of billionaires don't even have college degrees—Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and David Branson are all members of that club.) Yes, "successful" people come out of Harvard. They also come out of a mindbending range of places you've never heard of. Same for US Presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs, hedge fund wizards, Supreme Court justices and neurosurgeons. There is no such thing as "your success in life depends on the name on your diploma."


The obsession with prestige can hurt people in so many ways. In the pocketbook (Penn and Amherst are closing in on $80K per year for full tuition). In the self-esteem department (If your inner narrative says you're a "failure" because you didn't get the red carpet rollout from Stanford, MIT and Brown, how will you handle it when you also don't win a MacArthur grant or a Senate seat?) And honestly, in terms of your actual academic achievement! Someone who might have felt inspired-for-life at Bard College might become anxious, bitter and alienated at Penn. Someone who can't bear the thought of turning down MIT might unwittingly miss out on a mentorship with an amazing professor at Colorado School of Mines that might've one day led to a joint Nobel Prize.


I get it. College tuition in this country is scandalously inflated, and some schools that used to be considered "safeties" have become stunningly hard to get into (lookin' at you, USC!), and it all feels weird and slightly dirty. For what college currently puts people through, you want some assurance that the degree will... well, open doors.



Don't believe for a minute that getting accepted by a "top ten" makes you special, that getting rejected by one makes you not-special, that you will definitely have a better springboard to adult life from Yale than you will from Agnes Scott or the University of Puget Sound. Trust me, there are abjectly miserable people with diplomas from Yale, and happy, productive people who attended the University of Best Available Option.


Many excellent schools fly oddly low on the radar despite offering killer academics without soul-killing competitive pressure, and have amazing alumni networks that honestly transform lives for the better. (Lots of college advisors and counselors have lists of pet favorites; I know I do.) Quality-of-life metrics aren't always easy to measure, but when you think about it, we take the concept of "best" at face value too. For some people, the best place to study computer science is Stanford. For others, it's University of Maryland, UT Austin, or Ohio State. It depends on the unique mesh between that student's personality and interests and that institution's professors, student bodies, clubs, dining halls and locale.


In other words, there's no "best school," just "best school for you right now." I've helped students transfer OUT of elite colleges because they got there and discovered University of Amazing wasn't a good fit for them. Imagine if they were so addicted to the prestige perception of Georgetown or UChicago or UCLA that they refused to admit they'd be better off elsewhere.


Not only are "the rankings" based on arbitrary and "dirty" metrics (I mean dirty in the data science sense); the perceived value of a college "brand" fluctuates. Gen X parents have probably noticed that many schools that were seen as soft options, "party schools" or last resort institutions in our day are stunningly competitive now (look at USC, NYU, Or San Diego State, all of which have gone from being perceived as consolation prize colleges to highly desirable in the past 30 years—heck, we chuckled at the slacker hippies whose best shot at the University of California was Santa Cruz. Things CHANGE).


An intellectual worth their salt can get a great education absolutely anywhere, and that's the truth. If you think the brand-name value of a college is what matters, you have indeed been hoodwinked by the magicians who conjure the steaming pile of manure that is marketing for colleges. And those folks are raking in money like PT Barnum on Adderal, from the College Board to US News and World Report to the colleges themselves. Please, people, stop feeding them.


There's nothing wrong with going to Columbia. It's just that there's also nothing inherently better about it than going somewhere with less name recognition. I didn't go to my first choice college—and I cannot imagine where or even who I would be if I had, but I do know I would have missed out on a couple of the most important relationships of my life. Your degree is not a fashion accessory or proof of your value as a human being. We don't go to college to purchase social status or a career. We do it to develop our minds. Period. The other stuff comes from that. Not from the crest on your bumper sticker.


Choose to see the man behind the curtain. It's not a coincidence: "prestige" and "prestidigitation" come from the same root. The main difference between a college with an 8% acceptance rate and a 55% acceptance rate is literally "how many people they can enroll versus how many people pitched an application at them. In other words, applying to Harvard because everyone else is doing it perpetuates the problem. Last year, Harvard admitted about 1200 regular decision students. They got nearly 50,000 applications. You don't have to be a stats genius to follow that bouncing ball. The frenzy to be noticed by "prestige" schools is a very pernicious form of fashion victimhood. Unlike the lottery, which is an example of "independent probability" (your odds of winning are the same no matter how many tickets you buy, the percentage of people who get accepted to a college is essentially a function of how many applications they receive. We mistakenly assume that if "everyone" is applying, it must mean that school is the best. On no planet does it mean that. I promise.


"Prestige" literally means "trick." Don't be duped by an illusion. Opt out. Find the best place for you. Be open-minded. Be optimistic. And if you need help getting your head on straight, let's chat.




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